What Trauma Recovery Does to Your Close Relationships

By Beth Fehlbaum, Matt E. Jaremko, and guest contributors

Beth Fehlbaum and Matt E. Jaremko, co-authors of the forthcoming book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, address some of what happens to folks as they go through trauma recovery. In this installment, Matt and Beth discuss what can and does happen to the relationships in a victim’s social network, especially the ones with family and friends who remain in denial about the horror of being traumatized. To assist in illustrating the impact recovery has on social relationships, Beth asked her social media community for contributions about their experiences in this matter.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Beth: For way too long, I stayed stuck in the trauma I experienced because of Childhood Sexual Abuse at the hands of my stepfather. I feared that facing the truth about my life would cause the loss of a relationship with my mother, and quite honestly, sometimes when I expressed to others how much pain I was in because of my past, their responses were not supportive. You may have heard this phrase, or at least something similar to it: “You should just get over it. What’s done is done. You can’t stay stuck in the past. Can’t you think about anything else?”
When I heard that, I felt defective and weak. But I wasn’t defective OR weak: I was traumatized, and I needed help from an experienced mental health professional.

If you’re in a place like I was–knowing that something’s got to change, but fearing the repercussions of pursuing healing—trust me when I say that I know how you feel. Extended family tried to “shush” me when I told them what happened to me as a child, minimized what I’d been through, and even announced to me that they’d forgiven my perpetrator, so why couldn’t I?

I felt a clashing of what I knew to be true with what others wished I would believe is true, or what they wished I would do (i.e. just shut up,) so that they would not have to deal with messy stuff. Their words and lack of support made me doubt the seriousness of what I’d been through. It’s hard to bring up inconvenient truths and walk through fire to come out the other side as a recovered person. The soles of my metaphorical feet are toughened now, but walking through that fire was incredibly challenging.

It’s my hope that by reading stories of people bravely confronting the hard truths so that healing can happen, you will find hope and the knowledge that you are not alone in being scared, and you–yes, YOU–have what it takes to survive the essential step of embracing the truth about your trauma, no matter how others react to it.

Here, Matt and I share a collection of contributed stories of relationships that changed when a traumatized person chose to face the truth about their life, no matter how ugly or scary it was to confront it. Brave survivors graciously tell, in their own words, how some relationships changed when they, too, stopped playing “Let’s Pretend Nothing Ever Happened.” With the exception of my own name in the last entry in this series, the names of all those who contributed their stories have been changed to protect their privacy. These stories are examined from the viewpoint of what behavioral science has to say about the necessary ingredients in successful recovery from traumatic events.

Please note: Having a solid support system in place, including a partnership with a mental health practitioner, can be very helpful to get through rocky periods. I’d go so far as to say it’s essential. Help is available, no matter what your financial situation. Check out the following sites for referrals to therapists in your area:
http://rainn.org (Click on “Get Help” link).

Joanna: Setting Boundaries with an Abusive Parent

I grew with a psychologically abusive narcissistic father and an enabling mother, in a conservative Catholic homeschooling home, so I had little chance to see how other families interacted. I thought our family life was normal. Crappy, but normal.

Then two things happened: I stumbled across some books at the library that perfectly explained that my dad has a personality disorder—and it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I wasn’t a terrible person after all! And when I made friends at college, including my now-husband, their reactions when I talked about how things were at home were…interesting. I had no idea it was shocking or strange or abusive.

I knew that I couldn’t ever get my dad or mom to acknowledge the truth, so I mainly created boundaries for starters, especially after I moved out. Maybe it would be easier to weather his abuse if I minimized contact?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

When I stopped giving my parents so much access to me, the shit hit the fan. Dad disowned me. My mom and one of my brothers reached out to me, trying to get us to reconcile, and by reconcile, I mean they wanted me to apologize to dad and pretend nothing happened. I just couldn’t do that anymore. I didn’t directly tell my mom that dad was abusive–I just told her that I did nothing wrong and will not apologize. I told her I wanted HIM to apologize for hurting me, and she said, “He won’t do it, because that’s just the way he is.”

