Dealing with relationship trauma

Written by Angela Atkinson

Are you dealing with relationship trauma?

The bad news? The second you fall in love with someone, the likelihood that you’ll be dealing with relationship trauma increases exponentially. The good news is that you don’t have to suffer in silence – and there are things you can do to begin to heal and resolve relationship trauma and move forward.

What is relationship trauma?

Relationship trauma is a term used by psychologists and other mental health professionals to identify the condition people suffer after having been subjected to relationship abuse (emotional, physical, and otherwise). Many victims were also exposed to prolonged and/or extreme forms of abuse/neglect during childhood. This can predispose them to end up in toxic relationships as an adult, which cause them to be retraumatized in adulthood.

What are the signs of relationship trauma?

The signs of relationship trauma can be as subtle as they are obvious. If you’re dealing with it, you’re far from alone. In fact, according to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, nearly 10% of couples experience relationship abuse. Other research shows that as many as 40% of women and 25% of men have experienced some form of domestic violence in their lifetime; 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men report having been sexually or physically assaulted by a partner at some point in their life.

Common signs of abuse include:

  • Fear for your safety
  • Feeling trapped and/or controlled
  • Being isolated from friends and family
  • Losing self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling like you can’t trust anyone else (including yourself)

See more signs of relationship trauma and narcissistic abuse here.

Are there different types of relationship trauma?

There are three main forms of relationship trauma: Acute, Chronic, and Complex, according to MedicineNet.com.

Acute Trauma

Acute trauma is the result of a single incident that traumatized the victim. This could be something like a car accident, having your home broken into, being raped or assaulted, or even a natural disaster. In any case, the event is extreme enough to cause you to doubt your physical security.

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma happens through prolonged trauma that happens over the course of time. According to MedicineNet, it “may result from a long-term serious illness, sexual abuse, domestic violence, bullying, and exposure to extreme situations, such as a war.”

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma means that you’ve dealt with a variety of traumatic events, to put it mildly.

“The events are generally within the context of an interpersonal (between people) relationship,”  writes Shaziya Allarakha, MD.“It may give the person a feeling of being trapped. Complex trauma often has a severe impact on the person’s mind. It may be seen in individuals who have been victims of childhood abuse, neglect, domestic violence, family disputes, and other repetitive situations, such as civil unrest.”

What does relationship trauma look like?

Relationship trauma can profoundly affect your entire adult life, including your present-day relationships, career, family life (including communication with your own children).

People develop different types of relationship trauma that can change the way they relate to others. Some people become addicted to relationships that are too good to be true. Others fear intimacy and can’t get close enough to their partners. They’re afraid of being entrapped by someone they love, and this fear may keep them stuck in unhealthy relationships. Some psychologists suggest that this could also be related to attachment styles developed early in childhood.

What are the long-term effects of relationship trauma?

The long-term effects of relationship trauma are varied and depend on both the person and the traumas they’ve suffered. Some examples include the following.

Parental rejection leads to toxic people pleasing

Valuing yourself highly and feeling safe and secure is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for those who’ve suffered from parental rejection. At the root of this is the belief that your value is based on what you do, not who you are. This leads people to put their own needs aside, putting themselves at risk for burnout and breakdown.

Sexual shame leads to extremely low self-worth and intimacy issues

Trauma tends to make us think we’re broken — we may come to believe that we’re “damaged goods” or “damaged goods who can’t be fixed.” If this is our experience with sex, it makes sense that some people would have a hard time enjoying sex or being interested in sex. In some cases, it’s been hard for these people to see themselves as sexual beings at all.

Others have trouble understanding what sex has to do with their value as a person. Or they’ve had parts of them broken so long that they don’t think they have a right to enjoy sex or be sexual at all. All of this can lead to chronic sexual shame and a need for constant reassurance of the kind “I’m good enough” or “I’m lovable.”

Risk avoidance leads to isolation and chronic fear

If you’ve had a lot of parental rejection or sexual shame or both, one thing may become clear: You don’t feel good about yourself most of the time. You may grow up thinking that if you’re not perfect, then you’re worthless. That can lead you to avoid situations where things might go wrong, which often means avoiding new experiences altogether or limiting your experiences to those that feel safer to you.

You may feel unable to trust anyone ever again. You might not want to believe that another person could do this to you again. But the truth is, it’s not rational for you to have total trust in anyone else from here on out. You can learn to trust selectively and build a bond of mutual respect again with a partner who has betrayed you in some way.

Why do we stay with partners who traumatize us?

You can’t change the past, but you can move forward. If you find yourself with an abusive partner, you might be afraid to leave, or you might even wish you could go back once the relationship ends. This is likely a result of trauma bonding and C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder).

