Given the current news-cycle, it's especially appropriate that this week's Humptown is getting heavy and answering a reader who asks, "What kinds of patterns have you noticed in relationships when one partner is supporting another in overcoming past trauma?"
While the current reckoning around sexual assault and abuse is bringing awareness to these issues, the prevalence of assault is no surprise to those of us who have been working in this field for any length of time.
The statistics being what they are, there's a high likelihood each of us will be in a relationship with someone who has experienced sexual trauma at some point in their lives. According to the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. And it's not only sexual trauma that can leave a lasting impact, or affect the way we relate to our partners.
Even when there hasn't been a specific traumatic incident, many people have experienced complex trauma or ambient trauma. This can be due to everything from growing up in an unstable childhood situation (I'm still in therapy for that one myself) to enduring a lifetime of racism or sexism, among other factors.
Trauma is also one of those words that has worked its way into the mainstream and is being thrown around in ways that aren't quite accurate, which can dilute everyone's understanding of what trauma is and what it means. And that brings me to an important point: lay people are not trained or equipped to treat trauma in ourselves or others.
This is one of those areas where you absolutely must seek professional help.
While it's natural to want to help and support our partners, it's important to draw clear boundaries around what kind of support is healthy and safe to give, both for them and for us. The role of caretaker can become all consuming, and it can be incredibly depleting to the person providing care.
The first thing you need to do in any relationship is make sure you're taking care of yourself. If everyone is taking care of themselves, then everyone is taken care of.
This can feel especially difficult in relationships where one (or both) people is dealing with a trauma history.
The first thing you need to do is set boundaries about how much support you can give, and what that support looks like. These boundaries aren't just for your own wellbeing, which is vital, but also for the sake of your partner.
It's important that people are seeking appropriate help from trained professionals, rather than solely relying on friends and partners for support.
I reached out to Angela Gunn, a Portland-based therapist with specialized training in addressing trauma for her thoughts on the subject,
"First and foremost, the partner of a trauma survivor is in a unique role in that they can't treat or heal the trauma, and yet they are commonly relied on to help buffer from the impact, prevent triggers, and support with coping on a daily basis," Gunn says. "This can be tough as the partner may not always have the ability or desire to play those roles and yet the trauma survivor can't 'turn off' the symptoms or reactions. Another pattern that comes up is the partner carrying blame or guilt when there is a trigger or reaction, when many times it's not about them, caused by them or something they can necessarily control."
Nothing can replace professional support from a trained therapist, but if you're looking to do some reading on your own, there are several helpful books on the topic.
Trauma Is Really Strange is a good place to start, as this book is filled with fabulous illustrations and its content is written in an understandable and accessible way. If you're looking for a resource specifically about sexual trauma, check out Healing Sex. Finally, The Body Keeps the Score offers a broad overview for understanding trauma.
Have you got a burning question of your own? We're listening! Email email@example.com and keep your eye out for an answer in an upcoming column!