What’s Love Got to Do with It? The challenging nature of intimacy after trauma

Many people who reach out to me wanting to do trauma therapy do so because a partner is urging them to, their relationship is falling apart, intimacy is triggering, or feeling connected to others feels inexplicably difficult. Let’s explore why relationships can feel so challenging for people who have experienced sexual assault or other forms of trauma.

Trauma is relational

Trauma takes place in the context of relationships. With the exception of accidents only involving ourselves, bad experiences are typically bad because someone did something to harm us (intentional or not) or because we lost someone important to us. When someone hurts us, our brain has a couple of choices in how to make sense of what happened:

  1. They hurt me because I am bad.
  2. They hurt me because they are bad.
  3. They hurt me and it was an accident. The world is a dangerous and scary place and I can be hurt at any moment.

Now let’s see how the brain can bring each of these beliefs into future relationships:

They hurt me because I am bad. If you are bad then you are probably not worthy of love. When your partner(s) say/s they love you, your brain says… “well, I am not loveable so obviously they are lying to me! And if they are lying to me, I can’t trust them!”

They hurt me because they are bad. If people are inherently bad then you can’t trust them. Your brain says, “I can’t get too close to anyone or I will get hurt again!”

The world is a dangerous and scary place. If you could be hurt at any moment then you need to be hyper-alert to any threats to your safety all the time. It’s impossible for our brains to be alert to threat and also capable of intimacy simultaneously. Your partner leans into kiss you and your brain says, “Don’t let down your guard! Something bad might happen!”

Starting to see how this can get complicated pretty fast in the context of an intimate relationship? You’re not alone! For many people who have been hurt, the very nature of a present-day relationship can become a trigger reminding us of what happened in the past. This is your brain working to keep you safe.

Relationships are hard

Everyone struggles within relationships because they are hard! We are each unique with different likes, dislikes, belief systems, backgrounds, etc. Coming together with others and trying to make one, coherent “whole” relationship is incredibly difficult. What do you do when you hate being outside but your partner loves to hike and wants to share that with you? You love hamburgers and they are vegan. Your best friend is your cat, Bitsy, and your partners are allergic to cats. So many little and big issues to navigate!

And feeling pressured to share our inner world with them can stir up a lot of feelings. Relationship dynamics contain themes that remind us of past traumas. It can bring up stuff for us like

Power dynamics (feelings of being in control or out of control)
Body image
Safety (physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological)
Loss/Fear of loss

Sex is scary

For those who have experienced sexual assault and rape, there is nothing more triggering than physical intimacy. Even if you aren’t having sex in a loving relationship with someone, you may feel a “threat” looming that at some point you will have to sexually engage with them in order to stay in the relationship (to make them happy, because you are “supposed to”, they might leave you). Any trigger this big is enough to make anyone panic.

For those who have experienced physical or emotional abuse sex can be triggering as well because of the inherent feelings of vulnerability, fears about attractiveness (i.e. a sense of “worthiness” or being “good enough”), fears about feeling intense sensations in the body, or what it would mean to become “attached” to someone.   

What to do about it

So you’re struggling in relationship and you might have a better sense now of why but what do you do about it? I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear me say: heal from your past bad experiences. Find a professional trauma therapist (I know of a good one in Boston! J) and talk with them about doing some work with EMDR, Progressive Counting, or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Your struggle in relationship may be due to relationships just being hard (all of them are!) or it may also be due to past traumas. Please don’t tell yourself to “just stop it” when it comes to unhealthy relationship dynamics and give your brain a little break – it’s really trying to help you survive. Ultimately what your brain (and relationships) really need is healing from the past.