When we think of relationship trauma, we often think of abuse: harm inflicted intentionally by one individual upon another individual with whom they are related. Because the key action to take when one is experiencing abuse is to sever the relationship, many people assume that only a break-up can heal relationship trauma. However, there are other origins of relationship trauma that are important to acknowledge and talk about, lending themselves to untapped relationship skills that can help you avoid or heal past trauma.
1. Unresolved, repetitive arguing. This sort of continuous rehashing of the same arguments over and over again leads to conflict exhaustion. It has been said that around 70% of all relationship conflicts are unresolvable - that is, they will continue to exist in the relationship. What many couples do not understand is that an unresolvable conflict is often not fatal to the existence of the relationship. It is usually a more minor personality conflict or a conflict of preferences over which one or the other person in the relationship may need to relent and allow the other person to “win”. In a strong, healthy relationship, these concessions come easily and are bidirectional (as in, both people make concessions). The underlying belief that allows this to happen is that caring for one another and for the existence of the relationship is more important than “winning” the argument.
Unfortunately, when one or both individuals in the relationship have a history of relationship trauma, these concessions become a lot more painful to make and carry a great deal more weight. The most important thing to do to resolve these conflicts is to employ empathy toward one another, which can be the most difficult tool to employ in the midst of a conflict. Empathy is the first step, though, to creating the environment of caring that makes the relationship more important than “winning”. (Empathy that exists in only one direction in a relationship does not meet this standard, but that is a topic for another time.)
2. Emotional volatility. Emotional volatility is an umbrella term that can encompass significant depression, anxiety, anger, or stress which cause distress. Addressing the distress of one’s partner can be emotionally demanding. In a relationship, what happens to one person ends up happening to the other person for this reason. When the relationship self-help books and podcasts talk about the need for boundaries with your partner, this is part of the reason why they are essential. Volatility might be characteristic of the individual or it might be a symptom of how they are handling a difficult situation in their life. Regardless, the expenditure of emotional self-management for being around an emotionally volatile individual/situation, especially if it is prolonged, can be traumatic.
In this circumstance, self-care and being able to separate from the volatility as needed is the most productive approach to recovering from this form of relationship trauma. However, many relationships are not established with the kind of emotional space that these needs require, therefore the relationship does not tolerate the needs of this individual. When this happens, the individual develops a resentment toward the relationship’s demands and the relationship resultantly ends.
3. Loss amidst turmoil. Unpleasant emotional experiences are a part of life. The loss of a relationship in which a person has placed their hopes and wishes for the future is traumatic in and of itself. When the process related to that loss is tumultuous, it adds to the trauma. Adults who have been romantically involved and come to the realization that the relationship is no longer working are going to have feelings of grief. Emotionally healthy adults tend to accept that they will have these feelings and will move forward from this ending, processing their feelings internally and with other members of their social support network.
When a romantic relationship ends and one or more of the adults involved do not have a social support network to turn to, they may attempt to process their feelings of grief within the relationship that has ended. They may use phrases like “seeking closure” or other buzzwords that make their actions seem more acceptable, but the reality is that they find themselves unable to process their grief without the person they are grieving. Relationships that end and resume, end and resume, end and resume, put the individuals involved through a rotating cycle of grief and relief that allows them to avoid the unpleasant emotions related to the grief process without actually addressing the problems that existed in the relationship prior to its ending. The solution to this problematic cycle is to maintain a solid social support system outside your romantic relationship(s).
The skills listed above: demonstrating empathy, reserving space in a relationship for self-care, and maintaining a social support system outside your romantic relationship are crucial to healthy romantic partnerships and are protective against relationship trauma. Cultivate these skills for yourself and encourage your partners to cultivate them as well.