Relationships are, without a doubt, one of the most incredible aspects of the human experience. Specifically, because we are capable of witnessing our love for someone grow more than we ever thought it could as we get to know them on an increasingly deeper level. But the reality is, no matter how many epic conversations you’ve had into the wee hours of the morning, or how many times you’ve traded secrets in the dark, there are often still things to be learned about your significant other. And if your partner is hiding a past trauma from you, that can definitely have an impact on your bond.
Perhaps a particular kind of conversation seems to trigger a very sudden, strong emotional reaction from your partner, and you’re wondering if it’s related to a deeper issue. Perhaps they’ve made vague references to an event or relationship from their past that seems to haunt them. Or perhaps you just get this inexplicable feeling that they’re hiding something about a previous experience. Regardless of what’s tipping you off, experts say there are indeed signs that your partner is hiding a past trauma.
According to licensed clinical social worker Melanie Shapiro, some of the most common signs include hypervigilance, avoidance of certain people and places, and being numb to feelings.
Hypervigilance is a psychological term for being in a nearly constant state of high alertness and is closely associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Those who have experienced trauma are continually on the lookout for any potential threat so as to protect themselves from danger. According to The Depression Alliance, some of the physical symptoms of hypervigilance include elevated blood pressure and rapid heartbeat, shallow and fast breathing, and/or hyperventilation. The emotional symptoms include consistent worrying and feelings of panic, along with anxiety. Mental symptoms include paranoia and lack of sleep, and behavioral symptoms include misinterpretations of innocent remarks, a hostile defensiveness, and jumpy reactions when confronted with a perceived threat. If your partner exhibits some of these symptoms, it’s possible that they’re experiencing PTSD.
Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, says to keep a lookout for dramatic or extreme reactions in benign situations. For example, if they become highly anxious during a conflict, they may have been verbally abused by a parent or previous partner. If they were sexually abused, they may become visibly upset or shut down at any mention of physical intimacy. Or, if they become hysterical or panicked at the sound of a gunshot, they may be experiencing PTSD from military combat.
“Any time your partner has a response to a situation that is greater than would be expected, or in some cases is far below the level of emotional response that would be expected, they may be protecting themselves from the memories of a trauma,” explains Dr. Klapow.
Your significant other’s “attachment style” can also point to a potential past relationship trauma, according to Shapiro, who points to anxious, avoidant, and disorganized styles as problematic.
During the 1950s, psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed the theory of attachment while studying infant-mother relationships. The attachment styles that resulted from his research describe how we behave and interact in relationships, especially in regards to getting our needs met.
According to Psychology Today contributor Dr. Lisa Firestone, those with anxious attachment styles tend to have an intense emotional hunger, exhibit signs of insecurity or possessiveness, and often cling to their partner because they’re seeking a sense of security and safety from them. Someone who has an avoidant attachment style (specifically, fearful avoidant) often switches between fearing distance and intimacy with their SO as they’re afraid of abandonment, and feeling trapped. They may be overwhelmed by their own emotional reactions and experience unpredictable moods.
Someone with a disorganized attachment style — which often results from the child being abused, feeling in danger around a parent or guardian, or not being able to rely on a parent for safety — may have trouble opening up to people, and they may struggle with regulating and controlling their emotions. They also may act out in aggressive ways and have a difficult time self-soothing. Given that childhood experiences strongly contribute to someone’s attachment style, if someone exhibits signs of any of these traits, they may have experienced trauma early in life.
“For some, it could be the divorce of parents at a young age, or the loss of a family pet as a child,” says Dr. Klapow. “It could be having an alcoholic parent, witnessing a car accident, being evicted, being fired or belittled by a supervisor, or physical assault. Traumas are anything that occurs outside the normal existence of the individual in which there is some sort of stress response. This is why a partner may not bring up a particular trauma to you in normal conversation, and why it may surface when you least expect it.”
If you suspect your partner is hiding a past trauma from you, Shapiro advises inquiring about it in a gentle, loving way, without forcing them to talk about it if they’re not prepared to yet. “Allowing someone to process past trauma on their own timeline is important,” she says. “If someone has experienced trauma in the past, feeling safe is priority, as is providing an empathic and non-judgmental environment for when they are ready to share.”
Dr. Klapow also recommends noting the responses or behavior you’ve noticed that suggest your partner is dealing with trauma when you bring it up. “Be prepared for them to deny any problem, shut down, or decide not to communicate,” he says. “Be supportive, respect their wishes but monitor their behavior. If the response happens repeatedly, then bring the topic back up again. This may take multiple attempts, because it may not be easy for them to communicate about it.”
According to Dr. Klapow, deciding the best way to help your partner work through this trauma requires evaluating to what extent it’s affecting their functioning (including their relationship with you, their ability to perform at their job, etc.). “Some people have resolved the trauma sufficiently and it has minimal impact on their current lives,” he adds. “If it is having a major impact, however, it’s important to support your partner and encourage them to talk to a professional. Emphasize that talking to a mental health professional is not so much to relive the trauma as it is to understand how it has impacted their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors over the years and how they can better manage their lives today given the impact of the trauma in the past.”
Shapiro adds that while it’s a good idea to encourage your partner to seek treatment, you should allow them to pursue help in whatever way feels right for them. “Some individuals like to process independently while others may want you to join them in therapy or support groups,” she adds. “Allowing the individual to choose how they receive the support they need is important.”
Most importantly, reiterate to your SO that there is hope for them to thrive despite their trauma. “There is a concept of post-traumatic growth in therapy where you can build resilience and make positive changes in the face of trauma,” explains Shapiro. “Post-traumatic growth can result in healthier functioning in life and in relationships in the future.”
Once you’ve confirmed that your partner has experienced a past trauma, you may feel confused, overwhelmed, or helpless. It’s important to know that you’re not alone in helping your significant other through this. The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health lists a number of resources for you to gain a better understanding of trauma and the effects it can have. The more you know about trauma and how it relates to your partner's fears and reactions, the more supportive you can be. Additionally, you can find educational programs for you or your significant other at your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI offers a Peer-to-Peer educational program as well as a Connection recovery support group. You can also contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
There are so many reasons why someone might be hesitant to share their trauma with you, whether it involves a sexual assault, domestic violence, a traumatic loss, a medical trauma, emotional abuse, or something else entirely. They may worry about how you will react or how you may perceive them differently once you learn about their traumatic experience. They may also fear reliving the traumatic experience in talking to you about it. By showing your partner patience, compassion, and understanding, you’ll be a better ally in helping them to heal.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.