How Trauma Changes Our Relationships

Published on: 08 Feb 2021
illustration of man with emotion bursting from chest

Illustration by Kenzo Hamazaki


If you grew up experiencing violence or repression — whether in the home, from the state, or due to poverty — you may have experienced the culture shock of being around people who had more privileged experiences. Similarly, if you’ve had a traumatic experience of some kind as an adult — sexual assault, armed conflict, or political repression — you may find that, suddenly, those whom you used to value no longer seem able to connect to you. 

Trauma shapes us, whether that’s through the lingering effects of PTSD, or simply by giving us a deep knowledge of the terror and wonder of the world. These experiences can leave us unable to connect with people who have not had such harrowing experiences, including people we were previously in sync with. Trauma can also take away our feelings of safety and trust, making it difficult to connect at all. 

Whatever your individual experience, it’s totally normal and okay to be having a rough time right now, including in your intimate relationships. While these relationships can be a source of tension and conflict when we are in the heat of trauma, our community bonds are ultimately a strength and source of healing. 

I talked with Dr. Monique D. Walker, LMFT, co-founder of Queer Affirmative Therapy, about how pandemic-related trauma is affecting our interpersonal relationships — and how we can find our way back to alignment, together.

How Does Trauma Change Us?

Trauma is our body’s response to an event it worries we will not survive. That can be literally a life-threatening situation, such as a car crash, or an experience that spiritually devastates us, such as an emotionally abusive relationship. 

Trauma affects us at a deeply physical level, rewiring the ways we perceive and respond to stress. After a traumatic experience, we may feel jumpy, have difficulty sleeping, feel depressed or anxious, or experience either numbness or more intense emotional reactions than we did previously. There is no right or wrong way to experience trauma; but there are ways we can care for ourselves. 

The pandemic has been a deep stressor in all of our lives. According to a CDC survey in June 2020, 31% of U.S. adults had anxiety or depressive symptoms; 26% had symptoms of a trauma response; 13% had started or increased substance use; and 11% had seriously considered suicide. “We’re using all our coping mechanisms and coping skills to just make it through the day,” said Walker. “You add on another stressor, an acute traumatic event and that makes it so much more difficult to deal with it.”

These acute traumatic events can include surviving COVID-19. Many survivors experience persistent symptoms, even if they originally had a mild illness. Those who were severely ill, especially those who were intubated, experience high rates of post-traumatic stress after their illness, due to the effects of isolation and the fear they experienced while severely ill. In one Chinese study, 96.2% patients who had been discharged from COVID-19 quarantine facilities were experiencing symptoms of PTSD

Losing a loved one to the coronavirus can be similarly traumatic. Many of us have not had access to traditional grieving rituals, such as bedside vigils and funerals, for fear of spreading the virus. This can lead to a “really complicated type of grief,” said Walker. We may feel unable to fully process this loss. 

A Pandemic of Inequality

Those who already disproportionately experienced poverty and exploitation — particularly, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color — have borne the brunt of pandemic-related hardship and loss. “The traumatic experience that has been going on for centuries” has been “exacerbated during the pandemic,” said Walker. 

Racism itself is a form of trauma, which negatively affects the mental health of all people of color. Black Americans, for example, are already 20% more likely to experience mental illness than their non-Black peers. People of color also experience high rates of racist microaggression in their interpersonal relationships, causing added stress in the workplace and in relationships.

Chronic stress and under resourcing means that people of color are more likely to become seriously ill and die of the virus; losing multiple loved ones can be a particularly brutal experience whose effects stay with you for a lifetime. Meanwhile, people of color are experiencing the highest rates of job loss and housing insecurity, leaving many people without the time and resources to fully grieve.

Frontline workers — also more likely to be people of color — can experience particularly intense forms of trauma. Healthcare workers often need to compartmentalize the horror of seeing patients die in order to continue serving their communities. They may feel, “If I allow myself to go completely into that and experience the depth of that, I may not be able to get up and go to work the next day,” said Walker. 

