An Expert Guide to Taking a Break In a Relationship

An Expert Guide to Taking a Break In a Relationship

Hitting a rough patch in your relationship is…well…rough. You might be fighting all the time. You might be pointing fingers and placing blame over conflicts big and small. Maybe you and your partner have different values or maybe one of you wants kids and the other doesn’t. Either way, you’re starting to think about taking a break in a relationship.

If this sounds like you, then you’re not alone. We work with many couples who have had moments like this. They’ve wondered if they should stick it out or break up. They’ve questioned whether they were ready to take the next step in their relationship.

Having these challenges are, for many couples, just part of their journey. And taking a break in a relationship can be exactly what they need to move forward together (or apart). If you’re considering a break from your partner, this post is for you.

Couples Learn founder and therapist Dr. Sarah Schewitz recently shared her insight into relationship breaks with Cosmopolitan magazine. Now, we’re breaking this subject down even further.

Keep reading to learn more about how to know if you should take a break in a relationship and how to make it work if you do.

Reasons to Take a Break In a Relationship

Thinking about a break with your partner can feel really scary and overwhelming – especially if you’ve been together for a long time or have built a family together. But taking a break really can be beneficial.

If you have been fighting a lot, a break can help you get some space from the ups and downs of conflict. This can help you reflect more accurately on the pros and cons of the relationship and look at the problem from a less emotional place.

For some (especially those with an avoidant attachment style), getting some space from your partner can help you feel more regulated and reconnect to the loving feelings you have for your partner. In other words, absence really can make the heart grow fonder.

Taking a break can also help you see firsthand what life would be like if you and your partner split up. You may see just how much you miss your partner, or you may see that you are better off without them. Either way, taking a break in a relationship gives you the space to figure that out.

Is it Healthy to Take a Break In a Relationship?

Taking a break can be one of the healthiest things you could do for your relationship. Especially if you are fighting all the time or struggling with codependency, it might actually be healthier to figure out the future of your relationship while you are apart.

Taking a break can give both partners space to work on themselves and heal their past traumas in individual therapy without getting reactivated and triggered all the time.

Breaks become unhealthy when they are done out of anger or as punishment. Stonewalling, or icing your partner out, is a very unhealthy behavior in relationships and is not the same thing as taking a break.

A couple sits outside talking about taking a break in a relationship

Is Taking a Break the Same As Breaking Up?

Taking a break is also not the same thing as breaking up. While some couples who decide to take a break do eventually break up permanently, it does not have to end that way.

It all depends on how the couple – and the individuals involved – approach the situation. With clear expectations and communication, a break can be exactly what it sounds like: a break.

How to Take a Break In a Relationship

If you’re considering taking a break in a relationship, there’s a lot to think about. Keep reading for our best advice on how to go about starting a temporary break.

When to Take a Break In a Relationship

When to take a break is a very personal decision. You might want to wait until a time when you and your partner will have the time and space to seek therapy, focus on self-care and make the most of your time apart.

If your lives are very intertwined, you might also need to look ahead to vacations, weddings and other events planned far in advance. While you certainly do not need to plan a relationship break around life events, it’s worth taking these items into consideration if your relationship hasn’t reached a state of crisis..

How to Ask for a Break In a Relationship

If you’re considering taking a break in a relationship then it’s likely your partner at least has some idea that things aren’t exactly going well. But no matter how much you and your partner have discussed your issues as a couple, going on a break requires a clear and direct conversation.

It might be painful or awkward, but a break must start with a clear line of communication if you have any chance of coming back together at the end.

Communicate with your partner why you want to take a break and what you hope a break will do for your relationship. Be kind, but be honest. And be honest with yourself, too. Ask yourself if you truly want to take a temporary break, or if you’re just trying to soften the blow of an actual break-up.

How to Set Rules for Taking a Break In a Relationship

One of the most important things to discuss when taking a break in a relationship is your ground rules for the time apart. 

This is another time when open and honest communication is key. If you want the chance to get back together at the end of the break, you need to figure out in advance what you both are comfortable with (and what you are not) and have clear boundaries.

Some questions to answer to help you create those boundaries include:

  1. What is the purpose of this break? What are we hoping to discover about ourselves or the relationship by taking a break?
  2. How long will the break be?
  3. How often will we communicate during the break, if at all?
  4. Are we allowed to date other people during this break? If so, what are the boundaries around this? (e.g. just chatting on apps, going out on actual dates, boundaries around physical touch on dates, will you tell each other, etc.)

Once you and your partner agree on boundaries, prepare to stick to them and communicate honestly about these boundaries during and after your break.

A couple lays in bed after a fight and considering taking a break in a relationship

What to Do During a Break in a Relationship

Even couples who feel strongly about taking a break in a relationship often find the break itself very challenging. After all, you probably spend a lot of time with your partner. Knowing what to do instead can be difficult.

The best way to spend your time apart is to focus on yourself and figuring out what you want from your relationship and your future. 

