Trauma survivors often begin to isolate themselves, they find that being alone is easier than being vulnerable. Yet it is human nature to desire love and acceptance. If you love a trauma survivor, be it a romantic or family love, not only can you help them heal and grow stronger, you must be careful yourself to avoid secondary trauma.
Let’s be real, most of us have experienced some type of trauma. 1 out of every 3 women and 1 out of every 6 men have experienced a form of sexual violence. The USA has one of the worst rates of child abuse and neglect when compared to other developed nations. Trauma is not limited to abuse, it could be a surgery gone wrong, a car accident or surviving hurricane Florence.
Since trauma is so common, one would imagine we know how to handle it and most people acknowledged the impact of trauma as legit. Unfortunately , many people still deny trauma and make comments like “just get over it” or “in my day we didn’t have PTSD”. Actually, PTSD did exist “back in the day” but it was largely ignored and we see how dangerous this is when we realize over 65% of suicides by Veterans are not from the youth, they are from elderly veterans.
What to Expect
When someone has experienced trauma, it changes them . There is a physiological change in their wiring and they are often ready to defend themselves much more aggressively or they become more defeated and timid than before. It is not unusual for the trauma survivor to overcompensate their defenses, they fear being vulnerable because that opens them up for more pain.
Anything associated with their trauma can be a trigger, so if that trauma happened to involve a previous relationship then understand you may have to help clean up the mess created by another person. If you cannot handle that, don’t get involved with a trauma survivor. On one hand, they do have baggage you’ll have to handle. On the other hand, if you work with them it can create a very deep, trusting and spiritual bond.
Dependent how far along they are in their recovery, you may notice they don’t sleep well. This is often related to nightmares. Imagine a painful memory of yours, something real, now imagine if that event played over and over like a movie reel in your dreams except it often gets worse than the actual event.
When my nightmares began, I didn’t just dream about him putting his hands on me and threatening my life, I seen multiple men violating and abusing me while he cheered them on and the dream would play over and over. I don’t have nightmares anymore, all thanks to God, so please know it is possible to work past them and sleep normally again.
If you notice fireworks cause them to go into a hyper-vigilant state with increased anxiety and agitation, they may very well have a trauma event related to guns and hearing loud noises is their trigger. Someone who was violently attacked while baking a pumpkin pie might have flashbacks whenever they smell pumpkin spice.
As a woman with traumas from men, any type of control or aggression from a man causes my heart-rate to instantly spike and I feel aggressive along with fear. I have the skills in my psychological toolbox to reign in my emotions externally but internally…fight or flight is activated and my adrenaline is souring. I literally feel threatened even if the actual situation is not truly threatening to my safety.
If you marry someone with a trauma history from a previous marriage; understand that during conflict, even if they trust you fully, they might want to run from you or puff out their chest and challenge you as a means of defense. It is not meant out of disrespect or disloyalty. They have been hurt so badly in their past that no matter how much she/he loves you or trusts you, their body and mind want to spring into defense mode.
Just as an abused stray animal might growl, it is not because of you personally, it is because they are scarred internally and just want to feel safe. Overtime you can work through these conflicts with your spouse, but it takes time plus consistency.
Some survivors become more aggressive as a means of self-defense. I can personally understand those feelings, but the survivor has to learn how to control them. Having trauma is not an excuse to hurt others and spread trauma to someone else. If you are romantically involved with someone who gets aggressive towards you when triggered , you need to set clear boundaries right away that it will not be tolerated and they need help. Mental health concerns are never an excuse to be a jerk , period, I don’t care what they experienced they cannot use that to justify inflicting trauma on you.
You may notice they are more easily agitated and hyper-focus on things. Going back to the fireworks example, the triggered individual may go to the windows scanning for enemies and start barking orders to everyone to lock all doors and grab something for defense. In those moments, be gentle and talk to them in a low tone as they are more likely to snap back aggressively. Please remember this is not because of you, they are in a state of irrational fear and they might believe they are protecting you.
After drilling into you that trauma survivors react in a way meant to defend themselves from further pain, I will now tell you that same person might display very self-destructive behaviors. Such as, abusing alcohol, ruining their career or trying to take their own life. If at anytime you think they are an immediate threat to themselves or you, immediately contact emergency services and do not ask them for permission as they will tell you no.
Many survivors try to isolate themselves , if they are alone people can’t hurt them. This doesn’t work though as the isolation can actually hurt them and slow down their recovery. Nothing wrong with having some alone time, I know I would lose my mind if I didn’t have it, but humans are social creatures by design.
You may also notice they lack confidence or doubt themselves. Some victims begin blaming themselves and internalizing guilt over the actions someone else chose to take. This is especially true for victims of long-term trauma such as relationship issues or parenting trauma. In these cases the roots of their trauma are very deep, this is not a one time car accident or an unexpected death. This is trauma from the people that are supposed to protect you. When your protector becomes the one you need protection from, it flips your entire psyche upside down and can do some heavy damage to your self-esteem.
Do and Do Not
Now that we covered some of the basics, here are some practical things you can do and what you should not do.
Do educate yourself on trauma. Education is power and it will show your partner that you are committed to helping them. You can both learn together.
Do not force your partner to tell you their story. They may take time to reveal their trauma to you fully, let them do it at their own pace as they build trust.
Do give them space when they ask for it. If they want some solitude let them have it.
Do not push them to behave in a way or accept something that triggers their trauma. Even if this is related to family expectations or even your religion, pushing them to change or accept something you want will only hurt your bond and hurt their trust in you.
Do try to help them find positive coping skills. When they are triggered, they need something like painting, chanting, reading, exercise, prayer or some other positive coping skill to de-escalate their emotions.
Do not punish them for their flashbacks or triggers and force them to get over it faster. This seems like common sense, but if you punish them or push them too fast you will actually make it worse and re-traumatization is a real thing in psychology.
Do communicate openly and frequently. Honest communication between both parties is important. Encourage healthy talks and don’t speak out of anger.
Do pray and/or meditate with them. Diving deeper into spirituality helps to find the roots and heal from within.
Do not get involved with a trauma survivor if you want a really easy, run of the mill, boring relationship. If that is your desire and you are not willing to help them on their healing path, then do them as well as yourself a favor and don’t engage with them.
Ultimately, if you love your trauma survivor then show it to them. Give them love, acceptance, support and lots of affection combined with a huge helping of understanding and patience. If they seem uncomfortable with affection, back off and gradually grow into it as they develop vulnerability with you.
This can be challenging, but trauma survivors can heal and go on to have healthy relationships. If you are open to the idea of therapy, consider finding a therapist specialized in trauma. Your trauma survivor might be scarred but he/she is not weak and wants a stable and happy life just as much as you. At the very least, let them know how much you love them and move slowly.