If you experienced trauma during childhood, such as abuse, neglect, abandonment, or constant criticism, you will likely see the impacts of this trauma show up in your adult relationships. This is because our attachment to our parents or caregivers sets the blueprint for how we expect to be loved in adulthood. For example, if you grew up in an environment where your parents were constant yelling at you, you may find yourself withdrawing or lashing out when your partner shows signs of getting upset with you. This is due to your body’s fear of experiencing the same painful dynamics that you experienced when you were young. Lashing out or shutting down are thus attempts to regain some sense of protection or control.
For most childhood trauma survivors, triggers are inevitable. However, there are numerous techniques that you can use to help you and your partner better respond to and manage those triggers.
Specifically, managing trauma triggers in you romantic relationships requires healthy communication. If your partner triggers your childhood trauma, it’s important to tell them what exactly triggers you and how it makes you feel. Creating a safe space for open dialogue will ensure you and your partner can work on sourcing healthy solutions that strengthen your relationship. This will also have your partner become more aware of your feelings, leading the both of you to be more equipped to manage your triggers in the future.
Once you have established open dialogue about your feelings and trauma responses, here are three more things you can do to help manage your triggers to childhood trauma:
When your partner triggers your childhood trauma, it’s important to acknowledge and validate the emotions you are feeling. Remember, you never have to justify how you are feeling! (Your emotions are happening whether or not you think they should be). Instead, turn to identifying and validating your feelings, as these are powerful coping mechanisms useful for emotional regulation. Once you’ve done that, it will become easier to determine why you may be feeling the way you are. It can be helpful at this stage to reflect upon your reaction to better understand if it was fair and appropriate, or if you may be reacting to something that resonates with your traumatic experiences (or both!)
Trauma responses can cause intense feeling in the body. When experiencing a trauma response, it’s crucial that you develop healthy coping mechanisms that can work to deescalate the situation. A simple step that you can take to distress is to develop an emotional scale (0-10) that you and your partner can use to gauge the severity of your response. You can then communicate this scale to your partner and the two of you can determine how to proceed based on how distressed you’re feeling. For example, if you are above a level 5, you may realize that this is where you need to bring in something like 4-squared breathing. This can eventually become a go-to mechanism in the future any time you realize you are over a level 5 on the trauma trigger scale.
While childhood trauma impacts everyone differently, it’s crucial to remember that the effects trauma has on the nervous system are a part of a neurobiological reaction (so no, you’re not just making things up!). Educating yourself on what trauma is, how it impacts the body, and how you can expect it to show up further in your relationships can be an important protective factor for preserving the care and love you have for one another. Approaching this from a place of education may also show your partner that your present response is not an attack on them, but rather your nervous system responding to past trauma.
Childhood trauma triggers and responses can be difficult to navigate between romantic partners alone, since they can cause us to have such deeply personal reactions. If you need help communicating your emotional triggers to your partner or wish to develop healthy solutions, you may want to consider seeking professional help. Couples therapy can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms that you can use as a foundation for future interactions with your romantic partner. As a childhood trauma therapist, I often work with couples to develop the skills necessary in managing each other’s triggers as a united front. In my practice, I have found that doing so can help foster deep feelings of intimacy, safety, and connection, while also working to heal childhood wounds.
It’s important to remember you won’t use these skills perfectly in the beginning. However, through time, patience, and practice, you and your partner can find a plethora of ways to help manage one another’s trauma triggers.