Trauma is an overwhelming and stressful experience over which we have had very little control and that threatens our health and safety.

Expert Talk: How To Navigate Through Past Trauma as a Couple

trauma, Rwituja Gomes Mookherjee, healthy relationship

Trauma can have a significant impact on individuals, and when it comes to relationships, it can affect the way we communicate, trust, and connect with our partners. In this interview, we'll be discussing the signs of trauma, how it can impact a relationship, and ways to navigate and heal from it. So this time, at Baely we have Rwituja Gomes Mookherjee, Counselling Psychologist in an exclusive conversation with Consulting Editor Mahima Sharma, wherein she shares real-life examples of how one can deal with it as a couple towards a happy bonding. 

What is a trauma of the past?

It is an overwhelming and stressful experience over which we have had very little control and that threatens our health and safety. It affects our innermost sensations, feelings, thoughts, our relationships to our physical reality, and our ability to function normally. 

It develops in response to prolonged and repeated events like childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, and attachment wounds like emotional neglect and rejection, abandonment, and growing up in chaos or an environment of constant anxiety. These shape our perception of attachment, safety, and threat in adult relationships.

Trauma can also arise from affairs and betrayals, dysfunctional relationships, sexual assault, intimate partner violence (domestic abuse), accidents, natural disasters, and surgery or long-term medical issues. 

How can past traumas affect present relationships?

Perpetual conflicts, aggressive uncontrolled outbursts, domestic violence, addictions (drugs, alcohol, pornography, overexercising, disordered eating, gambling, etc), anxiety, depression, and gaslighting are some examples of how it shows up in a relationship

Dimple’s father was a good man yet when he drank he became abusive and violent leaving her extremely fearful. Over time, she indulged in emotional eating, and post-marriage to Santosh, she realised that every time they entertained or partied, her binging increased. Santosh often reprimanded her for this behaviour. She could not control it, as binging had become a pervasive behaviour in response to any anxiety-provoking situation. The weight gain in turn brought its own challenges.

It affects those who are directly exposed to it and those around them. It’s important to understand that there are often no direct co-relations about how they can show up.

Apart from filling in an emotional void, Dimple’s weight was a protective coping strategy. It kept her safe from the uncontrollable fear she’d experienced. To help break this association Santosh became alert and would then silently walk up to her and either put a protective arm around her or gently squeeze her shoulders at parties. It became their silent message of support for one another. 

What are some effective ways to communicate with your partner about past traumas?

Effective communication can be verbal and non-verbal including direct eye contact, a slight tilt of the head, a genuine smile, a gentle squeeze or a warm hug.

Rohit’s first marriage broke within months as he struggled with erectile dysfunction. The humiliation had scarred him. Now married to Sushila, he was re-experiencing the shame and withdrew physical intimacy.

He was struggling till he heard her willingness to give up on motherhood. She truly believed he was a loving, kind man who always made her laugh. This encouraged him to disclose his maternal uncle sexually abused him. Sushila knew the uncle. She felt shocked and didn’t know how to react. Rohit misread her silence and felt further humiliated.

To a survivor of child sexual abuse ‘silence’ is disbelief, denial of their experience, and isolation to carry the burden of the abuse alone.

When struggling with how to respond to your partner’s trauma, it’s best to be empathetic and say, “That must have been so hard” “I’m so sorry” or “I don’t know what to say.” Ask, “Is there something I can do?” or apologise if you’ve said something inappropriate. 

Vulnerability needs respect. Being heard and having feelings validated are basic needs. It helps us to reconnect with our partners.   

What are some common challenges that couples face when working through past traumas?

The impact of trauma is complicated making the setting of boundaries difficult. A common challenge is the ability to validate and respond to a partner’s feelings without being triggered yourself. Even as Sushila was supportive, Rohit often helplessly and unintentionally pushed her away. That would upset her till she realised he did that whenever his past feelings of shame resurfaced.

Another challenge is being mindful of the roles you’re playing. Rohit expected Sushila to be the wife, caregiver, therapist, friend, protector, and supporter. That overwhelmed and pressured her to overextend herself.  

It’s important to ask, clarify and refrain from assuming you understand because you’ve heard the story before. Repeating helped Rohit work past his feelings associated with the abuse. It also allowed Sushila to explore her own feelings. 

Healing is about ‘enabling’ the partner to feel resourced to work through their trauma themselves. As a caregiver, your presence and support are necessary to create the balance between feeling vulnerable and simultaneously safe. Allow yourself to take a break, exercise patience, and self-care as needed.

