Trauma’s Impact on Relationships

Helping Patients Develop Skills to Talk Through Relationship Pain

What coping skills do your patients use in their relationships now? Let’s talk about why it’s vital to help them understand the importance of saying something!

Say something, I’m giving up on you

I’ll be the one, if you want me to

Anywhere, I would’ve followed you

Say something, I’m giving up on you

Lyrics from “Say Something” by A Great Big World


Often in relationships, when the going gets tough, partners turn away from each other instead of toward each other for support. But within the painful experience of feeling hurt and alone lies the opportunity to heal by sharing it and having that emotion held safely and compassionately.

Because of old ways of handling pain in relationships, one partner may not be able to hear the other one saying: “I want you to connect with me.”

But in learning to say something, they can move towards a balanced and healthy place in relationships. The path to more openness starts with understanding two kinds of coping patterns at work in relationships. By understanding their partner’s response to relationship distress — and their own way of coping – they can understand the relationship better. Together, they can start to create a more tolerant and caring approach when emotions get triggered.

Two Kinds of Coping Mechanisms in Relationships

Psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson developed a method to guide healing for distressed couples: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). She found two roles often emerge when couples repeatedly argue — there are pursuers and withdrawers. Similarly, psychologist Dr. Stan Tatkin, in his model, The Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT) describes these forces in his model, as islands and waves. We all naturally tend to adopt one more than the other.

1.    Pursuers/Waves: Pursuers tend to become more reactive and impulsive during an argument. They are generally more hyper-aroused and anxious. They crave an answer or some control over the situation, so they pursue that answer thinking it will help. Pursuing answers is their coping skill.

2.    Withdrawers/Islands: Withdrawers tend to become quiet and disconnect during an argument. They retreat, not wanting to engage in the argument. They are more hypo-aroused. They freeze, maybe thinking withdrawing will help. Stepping back is their coping skill.

Connecting Coping Skills and Trauma History

I believe that a lot of trauma survivors become pursuers or withdrawers based on their trauma history and attachment style. Our preference for coping with pain in relationships usually forms early in life as a way to manage anxiety, stay safe or be heard or seen. If we can help clients look for reasons why their partner’s coping mechanism makes sense, it can bring more compassion and light to the situation. Coping skills come from a legitimate place:

●     Perhaps pursuers pursue because they didn’t feel visible or wanted. They tried to get someone’s attention. Or they grew up in a family where the loudest person got heard. They may pursue in order to manage their anxiety.

●     Perhaps the withdrawer grew up in a situation where it was safer or more favorable to be quiet, or where they wanted to be invisible. Similarly, they may withdraw in order to manage their anxiety.

Reminding our clients: It’s not you or me. It’s how we interact.

Sue Johnson calls the interaction between the pursuer and withdrawer “the cycle.” I call it “the dance.” Couples can gain a lot by seeing “the dance” as the issue, instead of placing blame on each other. If they can take steps to look at the roles and coping skills they fall back on, they can create enough space to change the way they interact. The shift in perspective is so powerful!

It’s Okay and Important to Say Something

Couples aren’t stuck in their default coping styles. Rather, they can expand their windows of tolerance of emotions. They can change the ways in which they regulate their own feelings, and come towards a more moderate healthy approach, where they learn how to tolerate their own anxieties. Simply naming these coping styles helps couples expand their window of tolerance and bring understanding and compassion each other.

●     “I see you’re pursuing/withdrawing—I wonder what feeling is triggered here.”

●     “I’m pursuing/withdrawing because…”

When couples get triggered into familiar coping roles, we can invite them to try to bring awareness to the situation. Not just pursuing or withdrawing. They can take a step forward toward change and say something about what they need or how they feel. Telling their partner what their underlying emotion is. Saying something deeper about their inner emotional world. Saying something real. Saying something that matters:

●     I’m not really angry about you not taking the garbage out. I’m scared because I feel like our relationship isn’t important enough!

●     I’m getting quiet because I feel like my efforts aren’t good enough, and it makes me feel like you don’t love me, and that scares me—all I want is to be loved by you.

Couples need to know their partner is present on the journey with them. Every time they say something, they will open that window of tolerance a little and come more towards more balanced communication and each other. With awareness of coping styles, and openness about what’s happening behind them, their relationship can become more fulfilling and authentic for both.

More Resources

●     Article by Sue Johnson: Where does love go wrong?

●     Sue Johnson’s video—Love Sense: from Infant to Adult

●     Stan Tatkin’s TED Talk: Relationships are hard, but why?

●     Blog post: Healthy Relationships Matter More than We Think

●     Blog post: Loving a Trauma Survivor: Understanding Childhood Trauma’s Impact On Relationships


Trauma’s Impact on Relationships

Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT

Robyn E. Brickel MA, LMFT, is the founder and director of Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she established in 1999. Her insights for parent and teens appear in interviews in The Washington Post, and Washington Parent magazine, and she presents educational workshops for clinicians on the treatment of adolescent substance abuse and trauma. Her counseling and psychoeducational services provide treatment for recovery from trauma and/or abuse, including dissociation; addictions; adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) issues; body image issues and eating disorders; self-harming behaviors, including emotional intensity and instability; anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; challenged family systems; chronic illness; co-dependency; dysfunctional relationships; life transitions; loss and bereavement; relationship distress; self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; and stress reduction. She is a trained trauma and addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.


APA Reference
Brickel, R. (2020). Trauma’s Impact on Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 16 May 2020
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 May 2020
Published on All rights reserved.