"My Partner was Abused" A Guide On How To Support A Partner

By: Maritza Plascencia, M.A., Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

Was your partner physically, psychologically, emotionally, or sexually abused?  Did your partner grow up in a dysfunctional home where s/he was neglected or witnessed domestic violence?  No matter at what point in their life you partner may have been hurt, the reality is that if they have not been able to experience healing from their traumatic experiences, these are more likely than not coloring their experience in the relationship they have with you.  The best thing we can do to support a partner is to be patient and educate ourselves in order to team up with them on their healing journey.

In my work with couples where one or both partners has experienced some form of abuse in their lifetime, I have witnessed that most healing happens when both partners are able to be open and vulnerable on a deep emotional level, as this creates a sense of deep connection between them.  Once this is achieved, the very thing that used to get in the way of that intimate connection, becomes the force that drives the connection.  One of the crucial things we must all understand when dealing with a partner's trauma is that a traumatic experience always changes and impacts the nervous system.  This means that until that person is able to have enough corrective experiences where the sense of emotional safety is reestablished, then and only then will their brain change again, for the better.  An intimate relationship with a partner is the kind of relationship that perhaps has the most potential to help any individual heal and simultaneously the kind of relationship with the highest potential for triggers.  In this partnership, both individuals possess the same opportunity to create emotional safety for the other.  Below are a few tips you may find helpful in doing so.

BE OPEN: We all know it takes time to feel comfortable in being open and deeply honest with a partner.  Also, depending on our background and the environment we were brought up in our definition of "openness" may vary.  For example, I may have been brought up in a home where it was okay to admit to really uncomfortable feelings or thoughts and this may be what I am working towards in recreating with my partner.  My partner may have had the opposite experience, where being open in the same way was perhaps perceived as being disrespectful, inconsiderate and/or selfish.  In this type of situation, we must lead by example and be patient as ultimately we must aim for creating a relationship where we are able to tolerate exposing our partner to the depth (darkness and light alike) that we carry within; if what we want is to convey emotional safety to our partner. If the opposite is true, if we are the ones who grew up with a negative connotation of “openness,” then we must know it is never too late to begin making changes that can make the relationship with our partner a safer and more deeply connected one.

A few simple steps to begin practicing this openness:

  1. Share something personal with your partner (you can start with something easy)

  2. Describe how you feel about it

  3. Explore the ways in which this thing or situation impacts the way you see yourself and the messages it creates about who you are (share this with your partner as well, it’ll deepen the conversation)

  4. Practice in-the-moment awareness and talk about what sharing this feels like

  5. Be curious about how your partner feels or what s/he thinks about what you’ve just shared

  6. Repeat (as you continue practicing, you may want to begin sharing things that are slightly more difficult for you and progressively work up to something you never thought would be possible to share)

Most people who have been hurt in severe and traumatic ways are able to recognize when another person is being painfully vulnerable with them, as they tend to be very familiar with their own pain and vulnerability.  Which is why having a partner that is able to meet them at that level can be such a relief as they may finally and for the first time (in some cases) feel like there is someone who truly sees them. Feeling seen and understood by a partner can bring so much healing to any trauma survivor.

COMMUNICATE FROM WITHIN:  In the United States, a country where culturally we place great value on the individual and "being yourself" or "being the best" we have been set up to think of ourselves and our needs first, sometimes without much regard for those we are in a relationship with.  We become conditioned to communicate in reaction to what is outside of us, in order to guard what we carry within; therefore, making us be more connected and aware of all that is in our outer world and numb or disconnected to that which we carry within--a reason most relationships that fail, do so.

To communicate from within means:

  1. To take time to analyze what we are feeling and thinking in any given situation, before reacting

  2. To recognize the ways the situation at hand may be triggering us based on past experiences

  3. To have the ability to separate what belongs to us from that which does not

  4. To respond to the situation at hand rather than impulsively react

  5. To communicate in an authentic and honest way, putting the intention forward of contributing in a productive manner rather than looking to compete in order to win

  6. To approach with compassion and really strive to do so from a non-judgmental position

  7. To focus on listening as much, if not more, than on being heard

RESPECT BOUNDARIES: When someone has experienced abuse or in other words been violated in any way by another human being, the sense of boundaries may be thrown off. Think about it this way, every time that anyone experiences someone making them feel disrespected or act in a way that has no regard for their needs or boundaries (emotional, physical or otherwise) the experience often gets internalized as a sense of helplessness and disempowerment. As time goes on, following the traumatic event, there may be other experiences that even if on their own are not acts of abuse or traumatic, they nonetheless reinforce the sense of helplessness and disempowerment, which for many trauma survivors may translate into ambivalence about setting boundaries. Any trauma survivor in a healthy and safe relationship is more likely to progress in their healing and regain a sense of control over themselves. A supportive partner makes a good ally for emotional and psychological healing.

