Article Published: 4/20/2023
Because trauma often shapes the way that we view the world, it can also have an impact on the way we behave in relationships and eventually lead to trust issues with our partners. Whether trauma is within an individual or shared, and whether it occurred during a current relationship or earlier, the resulting fear of harm or betrayal can leave partners feeling confused, vulnerable, and unsafe.
This month we spoke with Craig Cashwell, PhD, NCC, ACS, CSAT-S, LPC, LCMHC, a professor in the Counselor Education program at William & Mary, about the effects of trauma on relationships and how counselors can provide a safe space for their clients to begin the healing process and rebuild trust.
“Trauma is quite prevalent in the cycles of distress that couples experience that lead them to seek couple counseling,” Dr. Cashwell says. “Within the relationship, nonconsensual nonmonogamy is the most common experience that can rupture trust in the relationship. Betrayal trauma—trauma at the hands of someone entrusted with your psychological safety—can lead to a strong trauma response, in many cases to the point that the betrayed partner meets criteria for acute stress disorder (ASD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
It’s imperative for counselors to understand that when one partner feels betrayed due to a traumatic experience caused by or related to the other, behaviors such as hypervigilance and attempts to manage their partner’s actions are normal responses, he says.
“Previous relational trauma, including abuse in all forms—psychological, physical, sexual—that is unhealed, can cause trust issues. Where there is complex developmental trauma, multiple traumatic experiences at the hands of different people early in life, the struggle to regulate emotions and respond thoughtfully often is compromised,” Dr. Cashwell says. “Two common fears that emerge from these experiences are a fear of abandonment and a fear of inadequacy. Abandonment fears can lead to anxious pursuing relational behavior, while inadequacy fears can lead to avoidant withdrawing behavior. Often, these become problematic relationship behaviors and cycles that cause relationship distress.”
Trauma responses occur rapidly and unconsciously, he adds, stressing that the “single greatest tool” for counselors is to slow things down and help each person begin to understand the automatic process that occurs for them, including the origin of the trauma, the individual’s triggers, the fight-or-flight response, and the “meaning-making” that naturally happens, and to normalize and validate these responses.
“Processing these experiences allows each person to understand not only their own experience, but also that of their partner, enhancing empathy.” This may help the avoidant partner be understood as withdrawing from the relationship because of a fear of inadequacy, and the anxious partner as seeking attachment because of a fear of abandonment.
“Over time, these negative patterns can evolve into patterns of understanding and compassion that create present-moment corrective interpersonal experiences between the couple that occasions healing at both the individual and relational levels.”
Fear and distrust are interconnected, Dr. Cashwell notes.
“The dance between connection and protection occurs for each of us, all the time. Where trust is broken, the protective system often overrides the connective system, resulting in behaviors such as angry criticism or withdrawal, which further threaten the connection.
“We are hardwired for connection,” he continues. “When we feel safe and secure with our partner, there is a co-regulation that occurs between the two as each feels safe to provide support to the other and to ask for support. When this attachment security is threatened, though, we perceive that lack of safety and security through a process known as neuroception.” This unsafe feeling causes a flood of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that can cause anxiety and depression.
The discomfort of trauma may cause individuals to immerse themselves in work or other activities to avoid being present.
“Other numbing behaviors such as shopping, gaming, or pornography can dull the ache of the disconnect,” Dr. Cashwell adds. “This also might involve nonconsensual nonmonogamy, which can be sexual, emotional, or both, as an individual seeks to meet their need for connection.”
Counselors are poised to help couples strengthen their relationships and regain trust by understanding relationship dynamics and creating a safe space for healing, he says.
“While the de-escalation of conflict and strengthening of safety may indirectly enhance trust, counselors also may begin to directly address trust issues. Individual events between a couple that cause relationship ruptures are known as attachment injuries, and one empirically validated approach to working with attachment injuries is the Attachment-Injury Repair Model (AIRM) developed with emotionally focused therapy (EFT) for couples.”
Dr. Cashwell says that couples who haven’t previously sought counseling often present with skills-based problems (e.g., “We don’t communicate well,” “We fight all the time”) or content-related problems (e.g., “We are fighting about how much money we need to put in retirement.”).
Counselors should understand that the struggle to form secure attachments is often at the center of these struggles, he says.
“One way to say this is that the goal of counseling is to make ‘the problem’ just the problem; that is, if the couple is in a positive cycle and securely attached, often they can navigate relationship challenges without the help of a counselor. Commonly, existing trauma among one or both partners, or an acute trauma within the relationship short-circuits this natural process and occasions negative and recurring patterns of interaction that erode the connection between the two.”
Finally, Dr. Cashwell recommends the following books for couples and family counselors:
By providing a safe space for one or both partners to share their feelings, restore trust and accessibility, and express themselves in healthier ways, counselors can help clients who have experienced trauma to begin the healing process and become empowered to live in the present without bearing the burden of thoughts and feelings from the past.
Craig Cashwell, PhD, NCC, ACS, CSAT-S, LPC, LCMHC, received his master’s in community agency counseling and his PhD in counselor education and supervision from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is licensed in North Carolina as a Clinical Mental Health Counselor and in Virginia as a Professional Counselor, and is also a National Certified Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist Supervisor, and a life member of Chi Sigma Iota International.
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