Couples usually seek couples or marriage counseling when they’re dysregulated. They’re arguing or fighting because something’s happened—an affair, drinking, drug use — or they keep having the same argument without solving anything. They have reached a point of frustration or anger that feels impassable.
Despite this pain, they come to therapy because they care enough about each other and want to figure it out.
Our approach to working with couples in therapy is trauma-informed. I want to explain what trauma-informed couples therapy looks like and why it matters in helping couples create a relationship that feels safe and loving.
Why We Use a Trauma-Informed Approach With Couples
Couple therapy (often called couples therapy) helps partners build a relationship that’s healthiest for them.
In a trauma-informed approach with couples, we look at the whole picture. Not only do we explore what happened in a specific incident or experience—but also why it happened. We look at each person’s life and personal history to understand what they bring to the relationship from those life events and the coping skills they developed.
Trauma-informed therapy allows us to learn about what happened to each partner in the past, leading to the coping or survival skills they have. We look at the impact of these coping skills on the distress happening in their current relationship. When couples see the bigger picture, they can see new ways to repair rifts, rebuild trust, and re-develop and strengthen communication.
We don’t believe people are “broken” or “need fixing.” They just need to develop different, healthier coping mechanisms that work for their current relationship and who they are as individuals. And they need more compassion.
Trauma-informed couples therapy is not about, “What’s wrong with you?” It doesn’t answer, “Who’s right?” A trauma-informed approach with couples asks: What is your history? What happened to you that you bring these coping skills, defense mechanisms and protective parts to the relationship?
Focusing On What Feelings Happened And How They Came About
In the process of therapy, we introduce new perspectives and ways to view relationships. We teach compassion and how to be curious around why a partner may do or say something as they do, what happened to them in their lives to cause them to act/react in that way. As we validate that very painful things happened, we work together to understand the broader definition of what feelings happened and how they happened.
Couples learn to broaden their understanding of each other. We explore questions such as:
What got triggered in you when you shut down or checked out of your relationship?
What made it feel impossible to hear what your partner was saying?
Was your partner really criticizing you?
Did your partner’s words remind you of a familiar past feeling?
Did something trigger a body memory of fear reminding you when you were criticized in the past?
This shift in perspective can help partners make sense of each other’s words and actions. They can see reasons for turning to behavior such as affairs, work, numbing with drugs and alcohol, disordered eating, pornography, and other actions.
These were coping mechanisms to avoid the pain of disconnection in a relationship. They may be trying to feel less badly because it’s too hard to stay in a relationship with a partner while experiencing little relief from overwhelming feelings.
In working with couples, we incorporate as many proven therapy models as needed, such as PACT, IMAGO, EFT, and Gottman’s research findings. But first we apply Judith Herman’s three stages of trauma recovery to help couples find security, safety, and happiness in their relationship—even after the most difficult ruptures.
The Three-Stage Approach of Trauma-Informed Care
Here’s how we apply the three stages of trauma recovery in a couple’s therapy session.
Stage 1: Safety and Stabilization
The first step involves working towards emotional safety and stabilization in the relationship. We work to create an emotional window of tolerance for the couple — a safe place to witness emotions expressed in ways each person can hear calmly. When each person can regulate emotions within a window of tolerance, they can begin to hear each other.
Sometimes, there is so much anger that it’s impossible for partners to begin to hear or understand each other. In that case, we work to create a safe place where each person can hold the other’s feelings while understanding that it doesn’t negate their own. Sometimes, we don’t get to the details of what happened until many sessions later.
Safety and stabilization means we work until each person’s feelings and reactions become tolerable. This approach allows both partners to think and feel at the same time. Until we can make emotional energy safe and stable, we can’t process what’s going on between the partners.
Safety and stabilization is not about one partner winning over the other. It’s about being able to share thoughts and feelings, listen, and understand. We work until each partner can witness even the painful feelings. It’s about having compassion for your partner and yourself—that you are both present and trying! Once the feelings are tolerable, the couple can move into the processing stage.
Stage 2: Processing
Once each person can actually hear the other, and be emotionally present and safe, then a couple can progress. They can begin to understand how their coping skills and life experiences have played into what happened.
Affairs do not occur in healthy relationships where both partners feel the relationship is meeting their needs. So if one partner has turned away from the relationship towards an affair, or drugs, or anything else, we begin the process of finding out why this happened. Perhaps the other partner is coping by turning outside the relationship in some other way, too.
We begin to look at how to help both partners turn into the relationship and begin to help co-regulate emotions with each other. We look at questions like:
How can we build trust after what happened?
What did each partner really need from the other?
How can we grow together instead of apart?
Stage 3: Integration
Moving forward as a couple comes from understanding the nature of the work it takes to have a healthy relationship. It’s about emotional availability — showing up and being there for your partner. As EFT developer Dr. Sue Johnson says, “The greatest gift one lover has to give another, is emotionally attuned attention and timely responsiveness.”
Each partner needs to know that they can depend on each other to be there for emotional support and understanding. The integration process is where the couple begins to practice their new solutions and coping mechanisms so that they can heal, grow together and become stronger.
Why a Trauma-Informed Approach Is Essential in Couple Therapy
A trauma-informed approach allows us to find out how past responses to pain work in the current relationship. It helps us safely explores issues of emotional safety with questions such as:
· What has happened to each individual to make them approach this relationship as they do?
· What does each person need?
· Why do they get triggered when certain words or actions happen?
A trauma-informed approach doesn’t ask, “What’s wrong with you?” It asserts: The way you show up in life and in your relationship in based on your life experiences. Couples can change negative patterns of judging and criticizing to recognizing coping skills that don’t serve them well. They see that by developing new coping skills, things can be better!
As a therapist, I believe a trauma-informed approach makes growth very possible for couples. It addresses the emotional needs each person brings, and a deeper understanding of the role of each person’s past.
A trauma-informed approach is a key skill in helping both partners learn to be more emotionally present. It helps form a deeper understanding of the need for emotional safety, what threatens it, and how to respond in more positive or reparative ways. As couples emerge on the other side of this process, we may see them develop greater strength to handle challenges together than ever before.