Take lots of time for self-care or to reconnect with the friends or hobbies that may have taken a backseat to your relationship. Make sure to also think about your plans for the future, particularly if differing values or goals were part of the catalyst for your break.

Consider getting individual therapy, too. A therapist can help you work through relationship issues, heal past traumas that might be affecting your relationship and improve your communication skills. A therapist can also help you explore what you want for your future and help you decide whether getting back together with your partner is part of that vision.

How to Get Back Together After a Break

Before you start exploring how to end your break and get back together, it’s important that you and your partner are both confident you want to get back together.

If you’re both on the same page, then honest communication will once again be your best tool. Discuss the issues that lead you to the break in the first place and come up with a plan for how you’ll manage those challenges going forward.

If you were disagreeing about marriage, kids or other major life plans, discuss those too. Make sure you’re able to come to an agreement that works for both of you before you decide to get back together.

Remember to stick to the boundaries set around your break as well. If you agreed before the break that you would not be discussing what you did with your time, then don’t discuss it. Respect the boundary set and aim to rebuild trust with your partner.

A couple is sad while sitting outside and talking about taking a break in a relationship

Are Successful Relationships After Break Up Possible?

Yes, they are absolutely possible!  But they do require understanding, patience, communication and trust.

Many relationships have withstood breaks. A break can help both partners reflect on the importance of the relationship in their life and can lead to a reinvigorated commitment to the relationship.

While not every relationship will work out, taking a break in a relationship can absolutely improve your partnership.

Things Not to Do After a Break

If you’re hoping that taking a break will lead to getting back together, then it’s important to avoid a few key things.

Most importantly, don’t break your ground rules or go against the boundaries you and your partner agreed upon. Typically you’ll also want to avoid discussing any dates or other romantic encounters either of you experienced while on the break (unless you determined beforehand that you would talk about them).

Additionally, it’s really important not to hold the break against one another, assuming that no boundaries were crossed. If you and your partner decided that you could go on dates with other people while on a break, for example, then it will be key not to use dates against one another during conflict going forward.

Work to rebuild trust with your partner by communicating often and honestly.

Get Support To Come Back Together

If you’re thinking about taking a break in a relationship (or you already have), don’t overlook the value of couples therapy as part of this process.

Whether you need support when coming back together after a break or want help outlining the rules of the break itself, a couples therapist can help you navigate these challenging times for your relationship.
Contact Couples Learn today to get started and learn more about our online couples therapy services.

A couple cuddles together while sitting outside
Living With a Spouse with Mental Illness

Living With a Spouse with Mental Illness

When you get married, you agree to stick by your partner for better or for worse. But as life goes on and marriage evolves, there will be times when keeping this vow feels harder than others. Living with a spouse with mental illness could be one of those times.

Mental illness affects millions of adults every year around the world. In 2019, the World Health Organization found that 970 million people were living with a mental health disorder. But while these issues may be common, it doesn’t mean they’re easy to navigate as a married couple.

Studies have shown that people who suffer from mental illness have a higher divorce rate. A study from 2011 saw that rate increase between 20-80 percent compared to couples without mental health challenges.

If you’re living with a spouse with mental illness – or even just suspect your spouse may need mental health services – this post is for you.

Keep reading to learn more about when to seek help. You’ll also learn how mental health affects relationships, and how to support your partner.

How to Know if Your Partner Is Struggling With Their Mental Health

Mental health and relationships are not always black and white. Is your partner just going through a tough time with their career or adjusting to your growing family? Or, are they clinically depressed? Are they worried about finances or are they struggling with undiagnosed anxiety?

It’s best to encourage your spouse to seek professional help. But there are some signs you can look for when determining if you’re living with a spouse with mental illness.

Common Signs of Mental Illness

Common symptoms of mental health challenges like anxiety and depression include:

  • Loss of energy
  • Feeling tired more than usual
  • Loss of appetite or weight changes
  • Arguing often, being irritable
  • Sad or anxious most of the time
  • Hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Not remembering things
  • Not sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Thoughts of suicide

It’s not difficult to see why these symptoms could affect a relationship. But how experiencing mental illness in relationships has an impact can vary significantly.

A sad woman sits on a bed worrying about having a spouse with mental illness

How Mental Illness Affects a Relationship

When one partner is unwell – and especially if that partner refuses to seek help – it can put a huge strain on the relationship and the higher-functioning partner.

Some of the most common ways that a spouse with mental illness may impact your relationship include:

You Carry Your Partner’s Pain

If your partner is open to talking with you about their challenges, you may be asked to listen to the same problems repeatedly. This can make you feel like your partner’s pain is your own and may make you more involved in their problems than you’d like to be.

This can be especially frustrating if your partner discusses their problems with you but refuses to take steps to change or seek professional help.

Balance is Lost

When one person is struggling, the higher-functioning partner is often forced to take on more of the household and childcare duties. The mentally ill partner doesn’t have enough energy, resilience, organization or frustration tolerance to do these things.