I really hoped my brother would understand; after all, Dad was really hard on him, and he suffered more abuse than me while we grew up. I tried to tell him that dad was abusive, and that I was done with that. He tried to minimize it: “Dad’s not perfect; no parent is perfect, so you should apologize to him.” My brother even brought religion into it–about how we should honor our parents and how I should forgive him. He told me that I was being incredibly disrespectful to dad, and he could no longer consider me a sister.

I was afraid my relatives would not believe me, but one by one, they reached out, and I treaded carefully, slowly telling them that dad was abusive and that I refused to experience that anymore. Surprisingly, most of them knew something was wrong and believed me, so thank God I still have relatives I can stay in touch with. I didn’t lose my whole family! Some of them didn’t want to talk about it much, which was okay. I am still able to talk with some others, piece together some parts of my childhood, and I can confide in them when I learn more about my family.

And perhaps most hopefully, one of my younger siblings reached out recently. They were quite small when I was disowned, and Dad told them all sorts of things about me, but one contacted me, and we’re slowly rebuilding our relationship. This sibling absolutely acknowledges that Dad is abusive.


Photo by Rob Potter on Unsplash

Michael: Recognizing the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
When I was in college, I lived with my aunt. She was a textbook abuser; outgoing, life-of-the-party to those who knew only her only on the surface, but an abuser behind closed doors. She was demeaning, degrading, and her demands were unpredictable. She was a master in gas-lighting and manipulation, which made me stay silent about the ongoing abuse. If I did something she didn’t like, she would call my mom to tell her random lies about me. Petty, right? These things ranged from telling Mom that I was horribly disrespectful to her, to truly bizarre stories such as hearing from a neighbor that I was engaging in sexual intercourse on the hood of a car in front of her house.

I didn’t tell anyone what was really going on until I started dating my now-wife, Cindy, and that was a huge step for me. My aunt threatened me that if I told anyone about the abuse, I would absolutely regret it. As I grew closer to Cindy, I finally regained some of my lost dignity and self-value and I started to fight back. My aunt eventually threw me out of the house, and it was unexpected when she did it. Even though I told her a week in advance that I’d be going somewhere, I came back to her house that day to find my stuff on her front porch. I was shocked, yet thrilled.

Because I had been so gas-lit by my aunt, I thought my parents were going to be enraged with me. I could only begin to imagine the ridiculous lies my aunt had likely told them. I was pleasantly shocked when my father called me and said that I indeed needed to get away from her for good. He knew very, very few details about what happened, but he knew something was truly wrong.

My sudden eviction immediately created a giant rift between my mom and her family. I’m incredibly close to my mom, and although we’ve never spoken of the rift, I feel that she thought she had to distance herself from her family because they would possibly reject her for seemingly taking my side. I sense that she knew my aunt had likely manipulated her siblings and my grandmother by demonizing me. In my heart, I felt bad. I’m incredibly defensive of my mom and I hated thinking that anyone was saying anything negative about her. Even more, I hated thinking that this rift was caused by me and the lies that an abuser told. My siblings were fiercely loyal to me, even when my mom regained her comfort level to visit her family again.
Whenever my family came down to visit me, my siblings were adamant about not joining my parents to visit the extended family if my aunt was going to be present. I knew that deep-down, this wasn’t the easiest thing—for my mom to show up without us in tow. Even though Mom is incredibly strong and confident, I still felt horrible about the excuses she had to make about us not being there with her and my dad for the visit.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

As time went on and I was empowered by therapy and treatment for my PTSD and anxiety disorder, my meek declines to join for visits to my aunt turned into a confident easy “No.” I recently ran into her in public after not seeing her for about 8 years. It was strange, because she approached me, and she looked…humbled. I can never recall a time in my life when she ever looked humbled.
I impressed myself with the amount of cordiality and composure I had when interacting with her. Seeing her humbled and really digesting my own reaction to her finally made me realize that after nearly 10 years, I was finally at peace with what happened. Seeing her was so surreal. She looked so much physically smaller to me, and it blew my mind. I discussed it with my therapist, and she mentioned that it had a lot to do with my aunt not being a threat to me anymore.

