Should you be in a relationship when you have unresolved trauma? Should you be in a relationship with someone who has unresolved trauma? Is it possible to have a healthy relationship when one or both people have unresolved trauma? Can you heal your past trauma while you’re in a relationship?
These are some critical questions, and cultivating a greater understanding of them can be crucial in deciding whether you heal from your traumatic past, or your core wounds deepen, in a relationship.
This article explores multiple factors that come into play when there’s past baggage in a relationship, and what you can do to support yourself, your partner, and your relationship.
Can Past Traumas Be Healed While In A Relationship?
If the question starts with “Can”, then the answer is, “Yes, absolutely, they can heal. Relationships are portals of healing!” However, if the question were to be “Will my past traumas heal in a relationship?”, then the answer is, “It’ll depend.” It’ll depend on how well you understand your trauma(s) and triggers, how well your partner understands them, how well you understand your partner, their history, & their trauma(s) and triggers, whether you both are able to see how your individual selves contribute to your relationship’s health, whether you’re both willing & ready to work through it together, and whether you have support systems outside of your relationship that you can lean on during tough moments.
Everyone Has Some Baggage
I’m yet to come across any human being who has zero baggage! Yes, some baggage may be heavier than others, but the fact is that each person has their own share of baggage whether in the form of visible, explicit traumatic events, or invisible absences in their life.
What does this tell us? The first thing it hints at is that every relationship will have some baggage (of varying degrees) brought into it by both parties involved.
The second important thing here is that for a healthy relationship, both partners need to work on their individual baggage while supporting each other in the best way they can.
Relationships Are Portals Of Healing
Trauma is created when there’s a disconnect in the relationship. More often than not this disconnect first occurs in a relationship with a primary caregiver(s), which leads us to disconnect with ourselves.
Thereafter, in every other relationship, we tend to repeat our relationship blueprints formed in childhood (usually between 0 – 7 years of age).
Healing is created when the connection is built in the relationship – both, with ourselves, and with the other(s).
Relationships – both, romantic & platonic – can be great platforms for us to work through our past traumatic/ unhealthy patterns. However, for this to happen the following factors need to be kept in mind:
Building awareness about the reality of this moment for me – am I happy with what is, am I struggling with what is, am I miserable with what is, am I helpless with what is? What is my truth at this moment?
This is the first step for anything to change – becoming aware of what’s happening within me, becoming aware that maybe there’s something else going on here that I’m not able to see clearly, and becoming aware of my thoughts, emotions, actions, and reactions.
Once you begin to start becoming aware, then, and only then, will you decide to step into doing the much-needed work – your inner work.
2. Doing Your Work
Understanding your patterns of thoughts, emotional spirals, & reactive actions, triggers, deep-seated narratives, dialogues of the (constant) critic within you pulling you down, the way you perceive the world, the way you perceive yourself – all of this (and more) is the start of your inner-work journey.
b. Communicating Needs & Boundaries:
As you get to know yourself more intimately, start standing up for yourself – explore your wants, needs, and desires – and communicate them to your partner. Relationships can be very nourishing if they help us meet our needs. But if we don’t know what we want/ need/ desire, we are likely to not have them met.
Similarly, explore your boundaries – things you’re not okay with, not comfortable with, things that trigger you – and communicate them too. Just like your wants, needs, & desires may not be met if not communicated, similarly your boundaries may not be respected if not clearly drawn.
c. Understanding Them:
Just like it’s important for you to share your needs & boundaries, it’s also important for you to understand your partner’s needs and boundaries.
It’s not always easy to understand other humans, especially, when their wants & needs are different from ours. No matter how similar you are to someone, no two people are exactly alike.
Thus, a part of your work, in a relationship, is to try and understand your partner, and then together work on meeting each other’s requests, to whatever extent possible.
3. Owning What’s Yours
Triggers are messy. They usually distort reality. This is because a trigger is a situation that throws you back in time when the traumatic event occurred – most of us aren’t aware that this is happening. Once back in time, you’re no more responding to the current situation, but reacting to a past event. Thus, it’s a distorted reality.
Since it’s messy, many a time it’s hard to be able to see that it’s not because of the other person, but because something in you is unresolved. It’s not because of you per se – it’s just that it’s unresolved, and you don’t yet have the capacity to resolve it.