Even if you want to support your partner and understand that they need extra help, resentment can build if the household remains unbalanced over time.

Conflicts Are Difficult

Conflict can be challenging for any married couple to navigate, but problems can quickly escalate when you have a spouse with mental illness. 

The higher-functioning partner often has to deal with unreasonable outbursts in conflict because the mentally ill partner is too mentally and emotionally taxed to think clearly or control their emotions. As a result, their capacity for empathy is greatly diminished. 

You Might Feel Hopeless

From carrying the household burden to dealing with emotional outbursts, having a partner with mental illness can leave the higher-functioning partner feeling very lonely, frustrated and hopeless.

You might even wonder if you should leave the relationship but worry about abandoning your partner in a time of need.

A couple snuggles on a couch looking sad

How to Help a Spouse with Mental Illness

If you’re living with a partner with mental health issues, it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing you can do to help. You might also be feeling burnt out, emotionally exhausted and ready to throw in the towel.

But if you want to try supporting your partner – and your marriage – these tips can help.

Encourage them to seek help.

If you have a spouse with mental illness who has not received professional help, or who hasn’t gotten professional help in a long time, encourage them to find a therapist or other mental health professional. While you can be a listening ear and lend vital support, you cannot be their therapist.

Attend therapy with them.

If your partner is hesitant to try therapy on their own, ask if they would be interested in a couples therapy session (if you’re open to it too). Couples therapy can help you navigate how mental illness affects your marriage. Couples therapy can also help open the door to therapy for your partner.

Understand their diagnosis.

Does your spouse has a specific mental health diagnosis? Then take some time to talk with them about it or read up about it online. Understanding their diagnosis can help you better understand what your partner might need from you. It can also help you look at their challenges with a new perspective.

This understanding won’t magically make the effect on your marriage go away. But it might help you feel better about the situation.

Focus on self care.

One of the best ways to help your partner is by helping yourself. When you’re dealing with added conflict, an imbalance in household duties or just the stress of worrying about your partner, self-care is critical.

Make time for yourself and for things that you enjoy. Go out with friends, head to the spa or simply find some quiet time to sit and read a favorite book. Whatever is going to fill your cup and help you destress will be helpful.

Set boundaries with your partner.

Dealing with mental illness in marriage is not easy. And if your partner leans on you for support but doesn’t seek help to make a change, you may need to start setting boundaries. Many partners feel a lot of guilt over boundary setting with a mentally ill spouse, but you have to ensure you are caring for yourself as well as your partner.

Are you feeling burdened by constant discussion of their mental health challenges? Let them know! If they’re texting you at work about a problem, for example, set a boundary that you’d like to have these discussions after you leave the office. 

If you’ve been carrying the bulk of the household responsibilities, set a boundary that you need one night each week (or more) to get out of the house and not be in charge of dinner, bedtime or clean-up.  

Is it OK to walk away from someone with mental illness?

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to help your partner, it’s just not enough to save the relationship. If your partner refuses to get help and their mental illness continues to negatively affect your relationship and your own well-being, it is ok to walk away.

Higher-functioning partners often feel extremely guilty for even considering walking away from their mentally ill spouse. It can feel like you’re abandoning them right when they need you most.

But it’s OK to prioritize yourself in a relationship. And if you have children who are being affected by a spouse with mental illness, then you need to consider their well-being too.

A couple holds hands after dealing with one spouse with a mental illness

Can a relationship survive mental illness?

Here’s some good news: while the numbers aren’t exactly rosy when it comes to mental illness and failed relationships, it is totally possible for a relationship to survive mental health challenges.

The key to improving your odds of making it through is seeking professional help. And you can do that either as an individual or as a couple. Supporting a spouse with mental illness is tough. Working with a therapist can make it easier for everyone.

An individual therapist can help your spouse with their specific mental health challenges, or could even give you the support you need while caring for your partner. Working with an online couples therapist can help you address the ways in which mental illness is affecting your marriage. A therapist can also help come up with solutions that support both of you in your relationship.

If you’re looking for help for your relationship, contact Couples Learn today to learn more and book your free consultation. We can help you determine if individual or couples therapy is right for you. We can also talk you through the costs of therapy and any questions you have.

Can You Change Your Attachment Style? A Couples Therapist Explains

Can You Change Your Attachment Style? A Couples Therapist Explains

Are you struggling with an insecure attachment style? Maybe you always seem to choose the wrong partner, or struggle to navigate conflicts in relationships. Maybe you have issues with trust and fidelity. Either way, you may have found yourself wondering, “Can you change your attachment style?”

At Couples Learn we get this question a lot. Many of our clients experience the impact of childhood hurts on their adult relationships. Many are also just coming to terms with the fact that their attachment style plays a significant role in the way they think and behave in relationships. 

