Is unresolved trauma affecting the way you see your partner?

Many of us have experienced interpersonal trauma during our growing up years. Interpersonal trauma is different from other kinds of trauma in some important ways. Traumatic events such as having a car accident or surviving a natural disaster like the bushfires, for example, do not necessarily affect our interpersonal relationships in a negative way, although of course there may be other severe and long-reaching effects from which we need to heal. Interpersonal trauma is where a person or people treated you in a way that has caused you to experience fear - physically, emotionally or psychologically. This happens with childhood abuse or neglect, bullying etc. It can also occur around a non-interpersonal traumatic event, where people do not respond in a way that meets your needs after the event. An example of this may be where someone has lost their home after a natural disaster, but is not given practical as well as emotional support to rebuild their lives, and may even be looked at in a negative way for failing to cope.

Past interpersonal trauma can have a devastating effect on future relationships. You may become fearful of letting someone close, in case they hurt you as you have been hurt in the past - this is often in conflict with another part of you that longs to be nurtured and loved. Partners can become very confused at what appear to be mixed messages - one moment you're asking them to be close, the next you're pushing them away.

Life stages that bring up feelings associated with past trauma can change the way we see our partners - it's like a switch has been flicked in our brains, and our partner appears to us like the person who abused us in the past. A common trigger for this is becoming dependent on our partner (dependency is a trigger because children are often dependent on the person who is meant to love and protect them, but that person may either be the abuser, or be unable to protect them from the abuser. Without help, a child's solution to ending the abuse is to become independent and avoid situations where they will be dependent and therefore vulnerable to further abuse). An example of this may be where a woman chooses to stay at home with her new baby, and is for the first time in her relationship financially dependent on her partner. 

If you suspect this may be happening in your relationship, the following questions may clarify is this is the case.

  • Do I think my partner is abusive or neglectful of my needs?
  • Do those who love and care about me think my partner is abusive or neglectful of my needs?
  • Do I think this when I am calm as well as when I am feeling upset? 
  • Do we get into conflicts that are repetitive and hard to understand once we have stepped away from them?
  • Can I notice a pattern of how I have viewed my partners in more than one relationship, that is somewhat like the way I have seen someone who abused me in the past?
It's very important, of course, to first establish whether in fact you are currently in an abusive relationship. A guide to thinking this through can be found at http://www.dvrcv.org.au/help-advice/are-you-happy/
 
Only when you are very clear that your current relationship is NOT abusive (you may need the guidance of a counsellor to check this out), then it may be important to do some trauma recovery work with a counsellor who is trained in understanding the effects of interpersonal trauma on relationships. Recovery work may include looking at how your past has shaped the way you think and what you expect in relationship, giving you strategies to safely manage the effects of post-traumatic stress, and helping you to set healthy boundaries and limits as well as build tolerance for healthy intimacy in a way that may not have been available to you at the time you were abused. 

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