Since then, I shared with my mom and siblings that I had an amicable run-in with my aunt. Nevertheless, I stressed to my siblings that I would not be magically bringing my aunt into the fold. It is a relationship I have done without for nearly a decade, and I don’t want or need it. It’s not beneficial to my well-being, and I feel no obligation to revisit that relationship. My confidence in my recovery has fortunately resulted in my parents truly respecting my choice.

Christy: Working Hard and Letting Go
My father started sexually abusing me when I was 7. I was not his first victim, nor his last. I told my mother, my minister, and a family friend whose husband was a police officer.
My mother’s response was, “I thought something like this was happening. I’ll talk to him.”

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unspla

Talking did no good. The family friend never told her husband because she was afraid of my father. The minister finally called the police after three years of counseling my parents didn’t work. My father eventually went to prison, but not for what he did to me.

My mother knew. She now talks about the bad thing that happened. She says she didn’t know. She says she did the best she could, but I have learned that she knew much more about my father’s past than she ever let on, and she had her own insidious part in it. It is not my story to tell, so I will not give details, but she participated in the abuse of another girl.

I have tried to understand my mother, and her pain, and her past. It is inconceivable to me, and as much as I have tried, I have finally stopped trying.

A few years ago, when my mother and I were sort of at a truce point in our relationship, she had a terrible car accident. She was in really bad shape, and my husband and I went to see her. During our visit, she told me that as her financial power of attorney, I would need to call her insurance agent and tell her about the accident. She said the agent would probably take it hard, because she and mother were also friends.
The next day I called and told the agent my name and whose daughter I was. She got really quiet, then she asked if I had a sister.
I said, “Yes,” because I assumed she was asking for security purposes to verify I was who I said I was. I told her my sister’s name, and she said my mother had never mentioned having two daughters.

My sister later told me that she took mother to see her insurance agent after she had recovered a little bit from the accident, and the agent asked why she had never mentioned having two daughters. Mother said she couldn’t imagine when I would have come up in conversation. It has taken me several years, but I am at the point of ending my relationship with my mother. I am tired of the drama and the scapegoating.

My life is good now. I have worked hard to work through my trauma. It still hits me sometimes, but I don’t need my mother’s drama and negativity any more.

Sophie: Reclaiming Herself from an Abusive Past

Victim. Survivor. Hot Mess.

I trembled in the lobby of the therapists’ office, shaking but too stubborn to fall from my last hope that things would ever get better for me. Because they hadn’t and they wouldn’t and someone sitting across a couch from me might prevent me from erupting in a road rage homicide or having more breakdowns in front of total strangers.

Everything I had never said sat like a ball of lead inside of me and even just threatening to expose it to the air caused it to strike out, hissing smoke until I was an eruption of the shakes and leaks. And I don’t just mean the embarrassing mom leaks. It was a moment of absolute terror that the hemorrhage of my life blood was the devil that I already knew and this was… something I could never have imagined for me.

I’m not that person- this person. I’m not that weak; I’m not that strong; I am not a Lifetime movie. Did the lonely lady die at the end? That was a projection, I recognized.

The questions of isolation and death loomed in my mind ever since I looked into my ex-husband’s eyes and saw a desire to kill me. Every hostile look or act or sound or jumpy twitch under my skin evoked a muscle memory like his hands still wound about my neck, and I froze my life to not spook him into squeezing the rest.

I stood against the fear of this moment, bringing me right back to the catalyst moment, a time of forcible transformation. I looked the moment in the eye and stood the way I had against him, looking him in the eyes and refusing to budge in a way that I never could against the abuses of my childhood.
I was that woman.
I stopped flinching at myself—at the tired droop of my shoulders and the deflecting self-deprecation and the silent shouting that seemed to exist in my head. I knew I belonged there; it scared the shit out of me.

