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How Trauma Can Impact Relationships

Guest blog by Courtney Rolla MA, LCPC, SEP


It is likely that at some point in your life you will experience a trauma – an event or circumstance that results in physical, emotional and/or life-threatening harm. Trauma impacts your entire being, including your brain, emotions, and body, specifically your nervous system. When experiencing trauma(s), the right support and resources can help you to continue to move through life with flexibility. However, support and resources are often in short supply, so it is not uncommon for trauma to stick with you, stored in your body, leaving you vulnerable to automatic trauma responses. As a result, unhealed trauma can impact your relationships.

What is a Trauma Response?

Constantly sensing and interacting with your surroundings, your nervous system is responsible for many things, including identifying and protecting you from threats. A trauma response is an automatic, physiological, self-protective reaction that occurs when you are faced with a threat. You may have heard of these responses: fight, flight, and freeze. Some people also include appease (also known as fawn) in this list.

In animals, these automatic responses occur in reaction to the threat of physical harm. In humans, it is a little more complex. We respond not only to physical threats but emotional ones, as well. Abandonment, yelling, conflict, inconsistency, uncertainty, and general discomfort are a few examples.

Now here is the crazy part: unhealed trauma stored in your body can result in persisting trauma responses even when there is no apparent threat. As far as your body’s nervous system is concerned, that threat from the original trauma is still present. So, your body continues working to keep you safe. This is what causes the trauma response.  Furthermore, the particular trauma response that occurs can vary depending on the situation, people involved, and our mood.

Related Reading: Why Understanding What Trauma Does to the Brain Helps You Heal

Trauma responses in relationships can largely be influenced by childhood trauma. Starting even in utero, your relationship with your parents creates your understanding of human connection and relationships. This relationship with your parents (or other caregivers) is essential for your survival. You depend on them for your basic needs to be met as well as your emotional needs. Through personal interaction, observation, and absorption, you learn how to interact in all kinds of relationships.

So how do those protective trauma responses – fight, flight, freeze, and appease – impact your relationships?


The Fight Response

The fight response is just as it sounds: fighting off a threat to survive and protect. For example, if you witnessed your caregivers frequently arguing and you did not have anyone to protect you from the impact of that conflict, you had to rely on yourself for protection. So now this childhood trauma response in relationships might show up like the following incomplete fight responses:

  • Quick to yell or say mean and hurtful things
  • Getting defensive about criticism
  • Not admitting you may be wrong
  • A tendency to instigate fights
  • Using force or threats to control a situation
  • Feeling like you must “win” in conflicts


The Flight Response

The flight response means having an “I need to get away” impulse when perceiving a threat. This may have formed in childhood when avoiding things or running away was the only way to feel safe. You may not have had people around to help you cope effectively with the threat or your feelings about it. This can lead to a habit of running away from a situation before it can hurt you. If the following resonate with you, you may enter the flight trauma response in relationships:


  • Ending relationships quickly
  • Shutting down emotionally
  • Using jokes or sarcasm when things are difficult
  • Avoiding tough or emotional conversations
  • Pulling away emotionally when things get hard
  • Literally leaving the room or house when faced with conflict

Related Reading: Anxiety and Relationships

The Freeze Response

The freeze response is when you stop in your tracks or shut down in response to a threat. This response arises when fight or flight is not an option because danger increases if you respond with fight or flight. This may have developed at a young age to cope with severe, overwhelming stress or abuse or when interactions with primary caregivers were critical and judgmental. Being seen was dangerous. So now you freeze or stop moving, and your mind may go blank and you may even go silent. Freeze responses can look like the following in relationships:


  • Shutting down during conflict
  • Isolating when overwhelmed
  • Avoiding relationships altogether
  • Avoiding physical and emotional intimacy
  • Silent treatment
  • Struggling to identify and express needs or desires


The Appease Response

The appease response can also be called the fawn response. Appeasing means you give in or submit in the face of a threat to minimize greater harm. This may have developed if you were parentified as a child or in response to overbearing, dominant or authoritative caregivers. You learned that your needs were not important, and it was not safe to express your needs and feelings. Therefore, you minimize or suppress them as an adult. We may feel that we are only worthy of love if we take care of others. The following are ways the appease trauma response can impact relationships now:

  • Overextending yourself
  • Difficulty in identifying needs and feelings
  • Ignoring needs and feelings
  • Needing frequent approval and validation from your partner
  • Apologizing frequently
  • Keeping quiet to keep the peace

Healing is Possible

It is important to keep in mind that these trauma responses are largely automatic and show up even now to protect yourself. Feeling relatively safe can be a big help in making changes. However, it is a process, and it takes time to unwind these habitual responses. Below are some ways to work towards healing trauma responses that impact your relationships, even trauma responses from abusive relationships.

Increasing awareness and insight: Learn more about attachment styles which resonate with you. You can find books and videos about attachment, and you can talk with trusted people.


Identify safe people and places: Safety is subjective to each person. These can be people or places where you won’t be judged, where you feel accepted, and where can be yourself. Examples are certain family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, or even a friendly cashier.


Take small steps: When making any change, it’s important not to feel overwhelmed, so breaking things down into the smallest step needed is ok. Small steps might be asking for help in a grocery store, saying no to a safe person, or asking for time before responding.


Learn “I Statements”: This is a communication tool that can help you identify and communicate your needs clearly and effectively. Rather than “You make me feel…” instead try “I feel…” as an empowering step.


Engage in trauma therapy: Somatic Experiencing is an effective therapy modality that works to restore the felt sense of safety. This can allow you the space to make the changes you want and feel comfortable with safe connection in relationship.



Life Care Wellness specializes in the treatment of trauma. Our therapists are trained in trauma-specific therapies including Somatic Experiencing (SE) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). If you think that trauma responses may be affecting your relationships, please reach out to us at our Glen Ellyn, Chicago (Jefferson Park), Yorkville, or Sycamore offices.