Dealing with a partner with complex trauma

When someone is exposed to physical or psychological abuse for a long time, without any means of escape, there is an extremely high chance that someone will develop complex trauma (complex PTSD). Complex trauma is a serious condition that affects all areas of the trauma survivor’s life. Dealing with this condition is also not an easy task for partners of trauma survivors. However, entering into the recovery process of the trauma survivor together can make the bond between partner and trauma survivor extremely strong.

What is complex trauma?

Complex trauma, also called complex PTSD, is caused by prolonged exposure to psychological or physical abuse without any means of escape. Complex trauma is a deep-rooted problem. The symptoms that someone with complex trauma, also called a trauma survivor, exhibits are:

  • Profound fear of trusting people;
  • Difficulty regulating emotions;
  • Feelings of toxic loneliness;
  • A broken inner child;
  • Emotional and physical re-experiences;
  • Extreme vigilance;
  • Experiencing little hope and confidence;
  • Feelings of helplessness;
  • Constantly looking for a savior;
  • Dissociate;
  • Chronic feelings of intense sadness and depression;
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Feelings of toxic shame.


Partner relationship and complex trauma

Every person has a primal need for connection. Connection with friends, family and a partner. The bond with a partner in particular can function as a secure base, a deep connection and unconditional love. Typically, the bond a person has with a partner is the most intimate bond in a person’s life.

When one of the partners is dealing with complex trauma, this can pose an additional challenge within the relationship. Because the trauma survivor has an insecure attachment base with his/her basic caregivers, the parents, both bonding and separation anxiety will arise when a connection threatens to develop between the trauma survivor and his/her partner. This is because the bond between partners is almost as intimate as the bond of a growing child with his/her parents. Attachment by definition means insecurity in the brain of the trauma survivor.

In a partner relationship you share your personal life experiences with each other, the good and the not so good. In a partnership with a trauma survivor, it can feel to both partners as if more bad experiences are shared than good ones. As the partner of a trauma survivor, you may feel very powerless when the trauma survivor suffers from the symptoms of complex trauma. As a partner, you may feel that your partner is isolating himself from you and cutting off the connection, thereby sinking deeper into the trauma. When you as a partner try to restore the connection and the trauma survivor reacts in an extremely emotional way or becomes extremely critical of themselves and the relationship, despair can set in. How can you get through to your partner? How can you help and support your partner?

What benefits a trauma survivor

Someone suffering from complex trauma has an enormous need for safety. Particularly in relation to the partner. As a partner, you can create a safe foundation for you and your partner by being aware of safe relational characteristics that benefit the trauma survivor. These are:

  • Predictability;
  • Room;
  • The right perspective;
  • Reciprocity;
  • Do not judge;
  • Support;
  • Own control.



By creating a clear and, above all, predictable relationship through predictable behavior, a fixed structure, clarity and stability, the trauma survivor gains a sense of safety, structure and stability. When this is present, the trauma survivor will be able to develop and develop from a safe base and he/she will be inclined to open up more and more and show more of themselves within the relationship. This has a positive effect on both partners and the relationship. When there is no predictability, there is an increased chance of re-experiencing the trauma survivor due to experiencing a lack of safety.


A trauma survivor needs more time and space to process and regulate emotions in order to put things in the right perspective. This can be reflected in more distance and needing more time for themselves. As the partner of a trauma survivor, it is important to give your partner the time and space for this. If there is no room for this, there is a good chance that the trauma survivor will end up in emotional or physical re-experiences, with all the consequences that entails.

The right perspective

As the partner of a trauma survivor, be aware of the moment when the past, in the form of trauma, takes over the present. When there is a lot going on or a lot to process for a trauma survivor, emotional or physical re-experiences can take over. The trauma survivor can then respond to situations in the present based on these emotional or physical re-experiences. As a partner, try not to react from your own emotions in these moments, but continue to see what it is: trauma. You can support your partner by bringing him/her into the present by, for example, saying that he/she is safe, that the situation is different now than it was then and that you are there for him/her. In addition, the trauma survivor can benefit enormously from a physical hug, because a hug offers the trauma survivor safety in the moment.


A trauma survivor, like everyone else, benefits from reciprocity in a partner relationship. This means that as partners in a relationship you give each other what you wish to receive. This includes: a listening ear, empathy and empowerment in the form of supporting and building each other up.

Do not judge

As the partner of a trauma survivor, it is easy to view trauma-related behavior with judgment. For example, you may think that the trauma survivor reacts overly sensitively, puts too much weight on things or is complicated. In those moments, remember that the trauma survivor did not choose this and that it is already tough enough to be a trauma survivor. When trauma-related behavior is judged towards the trauma survivor, you are not supporting your partner, but you are achieving the opposite: you are destroying some of your self-confidence. It must be said that for a reciprocal relationship it is certainly important that the trauma survivor has insight into his/her trauma and his/her trauma-related behavior. Self-reflection is therefore an important part of the partnership for both partners.


A trauma survivor, just like every human being, benefits from support in a constructive sense. Good support leads to feelings of security. You can offer support as a partner by being kind, loving and empathetic. But indicating your own boundaries is also supported. This creates clarity and security for both partners in the relationship.

Own control

Trauma survivors are often extremely triggered when they have no direction, choice or control in a situation, or when a choice is imposed on them. A trauma survivor has experienced trauma in the past where there was no choice but to endure the trauma. A trauma survivor therefore has a greater need to make their own choices, their own decisions and control in situations. A trauma survivor benefits when he/she is involved in decisions and is allowed to make his/her own choices about matters that concern him/her. As a partner, it is important that you involve the trauma survivor in decisions and choices that you make together.