How can couples create a safe and supportive environment for each other to work through past traumas and heal together?

Most suffering is related to love, loss, and separation. If you feel safe and loved, you become open to exploring, cooperating and engaging. When frightened and unwanted, you feel abandoned, broken, and disconnected.

As a survivor of sexual abuse, Rohit needed to feel safe - a place of no judgment, fear, or threat. He’d been waiting for someone to hear him without blame or shame. He desperately needed Sushila to believe that it had happened and that he’d been helpless to protect himself. It wasn’t his fault and he wasn’t broken.   

She learned to pick up his tells (triggers) and help him navigate through the experience. He trusted her intuition and they were able to self-regulate and co-regulate, i.e., soothe and calm each other. They learned to forgive, be kind, show ‘self-compassion’, and not judge the pace of healing.

Healing is a journey and a slow process. It’s essential to gradually let the dysregulated nervous system normalise and reduce the internal turmoil or the chances of re-traumatising oneself increase. Reverting to the older pattern of behaviour doesn’t mean failure. It means one is struggling and that’s normal and natural.

What are some healthy coping mechanisms for managing triggers and emotional reactions related to past traumas?

The word ‘victim’ gives the impression of helplessness yet the behaviour patterns that developed actually helped to adapt, deal with and survive the difficult circumstances they’ve been through. ‘Survivor’ feels more empowering. Some though can feel invalidated and angry when called survivors. They’re unable to see their resilience as strength. 

Healthy coping mechanisms ‘enable’ the traumatised partner to feel empowered to heal.

Survivors fear being judged. So when they’re sharing, allow them to do so at their own pace. Keep reassuring them and set gender roles aside. Each person’s struggle is personal. Don’t compare or say, “Be a man” or “You’re lucky you can cry.”  

Touch makes us feel protected, and calms the nervous system’s fight-flight response. It helps to connect with others. But some might have experienced trauma around touch that even the idea feels threatening. So before using touch, seek consent.

Trauma disconnects us from our body, so a critical coping mechanism is to re-experience the felt sense in the body through movement practices like yoga, dancing, and martial arts like qigong, and tai chi. Breathing (pranayama, box breathing, diaphragm breathing), meditation, and journaling are also useful.

What are some signs that indicate that a couple should seek professional help to address past traumas?

Perpetual conflicts (accompanied by contempt, criticism, stonewalling, name-calling), sexual dysfunction, domestic violence, affairs, and substance abuse are all red flags of underlying trauma and relationship struggle. Other warning signs that show up physically include insomnia, anxiety, disordered eating, chronic fatigue, unexplained pain, fibromyalgia, auto-immune diseases, and gut inflammations.

Therapy is invaluable in helping help couples explore and unpack personal histories and past traumas to understand what they’re dealing with, and how it’s showing up and impacting their relationship. Sometimes, a partner might need individual counselling to work through their deeply personal issues before moving on to couples counselling.

Therapy provides a safe experiential space to find solutions and navigate through life’s challenges ‘jointly’ as a couple. It equips them with the necessary skills and techniques to develop healthy and secure attachments.  

As trauma impacts the body, any form of therapy that works with the body can also be tremendously useful. This includes acupressure, performing arts (theatre, dance, etc) therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) amongst others.

About Rwituja Gomes Mookherjee 

Rwituja completed her Master's in Psychology, trained in Humanistic Therapy and TA 101 (from the International Transactional Analysis Association), Clinical Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy (Levels 1 & 2), and is currently undergoing Certification in Traumatic Stress Studies (offered by the Trauma Research Foundation in collaboration with PESI Inc.)

She works extensively with individuals (adults) struggling with stress, anxiety, loss, and grief and trauma survivors of childhood sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, and cancer survivors supporting them on their healing journey. She works with couples (either married or in long-term committed relationships) to build healthy partnerships.

Her private practice includes working with clients from India, the US, the UK, and Nepal.


The opinions expressed within this interview are the personal opinions of the protagonist/protagonists. The facts & statistics, the work profile details of the protagonist/ protagonists do not reflect the views of Baely or the Journalist. Neither Baely nor the Journalist hold any responsibility or liability for the same.

About the Interviewer
About the Author
Mahima Sharma
Mahima Sharma is a Senior Journalist based in Delhi NCR. She has been in the field of TV, Print & Online Journalism since 2005 and previously an additional three years in allied media.
Read More


Other Posts

Download App

Want to save an article that you loved, download the app to get started.
Download App