If you’re finding it difficult to overcome the impact of your attachment style, you’re not alone. But can attachment style change over time? And if so, what can you do to change your attachment style to secure? 

Keep reading for our therapists’ best tips.

What is Attachment Style?

Before we start thinking about changing attachment style, it’s important to understand what attachment style is and how it impacts the way we function in relationships.

The history of attachment styles dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed what is now known as Attachment Theory. This theory identified different styles of attachment, which were based on our childhood relationships – particularly relationships developed with caregivers.

According to Attachment Theory, the way you were cared for as a child plays a significant role in your adult relationships.

A mother and child hug and smile together

Types of Attachment Styles

Bowlby and Ainsworth developed 4 styles of attachment as part of their theory:

  • Secure attachment
  • Anxious attachment
  • Avoidant attachment
  • Fearful-avoidant attachment

Later, another psychologist, Dr. Stan Tatkin, described attachment styles slightly differently. Dr. Tatkin identified three primary attachment styles that roughly align with Bowlby and Ainsworth’s four. It’s these Tatkin attachment styles we’ll be referencing in today’s post:

  • The Anchor (secure)
  • The Island (avoidant)
  • The Wave (anxious)

If you want to know how to change attachment styles, it’s important to first understand the different attachment styles and how they impact your adult life. Not sure what kind of attachment style you have? Take our attachment style quiz!

The Anchor: Secure Attachment

If you have a secure attachment style, you were likely raised by at least one parent who made your needs a priority. You were probably encouraged to be independent as a child but still knew your parents or caregivers were a safe place to seek help or comfort. You probably grew up to be a well-adjusted adult who tends to be good at building and maintaining relationships – both with friends and romantic partners. 

The Island: Avoidant Attachment

If you have an avoidant attachment style, your parents may have stressed performance and appearance. They likely encouraged independence to the extreme, discouraging any dependency on their support. You might not have felt comfortable expressing negative emotions to your parents for fear of punishment. As an adult, you likely need a lot of space in relationships in order to not feel trapped or controlled.

The Wave: Anxious Attachment

If you’re an adult with anxious attachment, you probably had parents who were inconsistent with their care and support. Children of addicts or mentally ill parents often develop anxious attachment, but it can also be the result of experiencing divorced parents or narcissistic parents as a child. As an adult, you probably spend a lot of time worrying about your relationship, require frequent validation and may seem needy.

Can Attachment Style Change Over Time?

So, does attachment style change? The short answer is yes! 

Think of it this way: you were not born anxious or avoidant in relationships. Those tendencies changed over time due to the people and experiences in your childhood. Similarly, you can change your attachment style again as an adult, based on individual healing work you do and the people and experiences in your life.

Research on attachment styles backs this up. According to one study, attachment anxiety declined on average with age, particularly during middle age and adulthood. Attachment avoidance also decreased with age. Even more interesting, being in a relationship predicted lower levels of anxiety and avoidance throughout adulthood.

Put simply, it is possible to change attachment style as an adult. And the people and relationships we have in our adult lives can impact our attachment style much like our childhood relationships impacted its development.

A couple argues about how to change attachment style

Can Trauma Change Your Attachment Style?

It is widely accepted in the psychology field that childhood trauma can impact our lives, and especially our relationships, as adults. But even trauma experienced as an adult can impact your attachment style. 

Being in a relationship with someone with an anxious or avoidant attachment style, for example, could potentially impact your own attachment style. If you have an anxious attachment style, being with a partner who has an avoidant attachment style might actually make your anxious attachment style even worse and vice versa. 

However, being with someone who has a secure attachment style can help someone with an insecure attachment style heal and become more securely attached. If you experience relationship trauma, such as infidelity, the death of a partner or a narcissistic partner, you might also see shifts in your attachment style.

Can Therapy Change Your Attachment Style?

Therapy can definitely help if you want to change attachment style as an adult. Therapy can help you identify, understand and heal from the childhood experiences that shaped your attachment style in the first place. Working with an attachment-informed therapist can also help you work through current relationship challenges as an individual or a couple. 

A big part of changing your attachment style is learning what secure attachment looks like and how securely functioning couples treat each other. Once you understand what is healthy and what is not healthy in a relationship, you can start working towards a more secure attachment style.

How to Change Your Attachment Style

If you’ve read this far, then you probably already have a good idea what attachment style you have. While you may not be happy with your style of attachment, this is actually good news, because acknowledging and understanding your attachment is the first step toward changing attachment style.

So what comes next? It doesn’t matter if you’re living with an anxious or avoidant attachment style, how to change it comes down to seeking help from a professional therapist.

There are many ways therapy can help you learn how to change your attachment style to secure. At Couples Learn, our therapists use attachment-focused EMDR online therapy to help clients get to secure attachment.

A couple argues and yells against a white wall

EMDR Therapy for Attachment Issues

One of the best types of individual therapy for changing your attachment style is Attachment-Focused EMDR. In this type of therapy, you will identify and reprocess the core memories that helped create your insecure attachment style. Through this, you can start feeling more safe, secure and healthy in relationships.

