When the One You Love Most Hurts You

Partner Trauma - Cluff Counseling - Dallas TherapistWhat happens when the person you would normally turn to is the one who betrayed your trust? You understandably feel deeply hurt, a great level of sudden distrust, and the desire to increase distance between you and this significant other. Partner trauma is real and it requires help in order to heal–both individually and in your relationship. If you or someone you know is experiencing partner trauma, help is available.

What exactly is partner trauma? Let’s begin by defining trauma. Trauma is the unique and personal experience of an event, a series of events or a set of enduring conditions that has the effect of overwhelming the person’s ability to integrate and regulate his or her experience at the levels of sensorimotor (body), cognition (thoughts), and emotion (feelings). In order for me to adequately explain the specifics of partner trauma, we need to take a step back and evaluate connection and our need for healthy, stable relationships.

At our core, we are all wired to connect with others; we begin as babies where we are entirely reliant on our caregivers. As we grow and gain independence, we look to others for comfort, guidance, support, and love. The children in Romanian orphanages, who are not given the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with caregivers and are deemed “unable to thrive” by healthcare professionals, are examples of how the lack of connection with others affects us greatly–physically, mentally, and physiologically.

We never outgrow our need for connection; adults need connection as much as small children do. As stated in my previous blog about connection, humans are wired for attachment! Answer the following questions about a significant relationship in your life:

  1. Will you be there for me when I need you the most?
  2. Can I count on you?
  3. Do I matter to you?
  4. Am I a priority in your life?
  5. Will you value me and accept me even with my imperfections?
  6. Will you stay close to me?

Answering yes to any of the above questions signals healthy attachment; whereas responding “no” to one or several could be indicative of relational trauma. When the person you once relied on, cared for, confided in, trusted and/or loved, no longer fills that role in your life, due to their actions, you are experiencing partner trauma.

Partner trauma (commonly known as relational trauma) has many faces; your partner could be an addict, involved in an affair, or ignored your needs at a time you needed him or her the most, such as a miscarriage, or loss of a job, etc. The common denominator, though, is that the stressor causes a traumatic attachment injury for one of the partners. The person you have leaned on for connection, comfort and support is the one you feel abandoned by. These feelings disrupt your relationship and your entire life. The person you have been the most vulnerable with may suddenly feel dangerous and unsafe. Relational trauma overwhelms the coping strategies you have in place and if not attended to, can appear to define you and how you see the world.

It is important to note that in the majority of cases, the person bringing the hurt into your life is not doing so intentionally; he or she is not trying to cause you emotional harm, although their actions have directly negatively impacted you. The deeper your relationship is with the one who hurts you, the more traumatic the experience and lack of trust will be. How you find out about the betrayal, how long it has been taking place without your knowledge, and your trauma history also factor into the symptoms you may experience. The following are some of the most common symptoms of trauma: fear, anxiety, outbursts of anger or rage, hypervigilance (excessive alertness or watchfulness), irritability, worrying/ruminating, intrusive thoughts of the trauma, tendency to isolate, difficulty concentrating or remembering, feelings of panic or being out of control, increased need to control daily experiences, difficulty trusting, feelings of betrayal, feelings of self-blame or responsibility, numbness, feelings of helplessness, minimizing the experience, feeling detached, concern of over-burdening others, under- or overeating, shame, shock, diminished interest in everyday activities, withdrawal, and preoccupation with body image.

Although relational trauma is not as visible as physical trauma–like being a victim of rape, bullying, or domestic violence–it leaves scars that take a great deal of time to heal. Relational trauma causes a ripple effect in all aspects of your life and influences how you see and treat people, yourself included. It is important to resolve relational trauma and work through it (both with your partner and also on an individual-basis) alongside a trained, experienced therapist. I have counseled many couples through varying degrees of relational betrayal and, while it is never easy, I can attest that couples that come out on the other side have some of the strongest marriages that I have seen. Everyone makes mistakes and we all need second chances. Healing is possible. Please contact me today to schedule your first appointment.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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