How to Navigate Intimacy After Trauma 

by | Mar 25, 2024 | Adulting, Anxiety, Counseling, Couples Counseling, Online Therapy, Self-Esteem, Single

How to Navigate Intimacy After Trauma 

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A traumatic event can happen to anybody. And, unfortunately, traumatic events have happened to an extremely large number of individuals. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 70% of adults in the United States have experienced some sort of traumatic event at least once in their life [1]. Some may be able to move forward after a traumatic event, but some may feel stuck in it for the rest of their lives. 

Many individuals have faced traumatic events relating to sex or relationships. These events may be extremely hard to talk about or overcome, as there is often a great deal of shame and/or blame put on survivors of sexual assault or abuse [2]. Survivors may feel like they are to blame for what happened to them (which is not true, but a very real and valid feeling) or that society shames them for what they went through. These feelings and repressed trauma can lead to difficulties with intimacy. Keep reading to learn more about how to navigate intimacy and relationships after experiencing trauma.

Understanding Trauma 

Trauma can be described as the aftermath of an event or situation that deeply affected you and changed your perception of yourself, others, and/or the world around you. For example, many survivors of sexual assault have an altered worldview after the event—they may have once felt safe in their relationships and society around them, and now feel targeted and in danger. 

Many trauma survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is a mental health condition that makes one experience distressing and fear-inducing feelings as if the traumatic event is happening over and over [3]. PTSD may develop soon after the event for some individuals, far after the event for others, or even not at all for some. 

Trauma’s Effects on Intimacy

Trauma can translate into a fear of intimacy in your relationships, both physical and mental. It can make you place walls up to protect yourself from the potential dangers of relationships that can be hard to take down, even by those with good intentions. You may feel trapped in an anxious spiral of thinking that nobody can be trusted, people are out to hurt you, and that you are in this alone. Although these anxieties are often not true, they can feel so real and frightening for the person experiencing them. 

Some trauma-related intimacy issues that often present themselves in relationships are: 

  1. Emotional Numbness: To protect yourself from getting hurt, you close yourself off emotionally to your partner, or avoid fully committing to them altogether. Or, you may have difficulty identifying your emotions overall. If you have repeatedly pushed away your emotions in fear of them taking over and causing immense anxiety or a flashback to the traumatic event, you may become disconnected from your emotions and struggle to express them verbally, even to yourself. 
  2. Hypervigilance and fear of vulnerability: You may ask lots of questions to your partner in fear of them not being trustworthy, or constantly monitor them and their actions. You might feel constantly worried that the ball is about to drop and something is going to go wrong, which makes you skeptical about getting close to your partner. Overall, this causes an inability to relax and take the relationship day by day [4]. 
  3. Avoidance: You refrain from physical or emotional closeness for fear of getting hurt. You may feel reluctant to physically be intimate with your partner due to reliving a traumatic event, or avoid having deep conversations about important personal topics in fear that they will use information against you. Or, you may avoid relationships altogether or believe you are just not fit to be in a relationship. Some may choose to not be in a relationship, which is okay—but, if you secretly long for a relationship, this can be a trauma response and defense mechanism. 
  4. Difficulty with Communication: You may ice out your partner rather than having difficult conversations, especially ones relating to what you have gone through. You may never tell your partner at all, for fear that it will be too difficult for you to talk about or that you will be judged or shamed.

Healing from Trauma and Reclaiming Intimacy

  • Consider Therapy: Those who have experienced something as serious and life-changing as trauma should feel inclined to receive the help they deserve to recover. Seeking help from a professional therapist or counselor can greatly help work through your trauma, until eventually, it doesn’t negatively impact your life as much. It will not be easy, but learning coping mechanisms and cultivating self-compassion will help your mental well-being immensely. 
  • Practice Open and Honest Conversation: Although it may be difficult, you and your partner both deserve to have open and honest communication with each other. You may not feel ready to talk in detail about your trauma, and that is okay, but communicating that you are going through something will help your partner understand the root of your behavior. 
  • Set Boundaries: You should never feel overwhelmed or pressured to do something you don’t want to do in a relationship. Setting respectful but strict boundaries about intimacy can help cultivate a sense of respect and care in the relationship.
  • Address Challenges: There will be challenges that come up on this journey, whether it is miscommunication with your partner, an accidental breach of boundaries, or overall issues with mental health that impact the relationship. Address and talk about these challenges, as well as what both of you can do to avoid them in the future and keep everyone feeling comfortable and supported.

Intimacy after trauma can feel extremely difficult for those who have undergone a traumatic event. However, if it is something you strive for in a relationship, there are ways to cope with trauma healthily and make a lasting impact on your relationships. Through hard work, therapy, communication, and lots of patience, you will make strides on your journey and see the light at the end of the tunnel. We believe in you! 

To discuss how therapy could help you during this season of your life, please contact me or schedule your free 15 minute consultation.

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