You can’t see yourself the same way after that- for better or for worse. The slow, draining flow of secrets and lies and denials that weren’t even my fault had finally drained and left the hole open. I was empty and exposed and suddenly aware of the desperate need to never need anyone.
The person that I became when I finally told a therapist what happened to me—years later—is a stranger. It was so intense that I thought it might drown me. Nearly a lifetime of abuses and walls hollowed me, and the gales of another day threatened to flatten me for good. When I owned up to that kind of past in a long succession, I realized that it is all I’ve ever known.The victim’s much less optimistic counterpart has been dragging their ass up an endless steep hill for years and wishes for a plateau just to experience calm for the first time. And even that is disorienting.

After I finished yelping out my entire history to a therapist for the first time, I called my boyfriend, elated and half-sick, still so swollen and puffy that I felt a little dizzy from crying, fearful and hopeful and too many emotions to describe without being trite. I had notecards, outlining carefully why I could only focus on myself, explaining how it felt, expressing my fear that it might mean choosing me over us. I loved that he said he understood and was happy for me…at first. Why didn’t he fight for me? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Is it possible to really, truly love someone and do it quietly, underthe radar? Why is something so normal a bundle of questions for me?

I texted my mother so she wouldn’t hear it from someone else first. My immediate family had met my boyfriend, liked him, and watched him like a murder of crows ready to harp and pluck at him. They had tiptoed around me for the years since I had called in tears and told my mom about my then-husband’s death threat and hands around my neck, when I was too much in shock to hold in the truth any longer. It was always something with him. They alternated between saying how strong and amazing I have been and protecting me from hearing the dark and stressful things because I “have enough to deal with.”

I told my mom why I broke up with my boyfriend. To this very day my mom replaces the word ‘abuse’ with ‘discipline’ or ‘drinking’ or some other deflecting rationalization for the way my father treated us in childhood. We never talk about it, and we are otherwise a very close family now.

When I told my mom about starting therapy and texted that my boyfriend and I broke up “because I realized what the past has done to my relationships of all kinds,” my mom did the unbelievable: she said she was sorry.

“I’m so sorry for my part in your personal shit.”

I was breathless. Did she finally see? Could we finally say it? PTSD makes people overly cautious sometimes, so I waited, afraid to provoke her breaking the magic of receiving any kind of apology for a childhood of being kicked and slapped down and told in great detail how worthless I was until all I wanted to do is die.

She acknowledged that she wasn’t a good example and that she had made us too independent and turned course again to say that if I hadn’t been so strong then I wouldn’t have been able to pull through for my boys, especially my child with Aspergers.

The moment left bittersweet morning breath on the rest of the day. She came so close, but it hurt her too much. How did she think I felt? The strength of my childhood abuse and watching my parents emotionally and verbally abuse each other was not a blessing; it was a set of bedrock behaviors to be unlearned. I realized in some ways I had outgrown my mother and somehow moved closer to her at the same time, this S & M combo pack that by now formed the trademark of my relationships.

She offered me a crumb of an apology and of recognition, and I was so grateful. I still am. Yet it sickens and saddens me at times. A childhood that didn’t need to be apologized for any more than the average parental mishaps– that should have been the standard. I don’t know where the standard is, I’m just learning about self-esteem, and I don’t know myself or what a single other person is capable of. Abuse and beginning to acknowledge and confront that abuse have taught me that. You would think that the verbal, emotional, and sexual brainwashing over many years would have been a red flag, but it’s hard to know up from down when no one ever explains from which direction you read a compass. Worse yet– my idea of love swung violently, like the hands of the two most important men in the first 28 years of my life. Because these two men were Prince Fucking Charming to everyone outside of the castle’s dungeon.

