How to Help a Partner With Childhood Trauma Through Their Recovery Journey
Childhood trauma can have a profound impact on both individuals and relationships. However, learning how to help a partner with childhood trauma can give you an opportunity to support your loved one’s journey while strengthening your bond. By believing your partner, resisting the urge to fix them, maintaining healthy communication, and learning to not take things personally, you can create a strong foundation of support. However, it is also essential to take care of yourself through your loved one’s healing process in order to maintain your own well-being and allow you to better participate in your partner’s recovery.
Relationships can be incredible things. They can fulfill our most primal need for human connection, giving us the ability to forge a deep and fulfilling bond with another person. They can allow us to give and receive love and feel a sense of companionship that inspires us to be the best version of ourselves. They can act as our oasis and our shelter.
The process of relationships, however, can be difficult. This is particularly true when your partner has significant emotional challenges.
When your partner has endured childhood trauma, such challenges can rise to the surface and shape both their experience of themselves and your experience of your relationship.
However, while childhood trauma often presents unique difficulties, your relationship also presents unique opportunities for support and healing. By exploring how to help a partner with childhood trauma through their recovery process, you can enhance your loved one’s well-being and create healthier, more loving bond.
Help Your Partner by Believing Them
Believing your partner may seem like an obvious component of support, but it can often bring up challenges for both of you. Many survivors of childhood trauma experience deep fear of being disbelieved. This fear may be rooted in prior experiences in which their trauma was minimized or denied outright. Others have not yet been met with disbelieving reactions, but the fear persists and is unfortunately not an unrealistic one. Denial is a common response to the disclosure of childhood abuse for a variety of complex reasons, including a desire to protect yourself from the traumatic reality of your partner’s experience. Indeed, your partner’s story may be painful to hear, challenge your own beliefs about how humans treat each other, and even contradict your own perception of the abuser if that abuser is known to you. Disbelief may also arise if your partner doesn’t adhere to your own preconception of what victims of childhood abuse are like or if there are gaps or inconsistencies in their story.
However, even if the urge to disbelieve is overwhelming, it is essential to put those feelings aside and believe your partner’s account of their experiences. Not only is disbelief profoundly hurtful and potentially re-traumatizing, it can also deeply damage your partner’s trust in you personally and people in general as their fears become reality. It may also prevent them from seeking or fully participating in the treatment they need to heal. Gaps and inconsistencies are normal because trauma can interfere with memory. There is no perfect victim. And people who seem good, loving, and harmless can be abusers. Do not try to rationalize away your partner’s painful memories to seek comfort in denial. If you find yourself wanting to disbelieve or minimize, examine that impulse. Where is it coming from? What does your partner’s experience bring up in you that causes you to react with denial? These may be issues that you need to work on for both your own benefit and that of your loved one.
Believing your partner, on the other hand, can be an extraordinary experience. For a victim of childhood abuse, having someone say, “I believe you” can be deeply empowering and it can be important to vocalize your belief in order to overtly alleviate their fears. Believing your partner, however, does not just mean believing in what they tell you about the events of childhood trauma, but also the effects of that trauma. Believe your partner when they share their pain with you and how trauma has impacted their life. Sometimes, you may not clearly see a connection between their traumatic experiences and their subsequent emotions, thought, and behaviors, but they do. Trust in their story.
Don't Try to "Cure" Your Partner
The effects of childhood trauma often manifest in a plethora of emotional and behavioral disturbances that can be confusing and painful for partners. It is natural to want to jump in and fix your partner to alleviate both their distress and your own. This instinct to rescue may come from a place of altruism, but it is ultimately rooted in a misunderstanding of how trauma and healing work. “The fact is that healing from trauma takes time,” explains Anastasia Pollock, an expert on posttraumatic stress. As difficult as it may be to admit, you cannot love trauma away from another person. It’s critical to learn how to help a partner with childhood trauma without allowing damaging rescuer-rescuee dynamics to take hold.
Instead of trying to fix your partner, listen to them, validate their feelings, and show that you are there for them. As Pollock says, “Be emotionally supportive by offering statements such as, ‘That sounds like it is really difficult to deal with,’ and ‘I hear you saying this is really hard right now.’ The power of just being present for another person is often underestimated.” Your partner has the inner resources to heal from what has happened to them and you must allow them to them the time, space, and opportunity to harness those resources while bearing witness to their journey. That can be the greatest gift you give your partner.
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Keep Communicating With Your Partner
Communicating with a partner is essential in any relationship, but it is especially critical—and, often, especially difficult—in a relationship with a person who has experienced childhood trauma. Trauma can leave long-lasting wounds that impair your partner’s ability to feel, think, and behave in healthy ways. At the same time, they may struggle to admit to the depth of these wounds due to fear, shame, or simply having learned that their feelings don’t matter. In a similar way, you may struggle to cope with the impact of their trauma on your relationship, yet feel unable to communicate those struggles in healthy ways or at all. As a result, it becomes impossible to fully understand each other, leading to hurt feelings, confusion, and, sometimes, resentment.
For your partner, being able to talk about their trauma and its effects can be tremendously powerful and creating an environment in which that can happen is essential. Show that you are willing to listen and support and if they do share, a simple, “Thank you for telling me. I love you and I’m here for you” is often the best thing you can possibly say. However, your loved one may not be ready to talk about their experiences—in fact, they may never want to talk about their experiences—and that is okay too. Disclosure can be a complicated process and isn’t useful or emotionally safe for everyone in every situation. Accept and respect your partner’s needs and don’t push them for information they are not prepared to offer.
