Navigating Trauma Alongside Your Partner

Brought to you by You@CUDenver

It’s 11 o’clock at night and I’m crouched on my bathroom floor hanging onto the sink for stability with snot and tears dripping steadily off my face. I have this odd experience of both experiencing the residual trauma that is coursing through me and being aware of it from an academic standpoint, deploying every therapeutic technique in my arsenal to move through it and make it to relief. Kevin, my partner of 5 years, stands in the doorway and asks if he can touch me, I vigorously shake my head no. “Ok,” he says and stays in the doorway. A few minutes later, tissues appear at my elbow. A few minutes after that, still from the doorway, he reminds me, “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” When the tension in my body finally releases its grip, I sit back against the bathroom wall and Kevin joins me. “Do you want to talk about what happened?” he asks tentatively. I nod my head while scrubbing the last remnants of mascara off my neck and we move to our couch to debrief what just occurred.

This isn’t the first time that Kevin - or any other romantic partner for that matter - has remained alongside me as I’m experiencing residual trauma and it won’t be the last. I’ve experienced sexual violence two sets of times in my lifetime, first as a teenager and then as a college student, and, as such, I’ve been in therapy fairly consistently for the last 18 years of my life. Nowadays, my therapy is more focused on the ongoing impact of a global pandemic but, every once in a while, trauma shows up as the least welcome guest at a party I didn’t know I was having.

April 1 marks the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness/Activism Month. In the United States, 1 in 3 ciswomen, 1 in 6 cismen, and 1 in 2 trans individuals have or will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. These statistics are likely not that new to you, but what may be new is considering what this means: 1 in 3 ciswomen, 1 in 6 cismen, and 1 in 2 trans individuals move through their lives carrying at least one major traumatic memory and the physical and psychological impacts of that memory. This means that that trauma gets carried into their relationships and there are millions of partners working to support the survivors in their lives.

Most of the PCA’s “Supporting Survivors” resources are aimed at people receiving disclosures for the first time or supporting a survivor who has recently experienced trauma. While these are excellent resources, they miss a serious piece of the puzzle: trauma doesn’t stop after a neat amount of time. Trauma is an ongoing experience for most who have experienced sexual violence; one which is navigable but rarely vanquishable. This does not make survivors of violence unlovable or burdensome, it just puts our partners on the expert level alongside us. In fact, it bears repeating that if a romantic or intimate partner is making a survivor feel guilt or shame for experiencing trauma, that is not ok. This piece will always be a part of us, but it is not a part of us that we chose; most of us would pay exorbitant amounts of money (or any other form of currency) to excise this indelible and inconsiderate part of our minds, but here we are.

This does not make survivors of violence unlovable or burdensome, it just puts our partners on the expert level alongside us

Romantic and/or intimate partners have a unique opportunity to support continued growth and wellbeing in their survivor partner and participate in the ongoing healing work that is necessary for survivors to continue to thrive. Many of the tools available to a partner or partners are rooted in general healthy relationship techniques, but some are very specific to survivors of violence; check them out below!

  1. Honor the survivor as the expert of their own trauma. Even though you may be experiencing some amount of the impact the trauma has had on your partner’s life, it is their trauma and, therefore, they are the expert on it. Ask them what they need when they’re feeling overwhelmed or inundated by a traumatic memory. They may not know the answer to that question right away, but showing genuine interest in their needs as they describe them is a great first step.
  2. Move through it with them. In the vignette at the beginning, you may recall that Kevin offered to hold me (something that sometimes works) and then stuck around even though I didn’t have a substantive way for him to help in that moment. Sexual violence is often a solitary experience and one that no one but the survivor will ever truly understand; this makes experiences of residual trauma that much lonelier. While there is no way for you to enter the experience with them or wave a magic wand and make it go away, you can remain alongside them physically, mentally, and/or emotionally however is most comfortable for them. Being able to communicate that you’re there and ready to provide them whatever support they need is often the best thing you can do. This may include listening nonjudgmentally, providing tissues, giving a hug, staying away, not shaming them for having emotional reactions, encouraging healthy engagement with sexuality, respecting if they don’t want to share details, and many more that are specific to the survivor. 
  3. Respect their boundaries and yours. This may seem like an obvious tip with regards to any relationship, but it is especially important for survivors of violence. Sexual violence is, at its core, a violation of personal boundaries. Respecting, upholding, and honoring the survivor’s boundaries - whether you understand them or not - is incredibly important. In addition to this, you are entitled to your own boundaries. Maybe you have a partner who is experiencing a resurgence of trauma in a way that is impacting your everyday lives. This is a lot for the survivor and likely a lot for you. Encourage them to utilize the resources available to them to process and move through this iteration of residual trauma. This can look like encouraging them to discuss with their counselor, helping them find a counselor, encouraging them to use coping skills they’ve used in the past, and/or reminding them to and making space for them to increase their self-care.
  4. Take care of you. Supporting survivors who are also your romantic and/or intimate partners can be heavy emotional work and, while it’s work that you happily take on because you love your partner(s), you need to take care of yourself too. It is common and normal for partners of survivors to have their own feelings of anger, shame, guilt, and helplessness (to name a few) and it is important for you, too, to have a space to process those feelings. The Phoenix Center at Auraria is a great place to start discussing these needs and connecting to more resources that are available to you as a support person.


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