It’s important to own what’s coming from your unresolved past, without (this is key) blaming yourself for it, or creating a forever-doomed scenario in your mind.
Every single aspect of who you are today is learned. This is good news because whatever is learned can be unlearnt.
4. Allowing Them To Own Theirs
On the other side of blaming the other is trying to fix the other, or blaming oneself for all the problems in the relationship. Remember, everyone has some baggage. You have yours, your partner (whether romantic or platonic) has theirs.
When we try to “fix it” for them, or take up all the blame, we unknowingly create three miseries at once.
One, we deepen our own core wounds instead of working towards healing them. Two, we deprive our partners of working on their healing since they don’t get a chance to look deeper within themselves. Three, this creates viscous toxic patterns in the relationship where one person lashes out & the other cowers.
A thumb rule to consider: Nothing between two people is possible without both of them contributing to it (of course, there are exceptions to it, for instance, explicit power dynamic differences – like between a parent and a child, or a teacher and a student; or other extenuating circumstances).
Primary Defense Mechanism
This quiz helps you understand how you typically respond to emotional overwhelm and stress by identifying your primary defense mechanism.
5. Mutual Agreements
If you want a relationship to be healthy, and nourishing for both parties, it’s crucial that both partners enter mutual agreements. What kind of mutual agreements?
How do you want this relationship to be? What will make this relationship nourishing for you? What about this relationship/ your partner’s behavior is not acceptable to you? How do you want to be treated in this relationship? How will you resolve conflict in the relationship? What works/ doesn’t work for you?
Both, you and your partner, might want to discuss responses to such questions, and then come up with a sense of mutual understanding, a.k.a., mutual agreements, around these questions that you both willingly commit to.
6. Regular Check-Ins
a. With Yourself:
We are always changing, and evolving, from one moment to the next, even if we can’t always see it. This means that my needs, wants, values, etc., continue to evolve as I continue to discover my inner world.
Thus, it’s a good practice to check in with yourself every now and then (weekly/ fortnightly) to see where you are, and what you need, and accordingly change what needs to be changed.
b. With The Other:
Just like you, your partner is constantly evolving too. And so it only makes sense to do regular check-ins with them too, to see if anything has shifted for them, and what their current wants & needs are.
c. Tweaking The Agreement:
As you and your partner evolve, your relationship evolves along with you. What your relationship needed from each of you last month, may not be true anymore this month.
Take time out on a monthly/ quarterly basis to check in on your mutual agreements, and change/ reinforce/ let go whatever needs to be changed/ reinforced/ let go!
7. Letting Go
Healing needs practicing the art of letting go. Every moment you hold on to hurt, you unknowingly, deepen the hurt.
a. Past Moments
In any relationship, conflict is bound to arise. Healthy relationships aren’t ones without conflict, but ones that have figured out (and continue figuring out) ways to create repair post the conflict.
The more you’re able to let go of hurtful moments from the past (through the repair process), where one or both of you were triggered, the more likely you are to continually improve the health & intimacy in your relationship.
Please Note: This letting go doesn’t apply to abusive/ manipulative relationships.
b. The Relationship
At times, a relationship may not be in the space to be nourishing. If it’s not nourishing either partner, it’s nourishing neither (even if it doesn’t seem so).
This could be due to external circumstances, though it’s usually because one or both partners need some time to heal on their own.
It’s healthier to be single than to be in a continued long-term toxic relationship. How do you know if you’re in a toxic relationship? If you’re asking this question, chances are that you are in one.
A toxic relationship is not created by a “toxic person”. No one is toxic. It’s the unhealed parts that create a toxic environment for the person, & those around them.
For many people in toxic relationships, there’s a trauma bond in action – where both parties are addicted to the way the other’s trauma plays out in the relationship.
It can be extremely painful to get out of such a relationship, and yet, unless you let go of it, healing will be hard.
The Most Important Relationship
All healing, all relationships – everything – begins within. I know, it’s a bold statement! And yet, in my experience (of working with myself, & several other women), it’s true.
When I am rooted within, feel safe in my own skin, understand & accept myself, and know how to continually work with myself in a healthy & effective way, external circumstances stop dictating my life.
The following four factors are a good place to start building this relationship with the Self:
Some call it grounding, some call it centering, some call it resourcing – call it what you will – the main idea here is to be able to regulate your nervous system which creates a stable sense of being “okay”, feeling safe, in your own body and being.
