Ellyn Bader

As explained in last month’s article, hidden trauma can be a serious obstacle in your efforts to help partners build stronger, more trusting relationships. We touched on the concept of trauma configurational reflex, which suggests that humans will interpret what’s happening in the present through the lens of the past. Yet when trauma is triggered in therapy, even the most skilled therapist may have difficulty reading the situation at first. 

What makes this difficult? In many cases, partners have suffered in ways that aren’t immediately clear. As counseling begins, you may have learned something about their childhood, culture or significant relationships. But multiple wounds may affect them in unexpected ways, since trauma can include any combination of factors, including: 

  • Cruelty or abuse from a parent, family member, romantic partner, teacher, boss, mentor – or even several people over time
  • Violence suffered directly or witnessed at home, work, or in the community 
  • A terrifying event that left deep physical and emotional scars, such as an accident, a war injury, a long-term illness, or a profound betrayal 
  • Abandonment or neglect stemming from separation, divorce, death, addiction, or virtually any other experience that kept the individual from having normal developmental experiences at a key time in life
  • Financial insecurity that led to hunger, or loss of stable housing or medical care 
  • Constant criticism, gaslighting, or disapproval from someone who should have been a source of love and support 


When one or more sources of trauma are present, the effects may accumulate in a way that can be hard to grasp. This is why experts have created numerous tests and tools to help clinicians construct a clearer picture. These include the Adverse Childhood Experiences scale, which helps predict long-term mental health consequences of an individual’s early experiences. The ACE scale is helpful in understanding complex trauma, in which multiple traumatic events leave adults struggling to achieve a clear sense of self due to profound troubles early in life. 

What you might see when trauma subliminally affects your sessions 

In working with couples, you may feel confused at first when a partner abruptly shifts gears or acts in ways that don’t feel appropriate to the discussion at hand. For example, you might see a partner:

  • Suddenly fall silent or turn away, unable to rejoin the conversation even after ample encouragement is offered 
  • Erupt in anger or dissolve into tears with little provocation
  • Withdraw from the room bit by bit, even while offering shallow responses to any questions you may ask 
  • Launch into an overly detailed story that may feel false, overly enthusiastic, or rehearsed
  • Repeatedly minimize an issue that could have real significance, labeling it as “just something that happened” or “the way things were back then”

Move carefully, but decisively when you sense trauma is present 

As you know, past trauma can have a powerful effect on levels of differentiation and therefore, the ability for partners to communicate clearly, navigate boundaries, and negotiate with each other. And when a particular source of trauma remains hidden, there’s a serious risk that it will be reenacted again and again in their relationship and in your therapy sessions. 

Last month, we offered suggestions for helping partners understand more about the trauma they have endured in the past and discover ways to deal with it in the present. A central goal is to facilitate partners using new capacities in the present. 

But even before you use advanced skills like the Initiator-Inquirer process, you may need to slow down and acknowledge what is happening. Red flags like the ones described above invite you to ask some penetrating questions of your own:

“Your tears (or tone of voice or other signals) suggest that you’re feeling something very deep right now. Could we pause just a moment to give you a chance to check in with yourself?”

“That’s a very interesting story. You’ve said a lot about this subject and in great detail. Do you have any thoughts about why this feels so important?”

“A moment ago, I noticed that you seemed to feel uncomfortable, almost as if you’d rather not be here right now. Am I right that you are feeling uneasy or would like to escape right now?” 

Accepting limited progress is key 

Slowing your pace and offering abundant support and specific praise is critical as you work with partners who show signs of past trauma. You will need to manage your own desire to move faster or to immediately uncover the patterns you sense are lurking beneath the surface. This might mean saying:

“I realize just how hard this is, and I want to reflect back to you just how much progress you are making. Sometimes we’re looking for answers that don’t show up right away, and that is absolutely fine. What matters is that we continue the conversation together.”

“I am so grateful for your willingness to talk about this. You are the real authority when it comes to understanding your own life. I want you to feel heard and supported.”

“The more the two of you can share with each other, and the greater trust you can create, the stronger your relationship will become. This is why we’re here together, and you are doing a great job.”


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.

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Sara Schwarzbaum
7 months ago

It is such an important reminder that we cannot rush things, we need to slow down and build the capacities bit by bit. When one or both members of the couple have had trauma in their past, they really cannot do what comes easier to non-traumatized individuals. To have patience, use praise, and build pride. Thank you!

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