How Does Trauma Affect Our Intimate Lives?

When lockdown orders began spreading across the United States, domestic violence rates increased alarmingly. Poverty and stress are already risk factors for domestic violence, so the increase in these factors also increased perpetration. So, too, did the increased time at home, which further isolated survivors from needed support. 

Yet, even people in otherwise healthy relationships are experiencing increased strain. The effects of trauma can show up in many ways. We may feel sad or listless, and no longer take pleasure in the things that once gave us joy. We may numb out by watching too much TV or using substances. We may experience the effects of trauma in our bodies, in the form of headaches and physical pain. We are also likely to be more short-tempered and irritable.

“All of these mood destabilizing features are happening much more frequently, and all those things are impacting the ways we’re able to show up and be in our relationships,” Walker said. Stress can make us short-tempered with our loved ones. “We may not have anything left for our partner or our kid or our friend,” she said. As a result, we can project these frustrations onto our loved ones, even if it’s not their fault. 

It can be particularly difficult to connect with people who don’t understand what we’re going through. Perhaps you’re a person of color, and your partner is white; you’re a medical worker, and your family members work from home; or you’ve experienced police brutality during racial justice protests, while your friends are less involved. “It affects how open we may want to be or feel like we can be with a partner,” Walker said. 

Letting Go Helps You Grow

Emotions are hard, and we may wish we could simply ignore the most painful ones. But that, says Walker, is a recipe for future pain. “Anything we try to suppress or try to keep down or don’t have a way of externalizing or letting out, it eats away at us,” she said. At the same time, racist and sexist stigma may prevent us from fully expressing our feelings and needs. 

To build healthier relationships with those around us, we first need to invest in our own healing. Your partner, parents, or friends won’t necessarily be able to give you what you need — but you can. Walker recommends finding a safer way to let your feelings out, whether that be through conventional talk therapy; a newer therapeutic method, like EMDR; through journaling; or simply through a good cry. 

Walker also suggests looking into your ancestral healing traditions to find something that brings you comfort and familiarity. “There are so many things that are of our cultures and our traditions that have either been stolen from us or that we don’t retain access to that are great resources to deal with trauma and other mental health challenges,” she said. Depending on your culture and what’s available to you, these practices could include building an altar to your ancestors, yoga, prayer, or practicing herbal healing.

If you love someone who is marginalized in a way you aren’t, or who has suffered a kind of loss you haven’t, you can give them the care they need to heal. “It’s the responsibility of the person who is more privileged to educate themselves,” said Walker. By working through your own feelings with friends who share your privileges, or with a therapist, you can create space for your loved one to process what they’re going through. 

“I don’t want you to mansplain or whitesplain,” Walker said, summarizing what people experiencing trauma and marginalization often receive from their loved ones. “I just want you to get it, and be able to support and validate me regardless of it’s your experience, regardless of whether you agree, regardless of whether you experience it the same way.” 

It’s Normal For Our Relationships to Evolve

“We don’t exist in isolation,” said Walker. “The most long-lasting or effective forms of any kind of treatment — whether we’re talking about trauma or treating someone for depression — happens in a relational context.” 

That means healing ourselves while we work through conflict together. Conflict or difficulty with our loved ones doesn’t always mean the relationship is at risk. “Intensity itself doesn’t have to be bad,” said Walker. Instead, periods of conflict can show us whether these relationships have a solid foundation, whether we still have ways to grow together. And conflict can tell us when it’s time to change a relationship or even say goodbye entirely.

Treat conflict as an opportunity to gauge how you truly feel about the dynamic. If you emerge from conversation with this person feeling “beaten down,” that’s a sign that the connection itself may not have a solid basis. It may be that this person changed, or that hardship simply revealed what their true values were all along. 

If, however, we can move through periods of trauma together, our relationships can deepen and grow. “That’s when real healing happens,” Walker said. “When we’re able to understand and hear each other in a different way.”

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