Emotional trauma can present some very challenging elements in a relationship, causing both partners to feel frustrated, unfulfilled, misunderstood, and even unloved at times. The person who has endured the emotional trauma, whether it occurred during childhood or as an adult, can react irrationally, seem apathetic, or even neglectful in certain situations. These unexpected reactions are triggered by deep seated wounds that our minds have unknowingly developed defense mechanisms to protect us from repeating painful experiences.
People do not intend or want to be affected by trauma, but they are on an extremely deep level. The Imago method identifies a parallel between emotional experiences from childhood and one’s later adult relationships. If you are the partner of a person who is healing from emotional trauma, here’s what you need to know.
Understanding what Emotional Trauma Does to the Brain
Physical trauma often causes emotional trauma but many people believe that emotional trauma is all in your head. Actually, it is not. Studies have shown that emotional trauma causes actual, measurable damage to the brain1. Just as verbal or emotional abuse can manifest as physical ailments and inflammation, experiencing emotional trauma can wreak havoc on your physical and mental health.
Damage from trauma shows up in three key areas of the brain:
- Prefrontal Cortex
The damage can be seen on scans and is very real.
The first step in helping your partner is understanding just how these areas are affected when the person endures trauma.
Effects on the Hippocampus
Responsible for retrieving and storing memories and allowing the person to be able to tell the difference between a present experience and an experience from their past. Some people with significant trauma may have a smaller hippocampus than normal.
This means that their trauma memories are often incredibly vivid. They may think about the traumatic event often or talk about them repeatedly. Anything that reminds them of the trauma can cause them to feel fear, panic, and stress. This is because their brain cannot tell the difference between the memory of the trauma and the actual traumatic event in their past.
Their rewired brain thinks that the trauma is occurring right now, so it shifts to fight or flight mode. It can also cause the person to feel paralyzed, a freeze survival response to protect the person.
Changes in the Amygdala
The amygdala is the area of the brain responsible for emotions, memory, and survival instincts. Its primary function is to detect fear and assess the environment for threats. It will cause the person to feel fear if it perceives a threat. Trauma causes the amygdala to be overactive so that fear is increased. This can be seen as anxiety, often persistent and severe so that the person has difficulty getting calm and sleeping.
Altered Prefrontal Cortex
The human brain’s prefrontal cortex is the area responsible for regulating emotion. For instance, when the amygdala experiences fear, the prefrontal cortex will react to the emotion in a rational way. However, trauma affects how the prefrontal cortex works, often hindering it so that it is unable to regulate emotions like fear.
All of this can leave the person in a constant state of fear, they may have difficulty with time management, motivation, impulsivity, and have trouble making good, rational decisions. It is important to realize that your partner is not apathetic, lazy, or irresponsible, they are literally suffering from a brain injury that affects their executive function.
That does not mean they can’t heal and regain normal brain function, but it does mean that they need to be treated a little differently for now. It’s necessary to proceed with caution because criticizing or arguing with your husband or wife could trigger a fear response instead of the behavioral changes you desire.
Ways to Support Your Partner when They are Healing from Emotional Trauma
Click on ways to support your husband or wife below to jump to the section with more information.
- Healing their trauma is not your responsibility
- Encourage them to get professional help
- Help them stay healthy
- Be supportive, not patronizing
- Remain flexible and accommodating
- Offer words of affirmation
- Graciously accept bad days
- Don’t take outbursts personally
- Have compassion
- Remind them you love and accept them as they are
- Practice self-care
Remember, you are not the fixer. Your job as a partner in a relationship is to support and love. Healing is a process that may take time, but your support and unwavering empathy can help your spouse feel secure during this painful experience.
Encourage your partner to get professional help. A therapist, psychologist, or even a spiritual leader like a pastor may be able to assist them.
- Marriage Therapy to Improve Empathy in Relationships
- Is Name Calling Verbal Abuse?
- Help! My Spouse’s Anxiety is Ruining Our Marriage
- Communication Coaching for Couples
- The Imago Dialogue Script
Help your partner practice self-care. This means helping them do things like go to doctor’s appointments, eat regular meals, get enough sleep, and take multivitamins.
Be their support, not their parent. There is a fine line between supportive and patronizing, but you must try to find the sweet spot that works for your relationship.
Remain flexible and accommodating but do not neglect your own health. Give them room to have their own schedule if it is not a detriment to their health then gently encourage them to make healthier adjustments over time.
Give verbal support, encouragement, and affirmations. The trauma-afflicted brain struggles with memory and lives with persistent negative emotions like fear and rejection. Reinforce their fragile ego by declaring your love for them often and tell them you will never leave them. This will help counter the lies and negative perceptions they have been taught to believe about themselves.
Graciously accept that there will be some bad days. There will be bad days and there will be great days – hopefully, more great days than bad. Learn to recognize triggers and know when to give your partner space. Don’t let their bad days become your bad days too.
Don’t take things personally. A person who has gone through trauma, especially childhood trauma, is likely to lash out or react irrationally to things that you see as insignificant. While it is OK to feel angry, frustrated, and even hurt by your partner’s actions, try to not take them personally. They have behaviors, perceptions, and ideas that they learned at an early age that are very skewed. At the same time, that does not give them the right to emotional or verbally abuse you.
Find compassionate ways to soothe distress. Some people respond to a hug while others just want space. Find out what your partner needs from you when they become distressed. Keep in mind, it may not be what you think it should be. It may not even make sense to you but respect it as long as it does not pose a risk of harm to you, your partner or anyone else.
Remind them that they even though they have been affected by trauma it does not define them. Remind them that they are more than their trauma, and that you love and appreciate them exactly as they are. Counter the negative words with positive ones and highlight their strengths.
Take care of yourself. Set firm boundaries and stick to them. Just because your partner has gone through trauma it does not give them the right to be abusive or cruel. Take care of your own well-being and your own mental health. Being a support for your partner is good but being a crutch or a punching bag is not. If you need support, don’t hesitate to talk to a counselor.
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1. Bremner JD. Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006;8(4):445-61. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner. PMID: 17290802; PMCID: PMC3181836. Retrieved Dec 2, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/
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