Respecting your partner’s boundaries can be more simple than you think:

  1. Validate your partner’s boundaries when you notice your partner setting them, even if you don’t agree with or understand those boundaries; it’s important to support your partner’s efforts in setting boundaries

  2. Model good boundaries to your partner, speaking up for yourself and setting boundaries with your partner or with others for your partner to see can be a good way to help your partner have some sense of what good boundaries are

  3. Encourage your partner to speak-up when they feel uncomfortable in a situation with you as this creates safe opportunities for your partner to practice and gain confidence in setting boundaries

  4. Remind your partner about their boundaries if you notice they are forgetting they have the right to set them, especially when you notice they seem uncomfortable around any given situation; sometimes it can be as simple as reminding a partner to speak-up if they don’t agree in going to a specific restaurant for dinner

  5. Celebrate your partner’s ability to use boundaries whenever you notice them doing so, this can further validate and help your partner in gaining confidence in trusting themselves to know when to set boundaries

HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS: Awareness, time, patience, effort and a good support system are what it takes for any of us to heal from past traumas. Over time you’ll begin to notice subtle changes in your partner; this can be weeks, months or years, everyone heals differently. For example, you may notice your partner no longer cries every time they talk about what happened. Perhaps they no longer get triggered like they used to or maybe they are able to work through their triggers in a shorter period of time. Some people may find it very helpful to seek professional support in dealing with this process of healing; if your partner is receiving individual counseling you may want to ask if they’d be comfortable in requesting to have you join one or two sessions in order for their therapist to help you understand how to better support your partner’s healing process (a lot of people don’t know this is something they can request). Be patient if your partner is not ready for taking this step, it may be that they are still not feeling fully emotionally safe with their therapist or feeling protective of their healing space; this is absolutely normal. If you feel that your partner’s trauma is causing conflict in your relationship couple’s counseling may be a great way to seek additional support for your relationship. If you do seek out couple’s counseling you want to make sure you seek out a professional who has training in trauma and specialized training in working with couples. It’s okay to straight up ask a therapist about their training, you want to make sure you are getting what you are looking for. If you find yourself feeling triggered and/or in need of additional support for yourself then pursuing your own individual counseling is definitely appropriate and normal.

Consider the following to form more realistic expectations in supporting your partner’s healing:

  1. Understand healing is a process and not a task, therefore the length of the process varies from person to person. Don’t put a deadline on your partner’s healing!

  2. Expect to be triggered; we all have triggers and even if you’ve never experienced abuse you may find yourself feeling triggered over other things you haven’t taken the time to address within yourself or maybe didn’t even know you needed to address.

  3. Embrace the frustration…yes, I mean it! It can be frustrating to support a partner in their healing process and if we don’t allow ourselves to own our own frustration within this process we may end up building up resentment towards our partner. This is why you need your own support system.

  4. Communicate with your partner (see above on communicating from within)! Don’t expect yourself to be okay by putting your partner’s needs ahead of yours, this will burn you out. While your partner does need you to be supportive, understand that healthy support is to be able to set boundaries and care for yourself as well. This way, not only are you making sure you won’t burn out on your partner, but you’ll also be normalizing and modeling the idea of taking a break from dealing with the difficult stuff in order to recharge.

  5. PRACTICE SELF-CARE!!! I know, I know I’ve mentioned self-care in the last two tips, but it is so important you understand how much this will play a role in supporting your partner if you want the relationship to be healthy and more importantly to survive.

"A Nation United In Trauma: Using Self-Care to Heal"

By: Maritza Plascencia, M.A., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

When tragedy happens and lives are lost, it can either make us feel intensely and take inventory on a personal level and in relation to others or simply leave us feeling numb with a sense of confusion and thoughts of uncertainty.  Monday, October 2, 2017, exactly a week ago as I write this, was the morning most people woke up to the tragic news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Route 91 Harvest festival, where 58 lives were lost and 500 plus were injured.  By now, most people have had some time to process the initial emotions that come up with something so devastating and as time goes on their feelings may be evolving from shock to sadness to anger and despair or maybe...nothing.  I have encountered many who have shared their inability to feel much as they are experiencing what some call "compassion fatigue" and others "emotional burnout."  Given how in recent times we have been bombarded through every social media outlet with images, stories and calls for support for victims and their families of the multiple hurricanes, earthquakes and now this massacre, on top of the warnings from experts of more natural disasters headed our way and rumors of nuclear war, based on impulsive threats from certain government leaders, most of us have probably asked ourselves if and when this will all be over.  Ironically, as I sit here in my office in Orange County California, just a few miles down the currently closed freeway, thousands are being evacuated from their homes, some for the second time in the last 30 days, due to the rapidly spreading wildfires.  It is therefore clear to see, from the point of view of anyone who knows and works with trauma, how the new "normal" is beginning to settle in and how so many are now operating primarily from a place of fear.  

