Couples and Trauma, Part 2: Red flags that may reveal a troubled past

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.”

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Sara Schwarzbaum
Sara Schwarzbaum

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!

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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