Couples Counselling for Couples with a trauma historyAugust 23, 2023
Every single one of us drags our past experiences – good and bad – into our relationships. This is hard enough for all couples. But if you or your partner have a trauma history, the degree of difficulty goes up significantly.
Trauma is usually categorised into acute, chronic and complex. The causes of trauma are varied. The most common type of trauma we deal with at Sydney Couple and Family Specialists is complex trauma caused by traumatic experiences in childhood.
These days, there’s much better awareness about what trauma is and how it can affect someone. For couples it can mean that one or both partners have attachment issues, trust issues, anxiety or depression. There may be substance abuse or other addictive behaviours, chronic medical problems, or a diagnosis of P.T.S.D.
A person with a trauma history may have really strong reactions to dynamics or situations that seem otherwise benign.
So how can Couples Counselling help?
And can people with a trauma history be good partners in a healthy relationship?
Yes, and yes. But…
Seeing a couple’s counsellor for communication issues and conflict issues alone has limited impact for couples who are dealing with a trauma background. It is vital that the couple sees someone who is not only highly trained in couples counselling but is also trained in trauma, and who has an in-depth understanding of the complexities that arise when trauma is present in relationships.
What do you need to look for in a Couples Counsellor to ensure that you are receiving the right help and support?
- A Couples Counsellor who has training and expertise in the attachment model.
Why? Many people who have suffered complex trauma (childhood trauma) or chronic trauma (e.g. long term abusive in a relationship) struggle with trust and have can have attachment issues which play out in a relationship. A Couples Counsellor can help a couple to understand how attachment styles or disruptions are impacting the couple and help the couple work through them.
- A Couples Counsellor who has training and expertise in trauma.
Why? The Couples Counsellor should be able to identify triggers in a non-shaming, non-pathologizing way. And be able to help the couple manage these triggers. When trauma has occurred, it is crucial that the Couples Counsellor also has skills to understand the trauma and the impact on the couple without re-traumatising the client/s. Many untrained trauma counsellors inadvertently re-traumatise clients which can also stop clients from seeking further professional help.
- A Couples Counsellor who has systemic training and will examine family of origin concepts and ideas.
Why? It is not enough to look at communication, intimacy and conflict alone when there is a history of trauma. Systemic thinking allows the Couples Counsellor to consider other in-depth ideas that could be playing out in the current couple relationship and impacting on the couple on a day-to-day level. An example – patterns of intimacy playing out in the couple relationship that is coming from family of origin experiences.
- A Couples Counsellor who you both connect with, feel safe with and is able to pace the sessions well.
Why? It is important that the Couples Counsellor is able to pace sessions at a rate which challenges the couple without leaving the couple completely “undone” or in a far worse position than when they first started the work with the Counsellor. Interventions need to be well-timed and the couple should feel like it is a collaborative process where they have agency in the sessions. There is no point continuing to see a Couples Counsellor who you do not feel heard by or safe with.
- A Couples Counsellor who understands how to balance the sessions for both people in the relationship.
Why? We find in Couples Counselling that there can be one person who has experienced trauma and lives with trauma symptoms that can place the partner in a “carer” role. Often people who are in a “carer” role in a relationship will feel like their needs come second to the person who has the trauma history. The Couples Counsellor should be able to balance competing needs for both people in the relationship and to ensure that both people feel heard, understood and supported in the couples’ space.
- A Couples Counsellor who understands that just because a person has trauma symptoms, it doesn’t mean the other person in the relationship is not bringing in equal measures of unhelpful behaviour.
Why? Sometimes the symptoms of trauma for one person can have too much focus and take away from the fact that the other person in the relationship also needs to make behavioural changes. Just because one person is presenting with certain behaviours coming from trauma experiences doesn’t mean that all the change belongs with them.
I have seen many couples over the years where there has been a trauma history for one or both people. It’s always complicated work and for me incredibly rewarding. Many of the couples I have seen have told me that couples counselling has been the best investment to crack some interpersonal patterns and behaviours. This is because most of us are in relationship with others. We don’t live as an island. Trauma histories should also be treated individually but, in my opinion, very rarely never impact relationships therefore couples counselling (or family counselling) should always be part of the treatment plan. And if you are the partner who does not have a trauma background, please do not think you are coming to couples counselling to “fix” your partner. The problems presented are always “shared problems” and each person brings in “stuff” that impacts a relationship trauma or no trauma.
If you or your partner have a trauma background and you think it’s causing problems in your relationship or with others – please seek help. Seeing the right Couples Counsellor will at the very least give you both a safe place to explore relationship issues. And at the best – you will both gain a very deep understanding of behaviours and enjoy a much stronger positive, connected relationship.