Helping and Coping With a Partner Who Has Trauma
Being with someone who has trauma can be challenging; what to know and do.
Posted December 11, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Those struggling with trauma often are often easily triggered, creating emotions that seem out of proportion to the situation.
- Partners often feel that they are always walking on eggshells, feeling criticized or that can't do anything right.
- The keys to helping and coping include realizing the other is doing the best they can, knowing clearly how to help, and setting boundaries.
If you’re living with or in an intimate relationship with someone struggling with trauma, you’re likely doing your best to be understanding. But I’d guess that some days are more difficult than others; your partner’s days impact your own. While I don’t specialize in working with clients with trauma, I see many partners of such individuals or couples seeking better ways to cope and help. Here are some of the effects that partners most talk about and struggle with.
Their partners are constantly focusing on potential problems
If you grow up in a chaotic or unsafe environment as a child or lived through such settings as an adult, one of your primary ways of coping is to be hyperalert—to constantly look around corners, anticipating what might happen so you can be prepared: Dad is drinking so you stay out of his way; you’re in a war zone, and you can only sleep if someone is on watch. While this behavior works in those situations, it’s also hard to turn it off once the real danger is past. As a result, there’s running anxiety, a natural tendency to constantly focus on the negative than the positive.
They seem to overreact to the most minor things
You’re running late for a movie, you ordered the wrong takeout dinner, you didn’t ask how their day was, or you had a sarcastic tone. Their feelings are hurt, they're angry, and there’s a lot of emotion. The partner feels like they can’t do anything right, everything is a big deal, and they’re always in the dog house, always walking on eggshells.
These strong reactions come with hypervigilance and a physical and psychological system that is easily triggered. The hurts and slights are real and not easily put to rest, lingering for days. The person with trauma feels sensitive, constantly assaulted, and often anxious and angry when expectations are not being met or when they sense negativity or withdrawal from their partners.
They easily feel dismissed, and their feelings minimized
Often the partners counter that the other person's problem shouldn’t be something to get upset about, believing that offering this more realistic, rational perspective will help the other calm down. Instead, this usually backfires: rather than feeling calmer, the other person only feels that their partner is minimizing their feelings, making the situation worse. Similarly, when the partner slips up or doesn’t follow through on a request—not to use a specific tone of voice, not to be late—the other person feels that their requests are not taken seriously or ignored. The result is the partner feels they always have to do everything right, and there’s no end to the list of things to do right.
What to do, how to help? Some suggestions:
Realize the other person is doing the best they can
While it’s easy to feel tired or resentful of the emotion, micromanaging, and criticism on a bad day, it’s important to realize the other person is not trying to be malicious, manipulative, or vindictive. They are feeling anxious and triggered; they are doing the best they can. It’s more about them than you.
When they are calm, ask how you can best help when they get triggered
Usually, what the other person says is that they need you to listen or give them a hug. What they don’t want you to do is get angry or convince them that they’re overreacting or not being rational—that just adds fuel to the fire.
Talk about how you feel, and set boundaries
Let the other person know how you feel when they are triggered—confused, anxious yourself. Holding your feelings in will only back up on you and lead to withdrawal or explosions, which trigger the other’s worst fears. That said, also create some boundaries—yes, you’re willing to listen, but you are not willing to be dumped on or emotionally abused. Here you both agree to pull back and then circle back when you both are calm. Again, simply stomping away, saying you’re not going to talk about this anymore, triggers abandonment which only makes matters worse.
Let them know about any change in plans
Again, the other person can often get rattled when expectations are unmet. If you’re running late or realize after that you ordered the wrong takeout, give them a heads up on the way home, so there are no surprises. This is not about feeling like the little kid preemptively reporting to a parent but giving them time to adjust to changes.
Trauma Essential Reads
Focus on the positive
As with any intimate relationship, it’s always important to focus on the positives that the other person is doing, what you appreciate rather than what you don’t like. This helps change the emotional climate and gives the other person positive feedback about what is working.
Get support for yourself
Consider supportive therapy for yourself; do couple therapy to have a safe place to learn what your partner needs most; sit in on a session with their therapist to get some guidelines. Handling this all by yourself can be draining and challenging. Taking care of yourself will enable you to best help your partner.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Taibbi, R. (2013). Boot camp therapy. New York: Norton.