- Knowing how to support a partner or other loved one who has a trauma history will empower you within the relationship.
- Unmet needs in childhood often manifest in adult relationships, leading to communication struggles and other stressors.
- Keeping proper boundaries in place will help a partner feel that they are being supportive without being taken advantage of.
Even if someone with an identified trauma history is privileged to have therapy and other mental health support, their partners, friends, and other loved ones tend to be their primary support system. Even the best coping skills are no match for the stresses that come with the workweek, holidays with in-laws, and other life stressors. Due to basic proximity, their partners are there the most, second only to the rest of one’s chosen social circle, be it friends or other family members. This leaves a lot of time spent with people who probably are not mental health professionals and might not know how to support someone who has had a traumatic past. I often have family members reach out to me for insight into how to best support their loved one.
These 5 tips could help:
1. Listen. Often we worry that we need to have the perfect thing to say or some other insightful response, and then get tripped up in thinking of something to say. In reality, just listening reflectively shows much more support than most responses. Showing some eye contact (if this is comfortable for your relationship dynamic), nodding, and staying silent while they talk will show that you are invested in listening to their words. Be willing to ask questions and learn, instead of educating or telling them about your own story or “someone who I know who…” The same goes for telling people “I know what you mean because ___ happened to me.” While some people may find this supportive, most will probably find it dismissive of their feelings, even if your intentions were to be supportive. Listening is a small gesture that can go a long way.
2. Validate them and their experiences. People who are survivors of trauma have a history of being invalidated, dismissed, and not believed. They were quite possibly blamed for the events that took place, or they carry internal blame and shame if these events occurred in childhood. Simply believing them and showing empathy can make a huge difference in how supported they feel by you and their willingness to open up to you.
3. Ask them what way they feel supported best. Some people need a gentle reminder that they are not their past, and that they have overcome and can continue to move forward. Others just need to vent for a moment and then have a gentle reminder when it is time to change topic. Do not assume that a hug will solve anything, as sometimes this can feel dismissive to people who have a history of not feeling heard or listened to. (But sometimes many want a hug anyway, and this is okay too!)
4. Be prepared for them to make connections that might not make sense to you. In my work with couples in which one has experienced childhood trauma or abuse and neglect, it is not uncommon for the traumatized partner to make false assumptions about the other, such as, “You don’t text me as often as I text you during the day; how can I even be sure that you love me?” This is not to say that the partner has to put up with these things; the goal is usually to work together to find solutions to get out of these harmful thought patterns. However, it is more of a heads up that this often comes from a place of trauma and unmet attachment needs. If these thoughts and behaviors are not worked on, they can be detrimental to the relationship in extreme cases, as they sometimes make the partner feel they are walking on eggshells, or that they cannot do anything right.
Healing from trauma is not linear. Many survivors will struggle to change thought and behavior patterns that they had to develop in order to survive the trauma they experienced. These behaviors sometimes do not make sense outside of the context of the traumatic situation(s), causing confusion for partners and other loved ones who question their actions and perceptions of events. Keeping in mind that their healing will not progress in the way you would expect a physical wound to heal will help you stay supportive and empathetic in times of need.
5. Keep proper boundaries. Remember that you are not, and can not be, their therapist. There is a difference between listening to show support, and being cast into the role of savior or “fixer,” which is inappropriate and also unattainable. There is a reason why therapists are prevented from doing therapy with friends and family, as this is an essential boundary for the safety of both parties. It is okay to suggest that they may need a mental health professional to help them work through some of their past. (For more, see “What to Look for in a Trauma-Informed Therapist.”)
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.