What is trauma bonding?

Similar to Stockholm Syndrome, this is a condition that causes abuse victims to develop a psychological dependence on the narcissist as a survival strategy during abuse. Trauma bonding also makes recovering from a toxic relationship significantly more difficult.

What is C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)?

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a serious mental health condition affecting a large percentage of victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse. This disorder can take years to treat and many professionals aren’t familiar with its symptoms or misdiagnose it.

Some therapists and other mental health professionals may even victim-blame if they aren’t familiar with the subtle tricks of a narcissist. Unfortunately, it can be a lifelong condition, but it can be managed with mindfulness and behavior modification, among other therapies and modalities.

If you are affected by C-PTSD, you may wish to supplement your therapeutic treatment with narcissistic abuse recovery coaching. Or at the very least we recommend that you find a therapist who understands your unique situation. Check out this guide on how to find a therapist who understands narcissistic abuse and recovery.

How do you end the cycle and recover from relationship trauma?

Relationship trauma is what happens when a relationship ends and one or both parties have difficulty processing that experience. You can experience relationship trauma in a variety of ways, but, in general, the process involves the following steps:

  • Recognizing that you’ve dealt with traumatic abuse in a toxic relationship
  • Acknowledging the impact the relationship had on you
  • Coming to grips with your feelings about the relationship and how it ended
  • Deciding what to do next with your feelings and your life
  • Moving forward with your life without the toxic person in it.

The DUO Method was designed to help survivors of narcissistic abuse take back their lives. The good news is that you don’t need to do this all by yourself. It is possible to overcome the pain and move on, especially if you’ve learned from the situation. Start here if you’d like to start your recovery right now.

Here are a few pieces of advice for moving forward.

1. Ask for help.

There’s no shame in asking friends and family to help you through a difficult time because they know what you’re going through better than anyone else. They might be able to offer insight into the hurt you’re experiencing or help you regain perspective on your situation. You can also reach out to a coach or therapist, who can help guide you through this process and give you support as you work toward recovery. Online support groups can also be very helpful for survivors of narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships.

2. Remember that recovery is a process, not a destination.

You can’t just snap your fingers and expect yourself to be instantly healed. Narcissistic abuse recovery takes time and effort, so don’t expect everything to turn around immediately. Too many of us have been hurt in relationships that came to a bad end, and we’ve been left to pick up the pieces. It’s a difficult thing to do, but there are some things you can do to help yourself heal.

3. Release the need to hold the narcissist accountable. 

Obviously, forgiveness isn’t really an easy thing when it comes to recovering from relationship trauma. But you don’t have to traditionally forgive the narcissist. Rather, you need to release the need to hold them accountable and release the need to remain connected to them.

4. Be honest with yourself about what happened.

When a toxic person hurts you, you’re not wrong to blame them for your pain, but staying stuck in victimhood will prevent you from recovering. Instead, it can be more productive to look at the situation objectively and consider how you found yourself in this relationship in the first place and how you could have handled the situation differently. While the narcissist will never be able to do the work to figure out why they hurt you or what it really means, you can certainly recognize what happened by learning to understand the dynamics of toxic relationships. Thoroughly understanding why you found yourself there and what made you stay can also help you avoid future toxic relationships.

5. Go no contact if possible.

In order to work through a relationship trauma, you also need time and space away from the person who hurt you. This isn’t just about getting away from them — it’s about regrouping and getting a new perspective on what happened. You must understand that your experience was real and valid, despite the fact that your abuser likely gaslighted you and made you doubt yourself and your reality. This takes time and requires healing. If you can, go no contact (or low contact, if you have children under 18 with this person).

6. Be prepared to find your own closure. 

As much as you deserve it, your abuser will absolutely not willingly give you the closure you so desperately want and need. So, you’ll need to prepare yourself to find and create your own form of closure after the end of a toxic relationship.

7. Move forward and create the life you want and deserve.

In the end, you can intentionally choose to heal and then create the life you want and deserve. It’s a sort of personal evolution that can often be the silver lining to this otherwise miserable situation.

When dealing with relationship trauma, focus on finding healthy outlets for your feelings so you can move forward with life. Find a therapist or psychologist who is an expert in dealing with these kinds of issues. Spend time with people who can give you feedback on how your actions have affected them or others around them; seek support groups; make healthy choices, and take good care of yourself while healing.

Do you think you’re dealing with the effects of relationship trauma? Take this relationship trauma test and find out.

Resources for Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support

Author

  • Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own. Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves. Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse here at QueenBeeing.com and at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.

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