Surviving a Marriage When Your Partner Has Unresolved Trauma
Lisa McJunkin, LMFT, CHTP, EFT Coach
I frequently encounter spouses, partners and “it’s complicated” relationships that feel as though they are living out a twisted nightmare version of their lives as their chosen person has been riddled with unresolved trauma energy. Feeling as though you are an asshole if you leave in your person’s time of need and helpless in being able to produce change.
Many partners I speak with discuss feeling emotionally numb and drained, isolative, easily irritated, edge of tears, lack of care for one’s own appearance and appetite, and just exhausted. These are all signs of secondary trauma (aka compassion fatigue). The unconscious mirroring of unresolved trauma symptoms as a result of being in close proximity to someone who is battling unresolved trauma.
You do not need to have experienced these traumatic events first hand to experience a traumatic response. We are mammals with highly perceptive nervous systems. Unresolved trauma energy is perceived and felt by your own nervous system, as an attempt at shared learning and protection. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s an ingenious skill to help us learn from fellow mammals without living through the terror ourselves. Have you ever watched a thriller movie and found yourself replaying the end while daydreaming in case this event ever happened to you? This is the shared learning for protection I am referring to.
What happens when it feels like this “shared learning” just won’t stop? Or, you have tiny humans you are trying to raise with feelings of hope and joy? Or you are wondering, did I just commit to a lifetime of this shit energy? This is trauma energy affecting your marriage/partnership.
We take a breath. Really. A full deep exhale.
The breath is what I refer to as nature’s Prozac, it works in nanoseconds to calm our nervous system and can be accessed anywhere and anytime. For all of us in distress, training ourselves to take a breath will help propel us away from fear spiraling thought patterns and impulsive decisions and soften extreme feelings of overwhelm and fatigue. Taking three deep exhales with the decision to focus on the breath can move you from a “9” (out of 10 being the highest distress) to a “6” within a few minutes. While a “6” is no vacation it is a hell of a lot better then feeling like a “9”, and our effective decision making will be much improved.
If you or anyone you are responsible for is being physically harmed, or the threat of harm is evident, then immediate action to provide physical safety is needed now. We do not stay in the same residence with our partners for the sake of their distress, when we ourselves are having to battle feeling physically unsafe. Healing cannot occur without safety being established.
You do not need to make decisions about your commitment to this relationship right now, there is time for that. You do need to feel physically safe to make these decisions however.
We take a breath and a full deep exhale.
Can your marriage/partnership survive trauma? The long and short of it is “yes” and there is help available to get you started.
Regardless of your partner’s presentation of symptoms, being the spouse means we are not the appropriate resource to help our person heal their trauma(s). It’s like trying to operate on yourself, even if you are a world class surgeon. You are too close and have too much invested in the outcome, to see the field clearly. Your partner needs their own neutral person who understands trauma healing to help provide the space and resources for them to heal.
The presentation of our partner’s symptoms can be as vast as the triggering events of the traumas themselves. One of the most helpful tools partners can do when their loved one is stuck in the throes of battle with their trauma, is elicit competent help for yourself and your partner. Your partner probably doesn’t have the bandwidth to research integrative trauma recovery therapists near me, but you do.
And yes, you also need a neutral competent person in your corner as a partner to reassure, validate and offer movement in the congested energy you are experiencing. Whatever happens to the partnership itself, does not change the fact that unresolved trauma energy has affected you in this relationship, so you too have work to do to clear it out as well.
We take a breath and a full deep exhale.
I like to remind folks that experiencing trauma energy is not the problem in the relationship, it’s each member learning how to discharge this energy that now needs to be the focus. You didn’t lose your person because these shit events happened. You are not destined to a life of unpredictability. But you are also responsible for discharging the energy that is unhelpful in this relationship and this is where integrative practitioners, therapists, and healers are the initial place to start. Get interested in the recovery of your relationship versus the dramatic narrative of how sideways this partnership now feels, and then take action to move the energy.
And regardless of what you decide, please breathe out a full deep exhale. Help is available.
If you or someone you loves is struggling with self-harm and/or suicide please error on the side of caution and get help today, via local or national agencies that support suicide prevention in your area.