At the same time, there are important things to communicate aside from details of trauma. Being able to freely share thoughts and feelings without judgment can be essential to ensuring your partner feels safe and cared for while giving them the opportunity to process those thoughts and feelings verbally. This includes day-to-day experiences as well as overarching needs and preferences that will help clarify how to create a stronger, healthier, and more trusting relationship while minimizing the risk of retraumatization. For example, it’s important for your partner to be able to tell you if they do not want to be touched or spoken to in a certain way or if there are sounds, places, or situations that will be triggering for them. Discuss how they want to be supported if they experience a flashback. Discuss how their needs and preferences change over time, including in response to treatment. It is only with this understanding that you will be able to be present for your loved one in a way that deepens your bond.
Of course, communication is not a one-way street and it is critical that you communicate as well. This can include making it clear that you do not judge them, that you support them, and believe them—often hearing these things explicitly and repeatedly is necessary to cut through the deep layers of shame and long-held silence surrounding childhood trauma. However, you may also want to talk about the challenges you are having, such as feeling confused and like you don’t know what you should be doing to support them; giving them that information will help them better understand your reactions and not mistake your confusion for rejection or apathy. Tell your partner what you want in order to provide better support and to have a better relationship in general. Remember that you are an active participant in your relationship and have your own needs and express those needs in productive ways. If you find that you are unable to resolve communication difficulties on your own, seeking the guidance of a couples therapist or a childhood trauma treatment program that includes couples therapy can help you open up a healthy dialogue.
You should also always bring up concerns about any self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse or self-harm and encourage them to seek treatment or to discuss these issues with their current treatment provider.
Try Not to Take Things Personally
The impact of childhood trauma can take a toll on your partner’s ability to function in a healthy way. As a result, they may experience seemingly irrational emotional reactions—including emotional numbness or mood swings—or the inability to participate in “normal” behaviors, including sexual situations. It can be very difficult to not take these things personally and feel rejected, hurt, or embarrassed. However, it’s important to understand that they are often direct results of trauma and are not a reflection on your partner’s true feelings toward you or your relationship. In fact, many survivors feel tremendous guilt about the disturbances and limitations they experience because they are well aware of how they impact their partners, yet feel powerless to overcome them. At the same time, survivors may feel frustrated, misunderstood, and even disbelieved if you frame their reactions to trauma as reactions to you; by misidentifying the source of their feelings and behaviors, it can feel as if their experiences are rendered invisible and that their most painful traumatic memories have been reduced to seemingly arbitrary relationship issues.
It’s important to remember, however, that not taking things personally doesn’t mean being unaffected by your loved one’s behaviors. It is okay to feel frustrated, angry, and sad. It’s okay to set boundaries. It’s also okay to leave a relationship that has become abusive or simply too much for you; while abuse rooted in childhood trauma may be understandable, it is never justifiable, and you must consider your own wellbeing.
At the same time, take care to not attribute all of your loved one’s feelings and behaviors to their trauma. Pathologizing authentic and valid concerns can be deeply destructive for both of you and prevent you from addressing problems in meaningful ways. You are not infallible and the fact that your partner struggles with the effects of childhood trauma does not mean that their feelings irrational or necessarily the products of trauma.
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Finding the Support You Need
Supporting a partner in healing from childhood trauma can be emotionally complex. From the tremendous love you feel for your partner to the to the anxieties, sadness, and resentment your partner’s trauma can bring up to the exhilaration you experience as progress is made, the journey is rarely simple. It’s essential that you have the resources to take care of yourself at each stage of your loved one’s recovery process. This is especially true when your partner is not emotionally equipped to support you in the way that you need and discussing your partner’s experiences with friends and family could violate their desire for privacy.
By seeking the help of a therapist or peer support group, you will have a safe space to process your thoughts and feelings in a healthy and productive way. This includes those feelings that may bring up feelings of shame such as anger at your partner, the impulse to disbelieve or minimize, and fears of inadequacy. Verbalizing these feelings and coming to understand that you are not alone in experiencing them can be tremendously relieving. You may also find that your partner’s recovery itself brings up new and confusing feelings, including grief as your loved one changes through their own healing process. Discussing these experiences with a trusted clinician and peers who understand what you are going through can help you create meaningful coping strategies, learn how to meet your own needs, and identify healthy boundaries.
Taking care of yourself on a day-to-day basis is also an important part of staying stable and resilient through the recovery process. Remember to eat well, sleep well, and exercise. Remember that you are your own person with an identity that is separate from your partner. Remember to nurture your relationships with friends and family and create a solid support network. Remember to fulfill your own ambitions and work on your own self-development. These are all critical for both your wellness and your ability to be there for your partner.
Participate in Treatment
Survivors of childhood trauma often need professional treatment in order to overcome the challenges created by their traumatic experience and regain stability. Regardless of what kind of treatment your loved one chooses, there are likely opportunities for you to participate if they and their treatment provider agree that it is appropriate. For example, your partner’s diagnostic process may benefit from your input, as they may not be able to fully recognize their symptoms or symptom severity. You may also be invited to participate in your partner’s individual outpatient therapy session or in couples therapy with a residential treatment setting in order to gain deeper insight into their experiences and needs. This can also give you an opportunity to address difficult issues that can benefit from the guidance of an experienced professional. For many, these issues include the challenges presented by treatment itself. In doing so, you can better understand how to help a partner with childhood trauma move through their recovery while creating a stronger foundation for your relationship.
Working with your partner to support them in healing while ensuring that you have the support you need for yourself can be a transformative experience for both of you. It is not always easy. In fact, it rarely is. But it can be one of the most worthwhile journeys you will make.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders and childhood trauma as well as co-occurring substance use disorders and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path toward healing.