It’s nearing Valentine’s Day where hopefully love is in the air! Whether you have the privilege of experiencing love from a significant other, a parent, child, friend, or pet, love is at the core of healthy relationships.
Experiencing loving and healthy relationships can be extremely challenging if it was not modeled for you or if you have experienced trauma in relationships. As a child, I faced years of sexual abuse by my father. This early childhood trauma affected the way I saw myself, others, and those who I was supposed to trust. After years of working through the trauma, I had to relearn how to build healthy relationships with everyone in my life. This included friends, family members, and especially personal, intimate relationships.
“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving caring human being.”
– John Joseph Powell
How PTSD affects relationships
Post-traumatic stress is one of the aftermath consequences of trauma. When experiencing trauma, it is common to freeze, flight, fight, or fawn. One person can experience each of these responses at different times or favor one response when faced with stress. Freeze often looks like the inability to react or dissociate from a threat. Flight is seen when someone runs away from a perceived threat or danger. Fight involves aggressively facing the threat. Fawn is a new stress response and is seen when someone moves closer to their threat in order to resolve the threat.
Not everyone develops PTSD from a traumatic event, but for those who have PTSD, personal relationships can be challenging, for all involved. While I have had the privilege of receiving years of counseling and therapy, I am still very aware that my relationship with my husband takes intentional care and mindfulness in order to be healthy.
Learning to build healthy relationships
How to build a good relationship with your partner involves many more layers than other relationships, although the fundamental skills are the same. After my childhood abuse stopped and I began boarding school abroad, I realized that I flourished in making friends. I was intuitive, careful with who I allowed close to me, and valued authenticity. While these skills helped me pick out romantic partners, I realized that things became a little more complicated once I got further into a relationship.
The biggest struggle I faced was with trust and vulnerability. I had learned very early on that adults, specifically, men were not safe. My father was the closest man in my life growing up, and he showed me that violence, abuse, and manipulation were permissible. When I started dating, I looked for someone opposite to my father. While that response was out of self-protection, I still lacked skills for building a healthy relationship. I knew clearly what I didn’t want, but discovering what I really wanted in a relationship took time, wisdom, and guidance to develop.
Later in life, after a divorce and much heartache, I invested the time to discover what I wanted and what I needed, not just in a partner, but in all of my relationships. It was a time of healing, self-reflection, and through therapy, rewiring my mind and beliefs of my capability to build healthy relationships.
Thankfully, when I met my wonderful husband, I had laid a foundation for building healthy relationships, so it didn’t take time to realize that he was someone I wanted to build my life with. Has the road been all smooth sailing? Hardly! But…every hard day, every lesson learned, and every humbling moment has led us to a place of vulnerability, transparency, and forgiveness. Take time to build these three skills. They will serve you well in all relationships, but especially with a partner. It is largely due to these traits that I can confidently call our relationship healthy. Success in relationships is based less on how difficult the road may be, and more on the level of commitment to continue to grow and love each other.
As my husband and I have processed our own childhood trauma, I have taken detailed mental notes on what steps we have taken that have helped us along the way.
5 tips to build a good relationship with your partner after trauma
- For the person who is triggered by PTSD, find your triggers and know how to express them to your partner. No one is a mind reader, you have to take the initiative to dig deep into yourself to find what sets you off to react. Identifying your triggers is incredibly empowering. Knowing what you need is more than half the challenge of overcoming a trigger.
- Reiterate to your partner what you need if you are triggered. Even though you may have expressed your feelings before, continue to reestablish your needs. Be clear and straightforward in your communication. What is the root feeling when you are triggered? Express that to your partner. For example, “I feel like I am going to die when this happens”, or “I fear for my life when this happens.” For someone who does not understand the root feeling of your trigger, this will help make them understand you on a deeper level. They will be more understanding of your needs if they are aware of the why behind your feelings.
- For a partner, if your significant other gets triggered in public, don’t shame, or overreact. Don’t leave unless your partner wants to. Be steady–a rock your partner can lean on. By doing so, you establish trust and loyalty with your partner. Discreetly check in with your partner on how they are feeling. Personally, this is a big one for me. It feels like a hiccup. I never know when I’m going to get one and when it happens I just want my partner to be there for me. I want to go on and move throughout the day and their response can make all the difference in how I recover after a trigger.
- As partners, it’s best to get professional guidance to customize what you both need in a situation of a PTSD trigger. Commit to couples therapy to gain those tools. The outcomes are priceless and will help to build a strong, authentic relationship.
- Lastly, if you have been traumatized in your past relationship or in life, you are worthy of being loved. You are capable of having a healthy relationship. We are here on this glorious planet to experience joy. Abandon the labels that you may hold onto that you are broken or can not be fixed after your experiences. Nonsense! You are beautiful and can have it all.
Learning how to love
Healthy relationships are rooted in love. Learning how to best love each other takes time and effort. A great place to start is understanding the five love languages. Gary Chapman’s 1992 release of The Five Love Languages still continues to be one of the best-selling books. He teaches a comprehensive way to learn how to communicate your love language and understand your partner’s love. It’s a quick read and most recommended. It’s a thoughtful gift for Valentine’s Day. Added bonus…it’s less caloric than a box of chocolates!
Leaving you with these profound words to ponder.
“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving caring human being.” -John Joseph Powell