During trauma, our brain processes and stores memories incorrectly, which can make memories of traumatic experiences feel emotionally charged. To heal, we have to help the brain re-process these experiences so they lose their emotional charge and have less of an impact on our present day lives.

EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is a method proven to be effective for patients who have experienced trauma. Traditional EMDR therapy is especially effective for one-time big T traumas like a car accident or an assault. However, it’s less effective for small t traumas which are relational traumas that happen repeatedly over time. 

Examples of this are the emotional injuries that come from having a narcissistic parent or partner, being raised by someone with addiction issues, or experiencing racism, homophobia, and bullying. These traumas take longer to heal and require a slightly different approach than the Big T traumas. 

Big T vs Little T trauma graphic

How Attachment-Focused EMDR Helps

Attachment-Focused EMDR focuses on healing the attachment deficits that occured from the mis-attuned or traumatic experiences you had during childhood and sometimes even in your adult life. 

In attachment focused EMDR sessions, your therapist will incorporate additional talk therapy into traditional EMDR sessions. This will help you address the impact of those negative attachment  experiences on your brain, body and attachment style. 

You will learn to recognize what healthy attachment looks and feels like and what deficits were present in your early attachment experiences. And you will reprocess memories of experiences where relationships felt unsafe or unsupportive.

An attachment-informed therapist can also work with you to better understand your attachment style and develop new ways of communicating in relationships. This work might include:

  • Exploring your attachment style in-depth and learn more about how it impacts your relationships
  • Uncovering how your childhood influences your attachment style, how you show up in relationships and the types of people you’re attracted to
  • Learning how a secure functioning relationship should look and feel and how to engage in secure attachment behaviors
  • Learning how to communicate more openly, assertively and non-defensively in relationships
  • Communicating your needs in a healthy way even during conflict
  • Learning what boundaries are, how to identify them for yourself and how to express them without offending or alienating others.
  • Exploring ways to build trust, intimacy and emotional safety – first with yourself and then with others
A couple smiles and laughs together after the learned how to change attachment style

How Long Does It Take to Change Your Attachment Style?

The path to changing attachment style is not a short one. After all, it took your entire childhood to develop your current attachment style. Similarly, learning how to change attachment style can be a long process – and it’s certainly not a straight path. 

Timeframes for treatment vary widely. Healing will depend on how much trauma you experienced as a child, how much insight and awareness you already have, and your ability to feel and tolerate big emotions without feeling too overwhelmed. That said, most people will feel complete with their work after 1-2 years of weekly therapy to change your attachment style.

Even after therapy, you will likely need to work to understand and adjust your behaviors in relationships throughout your lifetime. This is because new experiences, people and events impact your attachment style. The work you do with an attachment-based therapist will make navigating these changes easier over time.

Ready to Change Attachment Styles?

If you’re ready to learn more about how your attachment style impacts your relationships and work toward changing your attachment style, contact Couples Learn today. We can connect you with one of our attachment-focused therapists online or in person.

Or, if you’re eager to start changing your attachment style as quickly as possible, check out our attachment-focused course, “Getting to Secure Attachment.”

Through this course, you’ll gain more understanding of your attachment style and a partner’s attachment style. And you’ll also gain the knowledge and skills you need to start changing your attachment style.

An Expert Guide to Healing from Trauma

An Expert Guide to Healing from Trauma

Even though it’s only five letters, trauma is a very big word. That’s because there are many different types of trauma that you can experience and the effects of trauma can last a lifetime. Trauma is something that can occur regardless of your gender, age, race, ethnicity, or social status, and healing from trauma isn’t the same from person to person.

In other words, if you are reading this, it’s possible that you have experienced some type of trauma in your life. Healing from trauma is a complicated process, but the first step in healing is recognizing that you need help.

Many trauma survivors are unaware that they have experienced a traumatic event. This is because as humans, we have a tendency to downplay the hard things that happen to us. It’s also because dysfunctional family systems are set up to downplay and normalize bad behavior, which leads to people in those families being unaware of how damaging some of the things that happen are. 

You may need to heal from trauma if something has happened to you and you just can’t stop thinking about it, or if you are having nightmares about an event that you try not to think about. You also may need to heal from trauma if you consistently have challenging relationships, whether they be romantic, family, friendships, or work relationships. 

If you have experienced any type of trauma, it is likely to affect all areas of your life, including your close relationships. Fortunately, therapy for trauma is very effective, and can help you uncover light in an otherwise dark situation.     

Keep reading to learn more about what trauma is, the stages of healing from trauma and how online therapy for trauma can help.

Healing from Trauma: Understanding What Trauma Is

Before we talk more about how to heal from trauma, let’s take a look at what trauma really is.

