Five Ways Unresolved Trauma May Be Derailing Your Relationships

Five ways unresolved trauma may be derailing your relationships

Tense couple has a conversation on a couch

Excerpts from Restoring the Soul’s free PDF for unresolved trauma in relationships

At Restoring the Soul, couples often show up to a counseling intensive uncertain what is really at the root of their conflict. This is understandable — when two people enter into a relationship, they bring different backgrounds together. Getting used to your spouse’s way of approaching emotions, conflict, and difficult life situations is always challenging. But for some couples, they may eventually find it feels almost impossible, like there’s no way to connect or no way forward.

We have found that if a thoughtful, motivated couple has taken every opportunity to fix what’s broken in the marriage but they continue to struggle, then something crucial is not being addressed. Often, it's unresolved trauma.

What exactly is trauma?

At its simplest, trauma is an experience that overwhelms our ability to cope. This might be for any number of reasons such as:

  • The experience itself was scary, violating, or abusive.
  • It happened at an early or impressionable age.
  • It was a repeated event.
  • It happened alongside other stressful life events.
  • It reminded the person of past bad experiences.

Many people who have experienced trauma feel as if the traumatic experience “wasn’t that big of a deal.” They say, “It’s in the past,” or “It doesn’t affect me today.”

The truth is, unresolved trauma can rob you of the joy, freedom, and wholeness you were created to experience. Author Tara Brach PhD of True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, describes it this way: “Trauma is when we have encountered an out-of-control, frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.”

Traumatizing events can impact our entire life and being — even when there is no physical harm or damage. Trauma takes a heavy toll on those who have experienced it, impacting their sense of identity and security and dysregulating their mood and emotions.

How do I know if I’m experiencing unresolved trauma in my relationship or marriage?

1. Unexplained patterns of emotional escalation and withdrawal

Unresolved trauma derails your relationship by setting off your autonomic nervous system into fight, flight, or freeze response. You react to your spouse or partner as if they’re a tiger in your living room.

Examples of common reactions can include:

  • A neutral issue escalates into a conflict — sometimes needing to “win.”
  • You feel attacked and go on the defensive.
  • Your voice gets louder, your heart races, your muscles tighten, and you get angry.
  • Your body feels flooded with fear or anger.
  • Everything in you wants to run away or withdraw.

2. Unexplained experience of emotional disconnection

We often work with couples who report that their significant other disappears emotionally or checks out, sometimes failing to listen or respond. The person’s system goes into overload and shuts down, especially during times of stress. This numbed sense of emotional presence is described as hypo-arousal. Hypo-arousal is about being underwhelmed, emotionally frozen, or immobilized.

Some potential signs of hypo-arousal include:

  • You feel a chronic sense of inability to feel or engage with the emotions of others.
  • You are unable to feel joy, grief, or other normal highs and lows that life may bring.
  • You feel or are sometimes told you are emotionally numb, frozen, or indifferent.
  • You feel or are described as detached, disconnected, or zoned out.
  • You are easily overcome with fatigue when situations or emotions are high.

3. Frequent experiences of negatively interpreting conversations

When trauma impacts a person, it is like a pair of colored glasses that shape and filter the way a person sees, interprets, and interacts with the world around them. Seemingly harmless behaviors or comments can be misinterpreted and cause a person to react, withdraw, or freeze.

Examples of negative interpretations can include:

  • You hear a partner’s neutral words as attacking or criticizing despite reassurances.
  • You are triggered or reactive over what would normally be considered an innocuous comment or gesture.
  • You misinterpret the motive and intent of a partner as malicious.
  • He says, “When’s dinner?” She hears, “What have you done all day that dinner still isn’t ready?”
  • She says, “Finances are tight this month.” He hears, “You don’t make enough money to support us.”

4. Compulsive or addictive behaviors

Unresolved trauma can fuel unhealthy coping behaviors that manifest as addictions. We regularly see couples devastated by various compulsive behaviors where previous attempts at recovery have been unsuccessful. Most often, getting to the root of the addiction is not possible until trauma is addressed.

Some of the most common compulsive or addictive behaviors include:

  • Abuse or overuse of alcohol, drugs, or other substances, including food
  • Out-of-control behavior with pornography or other sexual behaviors
  • Impulsive shopping, spending, gambling, or gaming
  • Compulsive lying and deception—even about small things
  • Overworking or being too busy, often with an inability to rest or be still

5. Unexplained difficulty with sexual intimacy

One of the most common places unaddressed trauma plays out is in the bedroom. There are many reasons the issues below may be present—unaddressed medical issues, relational conflict, life stressors, etc. Once these have been ruled out and issues persist, then trauma may be an underlying factor.

You may be experiencing:

  • Inability to feel emotionally connected during sex
  • Hypersexuality that substitutes for emotional intimacy
  • A partner who feels used, objectified, or consumed
  • A low sex drive or lack of interest in sex
  • Being angry or resentful towards the opposite sex

How can intensive counseling help with unresolved trauma?

The good news is, you are not without hope. The study of trauma is an expanding field, and our therapists are trained to identify and address trauma so that you can move forward.

One of the reasons we offer intensive counseling is because it’s a particularly good space for exploring unresolved trauma. When you step away from the stressors of everyday life, there’s an opportunity to see your life, emotions, and relationships in a different or more in-depth light. We provide a safe and shame-free environment to help you through this process.

In typical hourly counseling, you may uncover traumas or discover more about yourself slowly or at inopportune moments. During an intensive, you'll be able to stay present and continue exploring during crucial moments of breakthrough — though you’ll also have breaks and chances to rest.

What else can I do to address past traumas?

Intensive counseling is a big step, and we know it might take time for you to consider booking a trip to Restoring the Soul.

In the meantime, here are some options to get you started if you suspect you may have more to unpack:

  • Get an accurate assessment and diagnosis from a licensed trauma-informed therapist. Trauma is often undetected, and many therapists are not trained or experienced in treating trauma. A trauma-informed therapist understands trauma symptoms and their neurobiological impact.
  • Learn practices and skills to increase your window of tolerance. A competent therapist will make this a priority. There are many good resources available that offer skills such as breathing and grounding exercises, resource tapping, mindfulness, and more.
  • Take a break from weekly couples counseling until unresolved individual trauma issues are addressed. Attempting couples counseling without addressing unresolved trauma can actually increase conflict and put undue stress on the relationship.
  • Learn about trauma and the power of new treatments including EMDR, Somatic/Body Therapies, Emotional Freedom Technique, and more.

To learn more about unresolved trauma and relationships, download our full free e-book. You’ll learn more about the signs of unresolved trauma, your window of tolerance, and additional resources to explore.