It is especially important, during times like these, to remind ourselves that self-care is not an option, but a necessity.  We must keep in mind that repeated exposure to events that evoke feelings of fear and/or sadness can lead us to develop anxiety and depression, but in some cases can also lead us to block any and every emotion due to the overload on our nervous system and the threat to our psychological integrity.  We already live a fast-paced life with a high demand for our time, energy and attention and when events that are out of the ordinary take place we are being pushed to our limits.  If we are not mindful of how the external world is interacting with our internal world, we can be caught off guard when anxiety, depression or numbness hits us, like a ton of bricks falling on our chest (the general area most of us report feeling everything or nothing at all). 

There are many levels in the practice of self-care and most of us don't necessarily think of meeting our basic needs as one, though it is so.  In my experience, most people talk about that vacation they took, the last massage they got or about how the salon where they get their hair done serves mimosas or champagne, in reference to their self-care.  While those with less financial stability, often express a sense of defeat as they believe self-care is out of their reach.  Reality is that we are all surrounded by opportunities for self-care, but we are unable to recognize these because of how caught up we are in our busy lives and the fear of when the next tragedy will hit.  Below is a list of ideas of basic, inexpensive or free ways we can all practice self-care to ensure our healing from our exposure to or experience of these recent traumatic events.

  1. GET SOME REST!  Even when you feel you cannot fall asleep because your thoughts are keeping you awake, it is important to have some down time.  Which means, create an environment with minimal stimulus or none at all if possible.  Sometimes we must coax the mind and body into relaxation by setting up the mood through appealing to our senses.  If being in total darkness is not helping you fall asleep, be intentional with the lighting (dim lights, night light or battery operated candles).  Sometimes laying in bed listening to silence is not helpful and in fact can produce more restlessness than we can handle; YouTube is a great resource for us to introduce the kind of noise that we need when trying to rest (playing videos of white noise, nature sounds, or Tibetan singing bowls).  Some people report the smell of incense or using an essential oil diffuser (inexpensive ones can be found on Amazon or at places like Marshall's or TJ Maxx) or perhaps applying a lotion that contains the smell of lavender on the back of their neck are ways they find effective to become relaxed.  Personally, I find that drinking chamomile, cinnamon or any other decaffeinated tea helps put my body into a resting mode.  Finally, it is important to also consider the sense of touch; if possible switch to that softer blanket or if you are like me, the one that feels cool to the touch, but in fact is very warm.
  2. EAT!  Yes, even when you have no appetite despite it being over 6 hours since your last meal.  Have a fruit or some vegetables, maybe some trail mix or plain raisins/almonds, something simple.  If you are experiencing anxiety or depression, this will ensure you don't give yourself a physical reason to reinforce these.  
  3. STAY HYDRATED!  Drinking plenty of water (you can add some lemon wedges or pieces of fruit to make it more appealing) is one of the best ways we can safeguard the balance in our body because we release bacteria and toxins every time we have to empty our bladder.
  4. STAY ACTIVE!  We don't need a gym or to go hiking in order to get a good work out session (although both of these are pretty great).  Simply by doing things around our home (dusting, reorganizing, cleaning out, rearranging furniture) is a good way to break a sweat and get some of those "feel good" chemicals going in the brain.
  5. ENGAGE!  Doing things that give us a break from thinking about the tragedies surrounding us can be very helpful.  Meeting up with friends or visiting family can also reinforce the sense of community and support.  Engaging for empowerment and to combat the fear can be done by volunteering, donating money or simply doing a random act of kindness for another.
  6. DISENGAGE!  Getting away from doing and from others and taking time for just being can be a great way to check-in with ourselves.  Meditation, guided body-scan meditations (also found on YouTube) or prayer can great ways to disengage from the chaos that surrounds us. 
  7. TALK ABOUT IT!  If you have someone you trust that you feel comfortable talking to about your feelings or lack thereof, great!  Talking is what helps us process and integrate our experiences in a more adaptive way, it prevents us from stuffing ourselves with unfinished business that may show up later in the form of triggers, anger, anxiety, depression, hopelessness.  Think of it as mental and emotional health maintenance.  If you feel that you are in need of seeking professional help, know that affordable counseling may be available in your area.  If you don't know how to find it, begin by calling a therapist in your area and telling them what you are looking for, most therapists are happy to provide local referrals.  If you are one of the many people that were in the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas or lost a family member during the shooting you may qualify to have your counseling expenses covered by applying here.