Trauma is defined as a person’s response to an incredibly stressful event. The stressful event could be life threatening, or the person could simply feel that his or her safety was at risk. The actual severity of the event is less important than how the person experienced it.

When trauma happens in childhood, it can affect you even more severely because it happens while you are developing your sense of self. This means that your ability to keep yourself safe isn’t fully developed yet, which can make healing from childhood trauma that much more complicated.  

Big “T” Trauma vs Little “t” Trauma

When it comes to trauma, there are two main types: big “T” trauma and little “t” trauma.

For many of us, it’s the big “T” trauma that we think of when we think about trauma in the first place. Some examples of events that can cause big T trauma include rape, accidents, natural disasters, and unexpected losses. 

But while big “T” trauma may get more attention, it’s little “t” trauma that is actually the most common. Little “t” traumas are often just as impactful as big “T” traumas and can be especially difficult to manage in relationships. Emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, racism, homophobia and bullying are all examples of little “t” trauma.

Many people who have experienced these may not realize just how much their past traumas are impacting them. It may seem like nothing “bad enough” happened to impact their lives or relationships in adulthood. But when little “t” traumas happen repeatedly throughout childhood, they can lead to Complex PTSD. 

Types Of Trauma

There are three major types of trauma that psychologists study:

  • Acute Trauma – Occurs after a single event
  • Chronic Trauma – Is repeated and prolonged (think domestic violence)
  • Complex Trauma – Exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events

Although all types of trauma can affect relationships, childhood trauma, which is often chronic or complex, tends to get played out in the conflicts that you and your partner experience. Let’s look a little closer at how childhood trauma affects your relationship with your partner, and how you can heal from it.

A couple sits on a couch and fights about healing from trauma

How Trauma Affects Relationships

The hardships you experience as a child can impact almost every facet of your adult life, from the way you feel and behave in relationships to the way you manage your finances, choose to take risks (or avoid them) and the way you interact with your children.

Let’s say you were abandoned or neglected by one or both of your parents when you were a child. This could lead you to feel worthless and unlovable because kids tend to blame themselves for the mistakes that their parents make. Now, let’s fast forward 20-30 years, and say that you are married to a man who has to travel for work. 

Every time your partner is getting ready to leave for another trip, you find yourself starting an argument with him, but you can’t figure out why. You don’t even realize you are doing it until after he’s left and you just feel awful. 

What could be going on here?

Basically, your childhood trauma is affecting your current relationship. You were left when you were a child, and when your husband leaves, your old feelings of abandonment become activated. Although this is very unpleasant to experience, it’s actually happening to give you a chance to heal from your childhood trauma.

You see, your unconscious mind really wants you to heal from what happened to you as a child. That’s why it is bringing up these feelings; to give you a chance to correct what happened to you when you were little.

Healing From Trauma And Relationship Conflict

Healing from trauma and relationship conflict is messy because most of the conflicts that you are having with your partner aren’t really about what they seem to be about. You think that you are fighting about who forgot to start the dishwasher, but that’s actually code for “You don’t care about me.” This is where working with a qualified relationship trauma therapist can be really helpful, because we can help you decipher what’s truly going on.  

Stages of Healing from Trauma

So, how do you know that you are healing from trauma? What might healing from trauma actually look like?

As you might have expected, healing from trauma happens in stages, and like any healing process these stages are not necessarily in order. In fact, you might even skip some of the stages entirely. 

Sometimes you can think that you have worked through a particular stage of healing, only to find that an anniversary or other triggering event brings you back to where you were before. I like to tell my clients that healing isn’t a straight line, but instead it’s more like a sphere. You may feel like you are going around in circles, but you are actually still making progress.

The stages of healing from trauma are very similar to the stages of healing from grief. These stages include:

Denial

Immediately after a trauma occurs, your mind and your body go into shock. You lose your sense of feeling, and you feel numb to what has occurred. If someone were to ask you about your traumatic experience, you would not be able to describe how you felt about it. You might say it was no big deal or just be unable to connect to the feelings associated with it.

Anger

Once feeling returns to your body and your mind, the first thing that you will probably feel about what happened to you is anger. Anger is one of the easiest emotions for us to feel because it doesn’t make us feel as vulnerable as other emotions, like sadness or hurt. 

During the anger phase, you want to lash out and you might have a hard time controlling your impulses. You might have fights with friends, family and partners during this time and feel irritable for no reason. Many people resort to drugs, food, sex, or other numbing activities during this phase but this only delays your healing.

Bargaining

During the bargaining phase of healing from trauma, you try to find a way out of the recovery process. Sometimes, this involves promising God that you will (insert perfect behavior here) if he will just make the pain go away. 

Other times, bargaining can be closely related to guilt, in that you might start finding ways to blame yourself for what happened. “If only I had done my homework, my father wouldn’t have left.” Either way, bargaining is a way to stall feeling your very painful feelings about your trauma.