There are many practices that can help with this, like, breathwork, chakra work, yoga asanas, tai chi, elemental work, embodiment work, etc. Unless you feel safe within, it’s tough to unlearn past patterns.
As you begin to learn to ground, you also start the journey of reconnecting with yourself.
Our bodies are talking to us all the time – many of us have lost our way of understanding what they’re saying.
By reconnecting with your body, you begin to understand its messages. As you begin to communicate with it, you’re able to cultivate emotional and body-based wisdom (in place of overwhelm).
In my work with women, I see time and again, one of the biggest barriers to healing and growth is self-judgment – belittling oneself, underestimating oneself, and being highly critical (low on compassion and kindness) with oneself.
I also see, time and again, the moment one starts to accept oneself – wholeheartedly, with even a little bit of kindness and love, things begin to shift for the better.
The moment you begin to fully accept all of you, as if magically, you begin to evolve!
Chamberlain, J.M., & Haaga, D.A.F., in their article, Unconditional Self-Acceptance and Psychological Health(1), published in the Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy found that:
Unconditional Self-Acceptance was inversely correlated with anxiety symptoms and with narcissism, positively correlated with state mood after imaginal exposure to negative events.
There are several research studies(2, 3) that show a positive relationship between self-acceptance and psychological health.
Once you start to accept and love yourself, then you can begin the work of reparenting. We all have some version(s) of our parents in us. This is the version of them that probably didn’t meet us where we were.
For instance, perfectionist parents wanting their child to be perfect leads to the child growing up into a highly self-critical adult who feels they’re not good enough no matter what they do (such parents, of course, have their own unresolved traumas).
The findings indicate that perfectionists evaluate themselves in terms of a contingent sense of self-worth, and as such, they are vulnerable to psychological distress when they experience negative events that do not affirm their self-worth.Flett, G.L., Besser, A., Davis, R.A. et al. Dimensions of Perfectionism, Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and Depression(4).
Reparenting is the process of being the parent to yourself (or your younger selves – inner children) that you never had.
A parent who allows for mistakes & sees mistakes as crucial for growth, a parent who showers you with unconditional love, a parent who checks in with you to see how you’re doing – you become the parent you needed back then.
DIY, Or Ask For Help?
Should you do this work all by yourself, or should you work with someone who can support you?
I’ve been in this space of inner work for more than a decade now. And from my own deep inner work I can tell you two things:
1. Everyone needs support – if you knew how to do it, you’d have already done it! What kind of support is for you to decide – whether it’s therapy, coaching, or learning through a course, or workshops – is up to you. What I can tell you is that everyone needs guidance & support.
2. No matter what support you reach out for, only you can do the work. Think of it like a gym – the gym instructor can tell you what exercises to do, how many repetitions, what order, etc., but you’ve got to do the workout if you want results. It’s the same with inner work, or any other work really!
- There will be some baggage (some form of mild to heavy trauma) in almost every relationship.
- A healthy relationship can be a great resource to heal trauma for both individuals.
- Each person in the relationship must own responsibility for their own baggage, and at the same time support the other with theirs if they have the capacity to do so.
- It is better to be single than to be in a toxic relationship as it will only deepen the wounds for both partners.
- All relationships begin with the relationship with yourself.
- This work is hard to do all on your own. While you are the key to your healing and growth, everyone needs guidance and support.
Let me know how this article lands with you — and drop in your thoughts/ questions/ suggestions in the comments box below!
P.S. If you’re keen to learn more about engaging in deep inner work, I recommend reading The Whole View Method.
And if you’re ready for deep, transformative inner work, find out more about the Rooted In Chaos program.
(1) Chamberlain, J.M., Haaga, D.A.F. Unconditional Self-Acceptance and Psychological Health. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 19, 163–176 (2001) | https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011189416600
(2) Chamberlain, J.M., Haaga, D.A.F. Unconditional Self-Acceptance and Responses to Negative Feedback. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 19, 177–189 (2001) | https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011141500670
(3) MacInnes, D. L. (2006). Self-esteem and self-acceptance: an examination into their relationship and their effect on psychological health. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 13(5), 483– 489 | https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2850.2006.00959.x
(4) Flett, G.L., Besser, A., Davis, R.A. et al. Dimensions of Perfectionism, Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and Depression. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 21, 119–138 (2003) | https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1025051431957