a blog and resources for trans survivors and loved ones

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In addition to changing our brains and bodies (link to blog post on topic), trauma can impact our relationships with other people. This can be especially difficult to navigate, as one of the ways that we can heal from trauma is through connections with others. But trauma can make safe, supportive connections more difficult to find and have. 

How can your relationships change after trauma?

How we perceive others and relationships

Particularly when some of our traumatic experiences are caused by other people or when people respond negatively when we share those experiences, our connection to other people in our lives can be changed dramatically. This might look like:

Seeing others as a threat; being afraid to be around people or thinking that other people will always hurt or threaten you. You may find that you no longer trust people who you used to think of as safe, or that you have difficulty ever finding other people trustworthy.

Not trusting our own perceptions of who is and isn’t safe, particularly if we were hurt by someone we trusted. This might look like constantly questioning ourselves or getting mad at ourselves if we do start to be vulnerable with someone else. It may also look like ignoring warning signs that someone isn’t trustworthy, because we doubt our ability to assess the situation.

Being afraid to be alone or needing to be around other people in order to feel safer or calmer. Sometimes this is very clear, for example, not liking to be home alone. Other times it might look like pushing relationships to be serious more quickly than you are ready for, because you want to have someone to rely on. 

Seeing rejection in any boundary others set. This is especially common for people who have experienced neglect or long-term child abuse. This might look like thinking that someone hates you if they say they can’t hang out. Or being very afraid of losing a friend when the friend doesn’t respond to a text message immediately. 

Sensitivity to changes in others. Some trauma survivors have heightened awareness of their surroundings and the actions of other people. This often develops as a form of self-protection – if I know enough about what’s happening, maybe I can keep myself safe. You may find that you are very aware of the mood changes of others. Unfortunately, sometimes, this sensitivity isn’t entirely accurate, and someone may perceive changes in other people’s behavior that aren’t there, or assume a cause that is incorrect. For example, noticing a friend sigh, and thinking they are upset.

After (or during) trauma, what we need from relationships can change. This includes romantic or sexual relationships, friendships, family relationships, and other types of connections. Some of these changes might look like:

  • Need for larger barriers between self and others. For example, needing to know someone for a much longer time before sharing personal information or not wanting anyone to be physically close to you.
  • Need for quick and strong connection and vulnerability with others. Some people respond to trauma by seeking more connection. At times, that can look like quickly sharing vulnerable information with others; seeking out serious commitments and intimacy at a more rapid pace than you previously did, or quickly feeling a strong attachment to others. 
  • How much time people want to spend with others can also change. Some people may isolate themselves and others may never want to be alone. Both of these instincts often come from forms of self-protection. Being alone may mean that people can’t hurt you, and being around other people may create protection from hurt.

It’s also important to look at how trauma can affect our understanding of conflict and how we respond to conflict. As with many other changes, people may find they have a heightened or a decreased sensitivity to conflict. 

Some people will find being around conflict, including healthy conflict, to feel overwhelming or dangerous. Other people may find that they are more ready to engage in conflicts. This might be out of a need to defend oneself, a feeling that others are a threat and that a “fight” instinct is the most beneficial response.

Here’s an example: Maxine used to be in abusive relationship. Xe felt like xe always had to be really careful what xe said. Maxine was always watching to see what kind of mood xir partner was in to try to keep that person from being violent. Now Maxine has a really hard time with people being angry or upset. Maxine is constantly trying to keep the peace at work and at home. Xe goes out of their way to make sure the house is always clean. At work, Maxine often does other people’s work on top of their own, because xe feels like it’s xir responsibility to make everything go smoothly. Xe was taught that anger = violence from their past relationship. Maxine is always trying to make xir current partners feel better when they get upset, because xe worries that otherwise xe is in danger. 

Al learned in his childhood home that anger was a way to get attention. He learned that if he didn’t stand up for himself that he would get hurt, and in his home, standing up for yourself often looked like wrestling, physical fights, or yelling. Now when someone tries to give Al feedback, his first reaction is to argue. When he gets dirty looks at the grocery store, he curses at the person who looked at him. 

Similar to Maxine, Al sees danger in a lot of places. Both of them may be well-equipped to notice warning signs of danger before other people do, but they also both struggle with noticing “green flags” or signs that a situation is safe. They react differently though.

These examples are somewhat simplified, we often have a number of places that we learn which responses to danger keep us safe and which ones don’t. Our trauma responses may change over time, and it may not be so easy to draw a line connecting an event or events in our past to our current situation.

Trust can also be greatly impacted by trauma. Many experiences of trauma involve a betrayal of trust, particularly when the trauma is from abuse or assault. Survivors may find that they have a difficult time trusting other people, even people we had trusted previously, be they loved ones or service providers. Sometimes this can be helpful to a person – they may be paying more attention to warning signs that someone is dangerous or untrustworthy. Other times though, this distrust continues despite all evidence that the other person is trustworthy and supportive. Changes in our ability to trust can put a strain on existing relationships.

Any of these changes can make it difficult for the person experiencing them to maintain relationships. The changes can also be confusing for the people in your life. When the people in our lives don’t respond in ways that we understand as supportive, it can further strain the relationship. Adding to that, the impact on our sense of trust or conflict can lead to very difficult situations. 

Changes in trust can be especially challenging to navigate, because often there are untrustworthy people in our lives. Sexual assault and intimate partner violence happen. Service providers and healthcare professionals can be transphobic or victim-blaming. We need skills and tools to help us think about who to trust and when, and even then people may betray us. 

At the same time, connection to others is often a critical component of healing from trauma. It is helpful to understand how trauma impacts us and our relationships so that we can have a better understanding of what is happening and why. 

Taking a look at our own lives can help us to identify if any of these patterns are happening to us or those we love. 

Some questions to ask yourself might be:

  • What signs do I have that I should or should not trust this person?
  • What is happening between me and this person that has me feeling like they will hurt me? Have I been hurt by this person before?
  • Is there anyone I can talk to about this?
  • Can I journal or do art to help keep track of how I feel?

A final aspect of relationships to consider is our relationship to the broader world and community. Many of these things can be impacted by trauma:

  • How we view our role in the world:
  • Increased feelings of despair, anger, or disconnection from community, spirituality or the world in general
  • Changes in ideas about the world as fair, safe, or just
  • How we relate to things larger than ourselves – spirituality, nature, values, or community
  • Being angry at god, the universe, or any other larger entity(s)
  • Feeling of being disconnected from things outside of ourselves
  • Difficulty relating to our personal values 

Our relationships with other people and our relationships with ideas like community, faith, or the world, are often deeply entangled with each other. 

There is always more to learn about trauma, and each person’s relationship to trauma can be deeply personal and unique. These two articles look more at the effects of trauma, particularly trauma that happens in childhood. For more information you can also check out our previous blog posts “What is Trauma?” and “Trauma Impacts on Our Brains and Bodies.”

Effects of Complex Trauma: https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects

The Impact of Trauma: https://www.echotraining.org/the-impact-of-trauma/