by Noelle Christensen, LPC
Have you ever expressed your needs to your partner and been told “stop being so dramatic!” If so, it may have felt like the wind was knocked out of you. In fact, what you may have heard instead is something like, “What you are feeling does not matter to me.”
While it may not have been your partner’s intentions to shut down your feelings, the effects are nonetheless painful. You made a commitment to love and cherish your partner, through the good, the bad, and the ugly. At times it may feel that when you are trying to communicate, out of what you believe is a desire to make your relationship better, you may feel rejection and shame in return.
Trauma in relationships that results from pain, betrayal, abuse, and addiction is termed “relational trauma.” Relational trauma results in behaviors that can often be misinterpreted by others as dramatic. Words like codependence, avoidance, and self-doubt all describe the way relational trauma shows up in betrayed partners. Relational trauma also creates grave mistrust of others along with mood fluctuations and depression. Some of the more subtle evidences of relational trauma might include flashbacks, anxiety, rumination (thinking about painful things over and over), sleep issues, loss of sexual desire, and other physical symptoms (headaches, muscle tension, clenching of teeth, and so on).
Relational trauma is your body’s way of responding to a lack of safety within your closest relationship. Because our bodies are hardwired to connect with other people, especially within the marital relationship, any events that threaten our ability to connect with those we care about (whether the threat is real or perceived) will naturally result in behaviors that scream out, “I need you! I need your acceptance! I need your love and attention! I need to be reminded that I am good enough, that I am loveable, that I am capable, that you value me!”
These behaviors often produce the opposite effect, leaving our spouse (and others) wanting to pull away from us in the moments when we need them the most. This only intensifies feelings of pain, rejection, fear, and self-doubt for the person in trauma, perpetuating a vicious cycle of desperate behaviors followed by more rejection, which produces even greater desperation.
Don’t wait for the next dramatic encounter to begin discussing the concept of relational trauma with your partner. Chances are they also feel the fear and desperation created by relational trauma. Discuss how certain responses contribute to a lack of safety within your relationship. Talk about each other’s needs and fears. Try to stay open to suggestions about ways you can create safety for each other. Perhaps you might consider gently bringing it to each other’s attention when one of you says something that stirs feelings of fear and rejection for the other partner. You might say something like, “When you said that just now, what I heard was….”, keeping in mind that just because it is what you heard, it does not mean it is what your partner actually said or intended. Guide your partner in understanding the sensitive nerve they just stumbled upon along with the fears associated with the painful encounter.
By discussing and understanding relational trauma, you can begin to identify it within yourself and between you and your partner. By identifying it, you can learn to respond differently to your partner, and communication will begin to flow more freely as safety begins to replace apprehension and fear. You will begin to experience a new level of emotional intimacy. In addition to hastening the healing within your relationship, you will hasten your own healing by showing yourself a new level of compassion that comes from understanding how your “dramatic” reactions have only been in response to painful trauma buried deep within you.