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There’s an old saying about people who seem to live a charmed life: “they dance between the raindrops.” The image of someone so lucky that even rain doesn’t touch them is a fanciful one. Virtually everyone experiences hardships of all kinds — loss of a job, death of a loved one, a serious health problem.
These are all what we would call “normal” hardships. But there are also traumas that are out of the ordinary such as childhood abuse or rape. These are so catastrophic that people often react to them with a devastating psychological condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
People suffering from PTSD often need professional help to simply be able to function in everyday life. At the same time, we should not discount the effect of “normal” losses, what are in fact significant traumas even if they do not result in clinically diagnosable PTSD.
Writing for Psychology Today, Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. says “Trauma professionals often refer to these types of events [common losses] as ‘little t’ traumas to differentiate them from the ‘big T’ of life-threatening events.” For anyone in a romantic relationship, it is important to understand that “little t” traumas can negatively affect the relationship in serious ways.
Greenberg says that there are five things to watch out for.
“Getting triggered into traumatized states.” If you’ve suffered a “small t” trauma, seemingly trivial situations can be “trigger” events — that is, something that reminds you of your loss or prompts you to relive it. When you’re in a romantic relationship, the important point to keep in mind is that you may act irrationally after something has triggered your body’s involuntary response system. There’s a high likelihood that your partner isn’t going to react well to irrational behavior.
“Fighting, fleeing or freezing.” The most primitive part of the brain prompts you to react with what many people know as the “fight, flee or freeze” response. Those are literal descriptions of your physiological reaction to a triggering situation. That response may serve you well if you’re in physical danger, but it’s not helpful if you’re having an animated discussion with your romantic partner.
“Shame-based responses.” Interpersonal relationships are complicated, and feeling shame in response to your partner’s actions is a particularly complicated issue. “Interpersonal traumas or chronic rejection can create toxic shame,” says Greenberg. “Shame is a destructive emotion for relationships (unless you have actually done something terrible). Shame makes you want to hide or feel rage toward people you perceive as having shamed or rejected you. Shame makes you hide important parts of yourself from your partner. You may put up a ‘wall’ or mask your insecurities by attacking others or overcompensating.”
“Rigid, negative beliefs about relationships.” It’s very common to form your ideas about relationships based on those you experienced as a child. While you may not be able to point to specific “little t” traumas from childhood, if your family life was not particularly happy then you may have a history of events that form your outlook. That outlook may lead you to view your partner with a distrustful eye for no good reason.
“Traumas can lead you to choose unhealthy partners and stay with them too long.” Another complicated response to trauma is the feeling that you’re undeserving of love. That may lead you to make bad choices when it comes to forming romantic relationships.
Finding a suitable romantic relationship is tough enough to begin with. If you’re carrying the baggage of a trauma, it becomes incredibly difficult to find and sustain a healthy relationship. Some soul-searching or reading self-help books are good ways to begin to heal. Or consider the option of reaching out for professional help.