Is Your Traumatic Past Sabotaging Your Relationship? Part 2: Checking Out


This is a continuation of the series on how your traumatic past may be playing a part in your relationship troubles. In Part 1, we discussed the role of trust in your relationship as a survivor.

In addition to trust, survivors of sexual abuse and trauma often experience a feeling of checking out or numbness in many situations.

It’s important to note that this is not something you do consciously or intentionally, but an instinctive reaction to any situation you may perceive as a threat. Common situations that may trigger this reaction include:

  • Yelling or arguing by anyone, particularly if directed toward you
  • Loud noises
  • Sexual intimacy with your partner
  • When a partner is criticizing you
  • When a partner is acting frustrated, angry, or upset – even if it is not directed toward you
  • When you encounter reminders about your past such as topics of conversation, movies or tv shows, or songs on the radio
I never know when it will happen
For a survivor, any of these situations can trigger you to check out, go numb, or disconnect. This reaction, while not your fault, can create problems in your relationship over time. Some of the common related problems include:

  • Communication problems
  • Problems resolving conflicts
  • Your partner withholding their emotions from you out of fear of upsetting you
  • Sexual intimacy being dreaded rather than enjoyed
  • Feeling constantly on-guard so as to avoid any reminders of your trauma
  • Memory loss
Again, this is not your fault. This is a learned and automatic survival technique and defense mechanism. It is something our bodies and our minds do automatically to insulate us from being fully aware when something awful is happening. Unfortunately, as a survivor of abuse or trauma, your body may register some situations as physically threatening or dangerous even if they aren’t. For instance, an assault scene in a television show can’t physically hurt you, but your body may recognize it as a sign that another trauma is about to happen, and shut down instead so that you will not be fully aware (so you can feel disconnected and safer) from what is about to happen.
At it’s most severe, this reaction is called dissociation. Dissociation is common among survivors and may be experienced in various forms including:

  • Feeling as if you are watching the scene from outside or above yourself
  • Imagining you are somewhere else
  • Feeling completely numb
  • “Shutting down”
  • Feeling as if the situation is happening to someone else
  • Being aware of what is happening, but having no feelings about it
  • “Losing time” or blackouts where you have no memory of what has happened, lasting between 10 minutes up to days or even longer in extreme cases
It is not uncommon for survivors to report dissociating during times of consensual sexual intimacy with their partner. This often happens as an automatic defense mechanism because even desired intimacy can trigger an anxiety response. To make matters more difficult, some survivors may feel re-traumatized during times of sexual intimacy with their partner, which can be very distressing for both the survivor and their partner who may feel helpless, outraged, protective, or guilty.

If you are struggling with feelings and reactions like these, please know that you are not alone and you’re not crazy. These are common reactions for survivors, but you don’t have to be stuck with them forever. Therapy can help you through processing your traumatic past with Cognitive Processing Therapy and help you learn skills such as grounding and relaxation techniques to help you stay anchored in the present moment. Through therapy, you can finally understand what is happening and why, decrease your PTSD symptoms so that you can more fully participate in your life, and learn how to “check back in” and re-engage with your partner.

If you believe that your relationship or that of someone close to you may be suffering because of a history of sexual abuse, it is important to address these issues with the help of a trained mental health professional. For more information on cognitive processing therapy in Orlando, or to make an appointment to begin working through your traumatic past, please give us a call at (407) 603-6132.

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