How Relational Trauma Can Affect the Trust-Building Process

How Relational Trauma Can Affect the Trust-Building Process

How Relational Trauma Can Affect the Trust-Building Process_ichhori.webP

Therapists used to reserve the term "trauma" for events such as war, rape, and life-threatening situations. We now understand that people can have similar reactions to relational traumas. When one spouse participates in infidelity or addictive behaviour, leaving the other feeling betrayed and abandoned, the devastated partner may have trauma-related symptoms. They may endure feelings of guilt, worthlessness, withdrawal, paranoia, obsessive thoughts about the betrayal, and suicidal ideation.

Couples frequently underestimate, dismiss, or misinterpret these symptoms, which makes healing and reconnection difficult. "Are you doing this to me again?" the heartbroken partner may question. "This dread can manifest itself in a variety of actions, including accusations, interrogations, questioning, and searching their partner's emails, phones, and computers for evidence of deceptive or cruel behaviour." When they are overwhelmed, they may even conclude, "I can never trust you again" or "You are incapable of changing."

This might be a discouraging experience for the misbehaving partner. Perhaps they have actually stopped the nasty behaviour. Perhaps they are working on a successful recovery and have a significant duration of abstinence. Perhaps they have concluded an affair and admitted their deception.

Despite this, their partner may be wary and distrustful. When the offending partner continues to bring up prior hurts or dig for proof of expected negative behaviour, the offending partner may become frustrated. Frustration can lead to bitterness and anger: "My lover will never trust me again." "Why can't they just get over it?"

When I come across couples in this stressful cycle, I begin to enquire about the presence of unresolved trauma—a force that, if ignored, can push partners against each other and make healing difficult.


Let me provide a hypothetical case to demonstrate. Jenny and Stan sought couples counselling to address the wounds caused by his addictive activities. Stan had been in treatment for about a year, working his recovery programme hard and making tremendous improvement. They were optimistic about their healing as a marriage and felt closer than they had before his addictive behaviours developed.

When I come across couples in this stressful cycle, I begin to enquire about the presence of unresolved trauma—a force that, if ignored, can push partners against each other and make healing difficult.

As a result, they were both astonished when what appeared to be a minor incident escalated into a confrontation reminiscent of the tumultuous days when Stan was active in his addiction. They told me how Stan was stuck in a conference, neglected to call Jenny, and arrived home two hours late. Jenny described how, when Stan apologised and explained why he was late, it reminded her of the times when he would lie to her to cover up his addictive habits. She, too, was filled with thoughts of betrayal, abandonment, and uncertainty.

Stan was also upset. When he saw Jenny's reaction, he felt overwhelmed and outraged. Even though he was honest about his reasons for being late, he received the same harsh comments from Jenny. Despite his development, she was accusing and untrusting. During our session, they both stated that they felt they were "back to square one" and that they "could not be together if it was going to be like this."


When couples understand the triggered trauma response, they can begin to respond to those occasions in transforming ways. They can communicate effectively with one another. They recognise that "the problem" is not necessarily their partner's lack of trustworthiness. The incapacity of the devastated partner to move on is not "the problem." "The difficulty" is the disconnect that occurs when both spouses' previous pain is aroused.

Stan and Jenny were faced with a regular, yet critical, situation when he was late. The pace of their healing was controlled by how they learned to respond in such moments. If Stan had told Jenny, "You need to get over this," she would have been left to deal with her trauma response on her own, further splitting the partnership. Stan, on the other hand, may provide a safe location for her to experience her trauma response, and they could develop to connect in ways that are critical for the healing process. Couples can enhance their closeness and attachment during these times.

When the past hurts resurface, the response is no longer "Here we go again," but rather, "Of course, you feel this way occasionally." I'm right there with you. In this, you are not alone." The violating partner can respond to the damaged partner's panic with compassion and comfort. This change allows them to transition from a protective attitude of "This won't work if you never trust me" to a consoling stance of "I'm so sorry this is scary for you right now." "How can I assist?"

The hurt partner is aware that their emotions are a distressing response. They may begin to distinguish between "You are untrustworthy" and "I'm experiencing that fear and panic again as if I'm afraid you're going to injure me again." In these moments, I really need you to be there for me, to reassure me, to understand my pain, to hear me," and so on.


These triggering experiences become possibilities for genuine healing and transformative connection. This is when partners use the anguish of terrible hurts to connect in ways that foster stability and safety. When handled with care, these triggering situations create the foundation for rebuilding trust. They are not to be feared or avoided, but rather to be treasured for the connection they can provide. The partnership not only offers a safe haven for comfort, but it also serves as a buffer against the stress that trauma can bring.

Contact a qualified therapist if you and your partner are experiencing relational traumas.

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