Support in practice

There are some good supportive behaviors you can do as a partner of a trauma survivor:

  • Believe what your partner has gone through;
  • Don’t try to heal your partner;
  • Communicate with your partner;
  • Trust your partner;
  • Provide good support;
  • Be involved in your partner’s treatment;
  • See your partner’s beautiful qualities alongside complex trauma;
  • Take care of yourself.


Believe what your partner has gone through

It can be complicated for the partner of a trauma survivor to believe what the trauma survivor went through and what the effects were on his/her life. This is because the trauma experienced also influences the human image of both the partner and the trauma survivor. It is then tempting for the partner to minimize, rationalize or make the traumas less serious than they were. It is often difficult for the partner to understand that people can traumatize each other when this has not happened in his/her own life. However, it is very important for a trauma survivor that the traumas experienced and their effects on his/her life are taken seriously and believed. A trauma survivor often has a past in which the traumas he/she experienced were denied and misunderstood and that in itself was a (re)traumatizing experience.

By believing your partner, you can give him/her an enormous boost in (self)confidence, resulting in reduced fears.

Don’t try to fix your partner

Because the effects of trauma from an unsafe childhood can be so intense for both partners, as the partner of a trauma survivor you may have the tendency to want to heal your partner by taking away the pain. Partly because it would be nice for you as a partner and for the relationship. For the trauma survivor, this can give the feeling that the feelings should not be there.
Instead of trying to save your partner, help her by validating his/her feelings and saying things like:

  • “How hard that must have been for you.”
  • ,I’m sorry you had to go through this.,
  • ,I can tell you’re having a really hard time right now.,

In addition, it is important to be there. In fact, as a partner you do not have to do more than be there on the road to recovery of the trauma survivor.

Communicate with your partner

Communication is very important in every relationship. But can be difficult in relation to a trauma survivor. Trauma can make it difficult for the trauma survivor to continue to think clearly, feel clearly and behave in accordance with the current circumstances, partly because the trauma survivor has often learned that his/her feelings do not matter. Shame and fear play a major role in this, as does the depth of the trauma.

It can be a struggle for the partner to communicate about the impact of the trauma on themselves and the relationship. There may also be a fear that the trauma survivor may be triggered. Because both partners struggle with this, it can be difficult to stay connected and understand each other. As a result, both partners may encounter mutual misunderstandings, unconsciously hurt each other, become angry or confused.

For the trauma survivor, it is essential and enormously empowering that he/she can talk about the traumas and their consequences. But also about daily experiences and experiences. The trauma survivor can then process thoughts and feelings and see them mirrored by the partner. By being able to repeatedly talk about the same experiences and effects, a trauma survivor can slowly but surely gain more confidence and overcome the shame about the trauma. It is important to clarify the needs, triggers and boundaries of the trauma survivor and to discuss together what is needed when the trauma survivor experiences a re-experience.

If you as a partner can create a safe setting in which the above is possible, without judgment, this is extremely valuable for the trauma survivor and the relationship. The trauma survivor can then feel safe. As a partner you can support this by saying that you love the trauma survivor, you like that he/she shares information with you and that you are there for him/her in the way that the trauma survivor needs. If you can really express this as a partner, the relationship can deepen and strengthen enormously.

It is also extremely important for the partner to be able to communicate about their own experiences, their own feelings, their own boundaries and their own needs within and outside the relationship. By being open about this as a partner, the trauma survivor can gain understanding and insight and be less likely to interpret things as rejection.

When communication is difficult, you as a partner or as a couple can also seek the help of a professional.

Trust your partner

For a trauma survivor, it is very important that her partner trusts her and her abilities to learn to deal with trauma. It can give a trauma survivor that extra boost to persevere, when he/she lacks confidence. You can achieve this as a partner by saying things like:

  • ,You are strong!,
  • “You can handle this!”
  • ,You’re on the right track!,


Provide good support

When you are in a relationship with a trauma survivor, good support for both the trauma survivor and yourself as a partner is important. It is important for the partner that he/she can also tell his/her story and find support in his/her environment. This can be done with family, friends, but also by seeking professional help. The advantage of professional help is that the circumstances can often be looked at from a more objective point of view.

Be involved in your partner’s treatment

A good tool for the trauma survivor can be Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR can soften trauma memories and stimuli and reduce the impact of intense emotions. This means that the trauma has less influence on the psyche and behavior of the trauma survivor. When you, as the partner of a trauma survivor, are involved in your partner’s therapy, it can be of enormous value to the trauma survivor and to the relationship. As a partner, you gain insight into the process in which the trauma survivor is in, allowing you to provide more understanding, compassion and support.

See your partner’s beautiful qualities alongside complex trauma

It is very important to continue to see your partner, in addition to being a trauma survivor, as a valuable person with all his/her talents, qualities, capacities and beautiful characteristics. In addition to being a trauma survivor, the trauma survivor is so much more than that. Often a trauma survivor has not been given the opportunity to develop their own identity in addition to complex trauma. Simply because there was only room for survival during childhood. As a result, a trauma survivor can often only develop and develop his/her own identity in adulthood. By supporting, encouraging and pointing out the talents, qualities, capacities and beautiful qualities of the trauma survivor in this process of trial and error, you can be of great added value as a partner.

Take care of yourself

Just as it is said on the plane: help yourself first, then your fellow man. In every relationship it is important to listen to and meet your own needs, boundaries and wishes. When you take good care of yourself, your boundaries, your needs and your wishes, you can also take good care of your fellow man. This also applies in relation to a partner with complex trauma. However, an important note in this regard is that as the partner of a trauma survivor you must communicate well and clearly about this with your partner.

read more

  • Codependency and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
  • Complex trauma and abandonment depression
  • Complex trauma after an unsafe childhood
  • Recovering from a narcissistic upbringing

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