partner has trauma watercolor painting

“70% Of Adults in the US have experienced some form of trauma in their lives.” – The National Council for Behavioral Health

Trauma seems to be a new buzzword that has cropped up over the last decade, but trauma itself is anything but new. When we look at the statistics of trauma, we recognize that nearly three-quarters of our adult population in the US have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lifetime. With these statistics, it seems one would be hard pressed to find a romantic partner unaffected by trauma. 

If you are in a relationship with someone who has experienced the lasting impacts of trauma, you know that sometimes the road to recovery can be tricky to navigate. Your partner might have triggers that affect their emotional state, a dysregulated nervous system, a heightened sense of danger, or coping mechanisms that may seem strange to outsiders. If any of this sounds familiar, you may be wondering how to best help your partner in a way that feels right for you and your relationship. Read on for 5 tips to help you love better and live better when your partner has trauma.

1. You don’t need to fix them.

Survivors of trauma can often be sensitive to those who try to “fix” them, or those who approach them with an end goal of making them “better.” While a safe relationship with room to stretch and grow can help a survivor heal tremendously, needing to “fix” the survivors problems will likely only serve to burn you out, and send the message to your loved one that you don’t feel they are capable of healing themselves. Love them as they are, for who they are, exactly where they are on their road to healing. You are not responsible for their growth.

2. Sometimes they just need to talk (or not).

For many survivors, experiencing trauma can be alienating, disorienting, and isolating. It can be difficult to talk, and it can also be difficult to remain silent. No matter where your loved one is in their healing journey, it is important to let the survivor lead when it comes to talking, especially when discussing the trauma itself. 

For some survivors, the impacts of the trauma swell up on the inside, like a pressure cooker needing ventilation, and it can feel liberating to have the space to decompress through verbal communication. 

For other survivors, talking may feel unsafe, triggering, or, especially when it comes to talking about the trauma, retraumatizing as though they are reliving the experience all over again.

Whether your loved one wants to talk or not, let them take the lead. Practice active listening without expectations, judgment, or minimization, and offer compassion and empathy. Try to let them know you see them, hear them, and that they (and their story) matter, but give them the floor and the space to decide how much or how little they want to say.

3. Learn their triggers.

It’s possible your loved one is still learning their triggers and appropriate ways to cope with them. On the other hand, you might be paired up with a survivor who is actively learning and working through their triggers, or your partner might be somewhere in between. 

At any rate, it can be confusing and disorienting to witness our loved one be triggered, especially when the trigger is followed by behavioral changes in an individual. When we understand the triggers, and how they impact our partner, we can better prepare our response when they arise. In addition, while nobody should feel as though they are walking on eggshells, being aware of triggers can help us adjust our interactions in a way that might reduce the occurrence and impact of these moments of activation.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask what they are needing in the moment.

This goes for any interaction, whether it’s with a trauma survivor or not. We are not mind readers and when in doubt, it is completely okay to ask what someone needs in that moment. Particularly helpful for survivors, asking them what they need in that moment gives them voice and choice, an empowering state that is often stifled for trauma survivors. 

It also relieves you from the pressure of needing to guess what your loved one needs, which can be nerve-wracking, and even detrimental to the relationship if we get it wrong. Give yourself some grace and ask how you can best show up for them in the moment. Do they need a little space? A hug? Not to be touched? Do they need advice? Do they just need someone to listen? Someone to help them get grounded? Your loved one may not know what they need, or their needs may change, and that’s okay, too. Just stay curious and allow them the opportunity to explore what they need.

5. Honor your own needs in the relationship.

While this post has focused on how to best help when your partner has trauma, it is important to remember to take care of your needs, too. Helping your partner who has trauma does not mean you need to overlook your own happiness in the relationship. As with all relationships, you have a right to be in a safe, happy, healthy relationship, with the freedom to be your authentic self. 

Sometimes we can put so much pressure on ourselves to make our partners happy, that we forget to address our own needs and wants in the relationship. You have permission to take care of yourself, always.

Trauma can be tough for survivors and those around them, but when we create spaces for growth and healing, we open space for deeply connected relationships… trauma or not.