Sadness

Once you have progressed past anger and bargaining, you will likely feel sadness or depression. During this phase, you might find it hard to get out of bed, or take care of your basic needs. Friends and family might express concern for you at this time, because unlike in the anger phase, you may isolate yourself from others. 

Acceptance

During the acceptance phase of healing, you begin to feel that you are going to be okay again. You still won’t like what happened to you, but you will start to see it from a new perspective. 

One of the signs you are healing from trauma could include feeling like a stronger person because of what you’ve been through. Going to therapy for trauma can help you come to these new understandings.

A man sits on the edge of a bed with his head in his hands while working to heal from trauma

What to Do if Your Partner is Healing From Trauma

If your partner is healing from trauma, whether it be past relationship trauma, childhood trauma, or healing from a traumatic event, there are some things that you can do to support them.

First, it’s important that you believe what your partner is telling you. Research has consistently shown that recovery is much easier for trauma survivors who are believed, than for those who are not. Whether you are the first person that your partner has told, or whether they have talked about their trauma for years, it’s very important that you believe what they are saying.

When you are listening to your partner talk about trauma, never blame them for what happened or try to defend the person who hurt them. We call this “blaming the victim,” and it’s never helpful. Instead, try to be patient, empathetic, and understanding. Realize that your partner went through something awful, and focus on validating their emotions.

Try not to take it personally if they become upset by something triggering. They don’t want to be upset any more than you want them to be upset. Often, triggers bring back the same physical sensations and emotions we had during a traumatic experience which can be very scary and disorienting for your traumatized partner.

In those moments, do what you can to help them soothe their nervous system by offering a long hug or helping them take deep breaths or suggesting a timeout from the triggering event if possible.

Online Therapy for Trauma

Online therapy for trauma recovery is a wonderful option to help you heal from trauma. Just like there are different types of trauma, there are different types of therapy for trauma too. Some of the common types include:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a behavior therapy. Therapists work with their patients to identify negative behaviors and ways of thinking that are impacting their lives, and seek to replace negative behaviors with positive ones.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

Cognitive processing therapy teaches patients new, positive ways to address beliefs and emotions shaped by traumatic experiences. This practice can help patients identify limiting beliefs and beliefs about relationships that have been impacted by their trauma.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR therapy has patients focus on their trauma while using bilateral stimulation of the brain through tapping opposite sides of the body alternately. The bilateral stimulation helps to reduce the emotional reaction to past traumas, allowing the brain to reprocess trauma with more positive and accepting beliefs. This type of trauma therapy can even be done virtually and has been proven by research to be the most efficient way to treat trauma.

No matter what kind of therapy you choose, working with a trauma-informed therapist can help ensure you get the expert support you need to finally heal from trauma.

A woman works with a trauma-informed therapist on the computer to heal from trauma

How Long Does It Take to Heal from Trauma?

Like a lot of things when it comes to our mental health, healing from trauma isn’t always a straight path. You might feel like you have moved past your trauma, only to be thrown right back into it by the anniversary of a traumatic event, a similar experience or even a specific conflict in your relationship.

If you’ve been struggling to heal from trauma for a long time, the path to healing may be long as well. Recovering from emotional trauma in your childhood, for example, often takes more therapy to uncover, identify and re-process the related negative behaviors and ways of thinking.

Trauma is a complex issue, but there is hope! Both you, and your relationship can heal from trauma, and maybe even come out stronger for it.

If you’re ready to start healing from trauma and want to better understand how your trauma – or your partner’s trauma – is affecting your current relationship, then contact Couples Learn today.

Our trauma-informed therapists offer online therapy for individuals and couples, including online EMDR therapy. Virtual therapy is a great way to work on healing your trauma, yourself and your relationship.

Contact us to book a 30-minute consultation and get started today.

Navigating Different Values in A Relationship

Navigating Different Values in A Relationship

Between contentious political elections, a global pandemic, major Supreme Court decisions and evolving social justice issues…there’s a lot to disagree on these days. If the last few years have brought to light different values in a relationship, you’re not alone.

It’s hard enough when you don’t agree with your partner on where to go out to dinner or how to spend your money. But what do you do when you’re married to or dating someone with different values?

Whether you have different religious, political or moral views than your partner, it can be a point of major conflict. So can a relationship work if you have different values? (Short answer: yes. If both parties are willing to communicate, listen and work together.)

Keep reading to learn what to do when values conflict.

Can a relationship work if you have different values?

When you and your partner disagree on a big life decision or a core value, it can feel like your relationship is doomed. But it is possible to have a happy, loving relationship even if you do have some different views.

Like anything in relationships, however, the success of your partnership will depend on how you handle a difference in opinion.

The first thing to consider is why having different values in a relationship is causing conflict for you and your partner. 

Are you disagreeing on political or religious views and simply want the other person to agree? Or do you have different viewpoints on a deeply personal subject such as abortion or LGBTQ rights? 

In other words, is there an opportunity to “agree to disagree,” or are you disagreeing on something that significantly impacts the way you want to live your life (and who you want to live it with)?

