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Impact of Trauma on Couples

Updated: Mar 31

The impact of trauma on individuals is becoming well known as research continues to shed light upon the mind-body connection. We know that trauma is stored not only in our cognitive memories but also in our emotions and bodies.

Simply put, trauma is not an event that you can “get over.” The ripple effects fundamentally change your perception (van der Kolk, 2018). The effects of trauma are frequently experienced viscerally as much of the impact is stored within your nervous system (Fisher, 2018).

Trauma activates the sympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight/freeze mechanism; our survival instincts kick in. Knowledge of the trauma is stored away so that if we ever reencounter it, we will recognize the threat and react accordingly (Fisher, 2018). We often refer to this knowledge base as our triggers.

When triggered, something has alerted our nervous system that a threat is present, and our fight/flight/freeze response is activated. Here is the tricky part, we can be triggered by anything, e.g., a scent, a tone of voice, a place, a person, a touch, a situation – literally anything that reminds us on a subconscious level of our trauma.

Doing the work to heal trauma is vital. Learning your triggers and grounding techniques to help you cope with them until you understand that you are safe (instead of using maladaptive coping strategies to avoid your triggers) is paramount (van der Kolk, 2018).

Odds are at least one person in every couple has experienced trauma. Though, in my experience, wounded people are drawn to other wounded people. So, let’s imagine we have two trauma-impacted people trying to do life together.

Each miscommunication erupts into a conflict as both partner’s nervous systems are triggered and hijack rational thought. A typical couple has one partner with a fight response and the other with a flight or freeze response. Fight and Flight couples tend to have protracted conflicts. Fight and Freeze couples have shorter conflicts, but Freeze simply agrees to make the conflict end.

Trauma impacts your attachment style. Thus, it influences the forms of intimacy with which you are comfortable. Can you be emotionally vulnerable? Do you view your partner as a safe place to share your hopes, dreams, fears, and shame? Are you emotionally available to your spouse, or does it cost you too much? Are you able to experience sexual intimacy, or do you reduce it to sexual activity? Differences in attachment styles and intimacy tolerances frequently trigger conflict.

I could go on with examples of how trauma impacts marriages, but you see where I am going. Just as trauma impacts the entirety of the person, so it does to their marriage. Couples made up of people who have done the work, manage their own triggers, and take responsibility for their recovery are downright inspirational! Couples who spend their relationship alternately triggering

their spouse and being triggered are heartbreaking.

Do the work. Be inspirational!

Angela W. Startz, MAHSC, CCLC


Fisher, J. (2018, March 24). When intimacy feels unsafe: Creating safety with high conflict couples. [Presentation notes]. PESI. Psychotherapy Networker Symposium.

van der Kolk, B. (2018). 2-Day Trauma Conference: The body keeps score: Trauma healing. [PDF]. PESI.

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