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Relationships After Trauma

When a person has experienced trauma, it can have a profound impact on relationships. Trauma survivors may struggle to trust other people and maintain relationships, particularly with those closest to them. It can be difficult to open up and be vulnerable. I often felt that no one else in the world understood what I was going through, even those that were closest to me. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are very common among trauma survivors and their caregivers.

Trauma can have a direct impact on an entire family. A spouse, parent, child and close friends may also be left reeling by what has happened to their family member and the impact it has on everyone’s lives. This is one of the reasons that trauma can be so hard on relationships - it is not just the survivor that is on a recovery journey, but those around him or her. The survivor’s loved ones are often on their own journey of grief or sorrow for a way of life that is lost.

Trauma affects everyone differently. While some may find it easier to move on from the event and maintain relationships, others may struggle. There is no right or wrong way to handle it. In my case, I felt overwhelming sadness, pain and grief after surviving a terrible train derailment that left many fellow passengers dead and my body changed forever. My husband, by contrast, felt tremendous anger and resentment.

The first step is recognizing that it is normal to feel overwhelmed. Trauma can lead to a heightened sense of fear and it can be difficult to trust other people. It is important to take the time to identify the emotions you are feeling -- Anger? Anxiety? Sadness? Concern about the future? Hopelessness? Fear? Lack of Trust? Or maybe positive emotions like Gratitude and Optimism – and accept them as normal and valid. By giving yourself permission to honor those emotions (rather than just push through day after day), you allow real healing to start.

It is also important to create boundaries. Establishing healthy boundaries helps ensure that we do not become overwhelmed by other people's expectations or by their own emotional challenges. It is ok to be selfish. Honesty and communication are key. Telling others what you need (and what brings you down) actually helps everyone avoid hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

For those who have experienced trauma, a network of supportive relationships is a huge factor in full recovery. Lean on your existing network, or build a new one for example by talking to a therapist, joining a support group, taking a class or re-engaging with old friends. I know that is easier said than done, but long-term isolation is a recipe for depression and even more serious mental health challenges after trauma and should be avoided at all costs.

Having different kinds of people to talk to depending on how you are feeling and what you need that day can be extremely beneficial. There were days when I needed the constancy and deep love of my husband, but other days when I needed the company of friends who could make me laugh and put all the seriousness aside for a few hours over a bottle of wine.

Overall, relationships after trauma can be difficult but also the most powerful source of healing and strength. Recovery is inherently challenging and can strain even the strongest relationships. Conflict is not a sign of failure. It is to be expected. Take the time to process emotions and to recognize your own needs. Take things slow and recognize true healing takes time. With patience and understanding, the shared experience of recovery can strengthen your relationships and accelerate your healing journey.

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