There are many couples who experience different values in a relationship. Once you get clear on why this difference of opinion is causing conflict, it becomes easier to discuss and (hopefully) solve the problem.

How do you handle different values in a relationship?

Managing different values in a relationship all comes down to communication. There are plenty of long-lasting couples with different political views or couples with different religious beliefs. 

If you can communicate – and disagree – respectfully, you can give your relationship a fighting chance to make it through.

Communicate your point of view – and listen to theirs.

The first step toward discussing important values in relationships is to have an actual conversation. This doesn’t mean having yet another yelling match after watching the news. It means sitting down, sharing your perspective and genuinely trying to understand your partner’s point of view.

Try to get to the heart of why your partner’s point of view makes sense to them. Remember, we all have different worldviews shaped by how we grew up, the influences we have as children and adults, our education and past experiences. 

Childhood affects adult relationships in so many ways! Just because someone has different values from you, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are wrong (and vice versa).

A couple yells at each other in a kitchen about having different values in a relationship

Learn to fight fairly

Having different values in a relationship isn’t easy. And discussing those views is bound to bring up conflict (that is why you’re reading this, right?!). So it’s important that you learn to fight fairly – even when you’re really fired up.

Fighting can even help you feel more connected to your partner if you do it well because it can help each person feel heard. While you may never come to a compromise or see eye to eye on your political, religious or moral disagreements, you can ensure that the fights themselves aren’t what leads to the end of your relationship.

Some simple tips to fight fairly include:

  • Pause: If you can feel your blood boiling, it’s best to take a break and take a few breaths before continuing your conversation. Communicate with your partner that you need a few minutes (or longer) to cool off and make a plan to continue the conversation at a certain time.
  • Focus on the issue at hand: Try to avoid letting a fight about one issue spiral into a blow-up about every conflict you’ve ever had. It’s easier said than done but it won’t help either of you to bring up past hurts that aren’t involved in your disagreement.
  • Don’t speak in absolutes: It’s unlikely your partner “always” tries to argue with you or “never” tries to see your point of view. Try not to use that kind of language, and remind your partner to avoid it as well.
  • Speak in “I” phrases: The easiest way to avoid accusations and placing blame is by focusing on how you feel. Instead of “you always bring this up” try “I feel like we end up discussing this a lot.”
  • Be kind: You may never agree with your partner’s point of view. But having different values in a relationship is not an excuse for name-calling or mistreatment. Speak kindly to each other, even when fighting.

Determine your deal breakers

So far we’ve been looking for ways to discuss and come to terms with different values in a relationship. But there may be times when this just isn’t possible. Some important values in a relationship are so important they will make or break the partnership.

The key here is to determine what your deal breakers are. For example, you might be OK disagreeing about which political candidate to vote for (even if it does lead to impassioned arguments). You may not be OK, however, being with someone who disagrees on a social issue that impacts your life, such as abortion or LGBTQ rights.

The sooner you can decide what core values in a relationship you want to share with your partner, the sooner you can figure out your next steps.

A couple sits along a river and talks about their different values in relationships

How do I talk to my partner about values?

If you’ve been with your partner for more than a few weeks, chances are you may have already had a few discussions about your beliefs, views and values. But if it hasn’t come up – or if you’ve been avoiding these talks altogether – then there’s no time like the present to start a conversation.

It may not be easy to talk about potentially contentious topics, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to do it when you’re dating someone with different values than when you’re married or having kids with them!

So, how can you start a conversation? The best place to start is by listing out your deal breakers, values and big life decisions that you have strong opinions about.

Some common ones include:

  • Politics 
  • Religion
  • Morals
  • Kids (to have or not to have, that is the question!)
  • How to raise kids
  • Where you want to live
  • How you handle money
  • Careers

Remember to talk respectfully about these topics, and to do your best to truly listen and understand where your partner is coming from. This doesn’t mean you need to change your mind, but it does mean at least trying to see things from your partner’s perspective.

If you’re preparing for marriage, an online premarital counselor can help you and your partner talk through these important discussions before the big day and build key communication skills for future conflicts.

Need more help managing different values in a relationship?

If you’re in a relationship with different values, you may be conflicted about whether to stick it out or cut and run. If you’ve tried to work it out on your own and are still struggling, it may be time to call in a professional.

An online couples therapist can help you and your partner discuss your differences more effectively, and can help you each identify how your childhood, past experiences and worldviews impact your values. A therapist can also help you work together to determine if you want to stay in your relationship, or if your difference in values is enough to call it quits. 

Whatever you decide, working with a couples therapist can help you and your partner navigate your emotions about the situation. If you’re ready to get help with different values in a relationship, contact Couples Learn to explore our online couples therapy services or book a free 30-minute consultation to get started.

Want to read more about this subject? Check out Couples Learn founder Dr. Sarah Schewitz featured in a recent Washington Post article.