Understanding the Lingering Impact of Trauma on Relationships

Published on: 27 Aug 2015
Why do some people become addicted?

“Someone who has experienced trauma also has gifts to offer all of us – in their depth, their knowledge of our universal vulnerability, and their experience of the power of compassion.”  – Sharon Salzberg, author and teacher.

– by Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC / Talkspace Therapist 

Understanding the Lingering Impact of Trauma on Relationships

It’s 7:10 PM and you’re anxiously waiting at the restaurant your partner has picked out for your weekly date night. You usually run a little late because you try on three different outfits before you leave, but tonight you arrived early for your 7 PM dinner reservation and have been waiting at the restaurant since 6:50 PM.

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You want to show your partner that you’re committed to working on your punctuality. The server has stopped by several times to take your order, and you’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable as you wait for your partner.


When your partner finally arrives at 7:15, he begins to apologize, noticing that you’re really shook up. Before your partner has a chance to explain that he helped intervene in a highway accident on the way to the restaurant, you’ve run outside in full panic.

Historically, trauma has been thought to be a condition that primarily affected veterans who faced combat during times of war. Previously known as “shell-shock”, “soldier’s heart” and “combat stress”, researchers have come to acknowledge that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not something reserved just for veterans. Relational trauma can be just as disruptive to everyday life.


As our understanding of post traumatic stress evolved, researches continued to explore what constitutes post traumatic stress and how it comes about. Events such as car crashes, sexual assault, and (threats of) violence have all fallen under the umbrella of traumatic events. That is not to say, however, that people who have experienced these sorts of incidents always develop PTSD.

Many of us have been in car accidents and subsequently haven’t met the criteria for the condition. Additionally, there are many survivors of abuse who fall outside of the diagnostic category.

Contemporary mental health professionals have come to understand trauma (in some form) as an almost inevitable event in a person’s life.

Some have come to understand two distinct trauma types. Events like near-death experiences such as those mentioned above are considered to be “big T” experiences, while other experiences fall under the “little t” category of trauma. These latter type of events typically refer to incidents caused by relationship traumas such as abandonment, which don’t meet the limiting criteria of the diagnostic manual.

“Little t” types of trauma can have a profoundly negative impact on certain people and those around them.

They can be serious disruptions to people’s ability to form and maintain meaningful attachments to others. For example, imagine an 8-year old’s trauma after having  a parent abruptly leave his or her home without any explanation. While the child may not understand the reasons the parent left the home, he or she will still feel the impact of that abandonment for many years to come.

Exposure to relational trauma such as abruptly losing a parent can be especially devastating at such a young age. Perhaps that’s the person’s subjective history in the scenario mentioned above, and can provide insight into their reaction. She may have grown up expecting, on some level, for their partner (or other significant people in his or her life) to leave them at the drop of a hat.


Understanding the Lingering Impact of Trauma on Relationships

Any argument or conflict may lead to feelings of panic. Any missed phone call might lead the person to think his or her partner has finally decided to leave. Any misunderstanding may make the person overcompensate and put aside his or her needs in order to keep their partner around.

Trauma is not just about those big, scary life events that happen to us in near-death experiences.

The death of a loved one, or the neglect or abandonment by a caregiver can also have a severe impact on how we relate to others in our lives such as friends, romantic partners, and other family members.

If you can explore your own history, you can start to see how the thread of “little t” trauma weaved into and throughout your life. Then you can start to empower yourself to change its lingering effects as you strive to create and maintain meaningful connections throughout the various stages in your life.

You can overcome trauma, and you can rebuild your life.


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Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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