5 Red-Flag Signs That Indicate Hidden Trauma Is Destroying A Relationship

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Trauma is a subject more and more people are discussing these days, and we are all the better for it. After all, trauma can have a serious impact on an individual.

Many people may not realize the role of hidden trauma plays in relationships.

My married but troubled clients Sean and Serena were with me for their third counseling session. They were making some great progress in listening to each other and solving a sticky communication problem.

Sam went first to describe their improvements since we last met.

Suddenly Serena erupted in anger, yelled at Sam, then at me, and stormed out of my room with a classic door slam. Sam, looking shaken, said he thought their progress was too good to be true, that one of her explosions was bound to happen.

But what, exactly, happened?

What I’ve learned over dozens of years working with couples, and even in my own marriages, is that an unexpected response, repeated over similar situations or conversations, may be an indicator that some hidden trauma was triggered.

RELATED: 4 Subtle Ways Childhood Trauma Affects You As An Adult (Even If You Think You're Over It)

Signs of hidden trauma

Trauma occurs when the brain gets overwhelmed with incoming data. It happens so fast, or is so much, that the brain doesn’t have a chance to process what’s happening.

When that data doesn’t get processed, then it acts like a Trojan horse virus to disrupt and distract our thoughts and relationships. It’s not necessarily trying to sabotage us, it just wants to get sorted out or processed so it can be filed in its most appropriate place and put to rest.

But how can trauma be hidden? Wouldn’t we know if we had been traumatized? Not necessarily.

If the trauma happened when you were young, or during a time when all your energies needed to go into surviving, then you might not remember.

Our bodies are really good at protecting us, so if they think we need to avoid the shock or suffering in order to survive, then the traumatic event or condition will get shelved or go offline until some point when our survival is no longer at stake.

RELATED: I Love Being Alone — But It’s A Trauma Response

Five clues that hidden trauma may be hijacking you (and your relationship)

1. Avoidance

Not just a little, but continually avoiding a particular topic, situation, conflict or people.

2. Sudden eruptions

Anger or rage which takes you by surprise.

3. Repeated arguments

Conflicts just don't get resolved.

4. Faulty solutions 

A brick wall suddenly pops up between you, shutting down conversations.

5. Off-limit subjects

Certain topics or situations create instant anxiety: upset stomach, insomnia, catastrophizing, not eating, overeating.

RELATED: The Surprises You Might Discover When Peeling Away The Layers Of Trauma

Why can’t trauma stay hidden?

It can, and often does stay hidden, but it takes a huge toll on the person and their relationships.

That’s because our brains don’t like chaotic, uncategorized data, so these magnificent brains keep trying to figure out what to do with the trauma data.

Plus, the fight/flight/freeze part of our brains reads trauma data as a clear and present danger. Suddenly, a seemingly innocent comment or situation is perceived as life-threatening.

That’s why Serena suddenly erupted in anger in the counseling session. Her hidden trauma perceived that things going well in her marriage meant forthcoming danger. She then swung into protective mode by erupting into anger and fleeing the office.

If Serena never addressed her hidden trauma, it would never heal. She and her partner would be perpetually frustrated.

Hidden trauma sabotages the person and their relationships. It’s like an explosion — you can’t predict who will get hurt when the trauma gets triggered.

RELATED: 10 Red Flags I Couldn’t See I Had Until I Had Trauma Therapy

Handling hidden trauma for yourself

Here are some key action steps once you recognize hidden trauma:

  • Acceptance. Not that the trauma was okay, but that you are not alone in having trauma and it was not your fault. Once you accept that it is part of your story, it gets easier.
  • Stop avoiding. Once you accept, you don’t need to avoid. What we avoid only gets bigger.
  • Seek help through specialized trauma-informed therapy like EMDR or somatic experiencing or specific yoga for trauma.
  • Find strength through empathetic friends and support groups.

RELATED: How To Stop Carrying The Weight Of Your Turbulent Past Or History Of Trauma

How to handle hidden trauma in your relationship

Whether it is you or your partner (or both) who deals with hidden trauma, your relationship now includes it, so you may both need to practice these steps:

  • Stay in the present.
  • Remember to breathe.
  • Recognize when you are flooded (like elevated heart rate, sweaty/clammy, feels like your heart has dropped into your stomach).
  • Create your own code for when you recognize you’ve been triggered, and allow yourself or your partner to seek what's needed, knowing you’ll come back together after the flooding has drained.
  • When you take time out for yourself, let your partner know how long, then check back in with them. If you need another 30 minutes, then say so, and check back in.
  • Tap into all the compassion you can, for yourself and your partner.
  • If you are ready to share about the trauma with your partner, share only in bite-sized pieces. If you’ve been avoiding for years, dumping it all out on your partner may be overwhelming to both of you. A therapist can help with this.
  • Use a couples therapist (trained in trauma) for guidance and support.

RELATED: Why Trauma Bonding Keeps People Stuck In Abusive Relationships

Healing takes work and compromise 

Sean and Serena were able to accept that some hidden trauma was hijacking their relationship. We worked to process the trauma for Serena, then we worked to repair the relational damage and poor habits that had developed between them.

It wasn’t all Serena’s problem. Sean was able to recognize how he had contributed to the situation.

Each of them saw how hard their partner was working in order to have a better relationship, and that meant they were willing to keep at it.

According to them, “the payoffs have been totally worth it!”

RELATED: 5 Things I Would Never Do In A Relationship — From A Trauma Therapist

Dr. Judy Tiesel-Jensen is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) and Psychologist Emeritus, specializing in couple relationships and trauma, much of which is reflected in her recent book, Invitation to Intimacy: What the marriage of two couples counselors reveals about risk, transformation, and the astonishing healing power of intimacy. For more information, visit her website.