When I meet new people, I smile openly while being aware of the exits and watching my drinks, expecting that you will say something horrible about me or abandon me, praying that I don’t jump if people come up behind me. I’ll try too hard to be ‘normal’ with my social anxiety. I will calculate how much I think others will hurt me emotionally or physically and decide in short order whether or not to cut my losses. I will look this new person straight in the eyes, knowing that he could turn around and kick or choke me. Each person is a calculated risk, a life-or-death decision, a window to a deep exposure to more fear than one would expect from the dark alley boogie man, although I fear him, too. I make the brave decision to take the chance because I’d rather be alive before I die then continue in the living death of the first 28 years.

And if I tell you, you will have pity in your eyes. I hate that. Or call me a liar, which is even worse. Yet, as I tell more people, the funny thing is that I give less and less fucks about anything other than the price to be paid.

Beth: Steadying On
I was sexually abused by my stepfather from the age of 8. I made an outcry to my mom when I was 14, and she did not act on it except to say, “We’re just going to move on.” I was shattered, but within a year, I was pretending that nothing happened, because that made life easier to live in my family of origin’s home. When I was 21, my husband, children, and I were in a near-fatal car accident. Nearly dying caused me to begin to have overwhelming anxiety, because I feared what could happen to my children if I was not alive to protect them. At that time, I had grown so adept at playing “Let’s Pretend” that my husband and I had designated my parents as our chosen guardians if we died at the same time, so the car accident we could have died in caused me to be plagued by the reality of what happened, and I didn’t know what to do with it since if I faced it, I’d be responsible for destroying this sort of screenplay I’d created for my kids about who their grandparents were.

I tried therapy many times beginning a short time after the accident, but I never had the support system in place to withstand what I had to do in order to get well: face the truth about my stepfather sexually abusing me and my mother not protecting me. I avoided it until I couldn’t any more. When I was 38, I had a mental breakdown. I entered therapy (with Matt) and a short time later, set the first boundary I’d ever done with my perpetrator–my stepfather. My request was simple: “In light of our history of you abusing me, I am requesting that you stop commenting on my body”—but that was enough of a shock wave of truth-telling—and truth-confronting—to cause a seismic shift in my relationship with my mom, and, in turn, my husband and children’s relationships with my parents, too.

This led to completely breaking with my family of origin —basically, when I insisted on no more playing “Let’s Pretend,” it was made clear to me in a variety of ways that I had done something so wrong (in their eyes) that they wanted nothing to do with me anymore. It was excruciating, because my mother was an amazing grandmother to my kids, and they lost her in the process.

Recovery from childhood sexual abuse is very, very difficult–but it can be done. Matt compared it to a barefoot walk from Texas to Alaska and back, with all the weather along the way. I would agree with that assessment; in fact, I used that comparison in my Patience books, Courage in Patience,  Hope in Patience, and Truth in Patience. I strongly believe that people who have been sexually abused and are seeking to heal from it and reclaim their lives need the guidance of an experienced mental health professional. If the first therapist (or second, or third) does not seem to be helping, keep going until you find one you click with. Don’t give up, because you are worth the fight to reclaim your life.

Necessary Ingredients in Successful Recovery

Matt: Outside of the therapist’s office, you need a strong support system of people who are aware of what you are going through, who will be safe for you to be vulnerable, and who will give you emotional shelter when you need it.

The stories shared here show how recovery from trauma, especially the kind that has been done by a close family member, will most probably change those relationships. In fact, it is often the case that continuing trauma is happening in relationships which have previously been traumatic. This is especially the case if the perpetrator has not undergone extensive (and successful) treatment for the factors that led him/her to traumatize others.

It is also the case that victims remain engaged in these toxic relationships because they feel they have no other support or that they would cause too much pain if the unhealthy relationship is changed in any way. Such thinking that leads a victim to stay in hurtful, further traumatizing relationships comes about because of unchallenged errors in attributions and social assessments. Learning healthy cognitive styles will lead to life activities that build a new and trauma-free life. The sad fact is that, most of the time, these traumatic interactions must be confronted in clear and enforceable terms. It does a trauma victim little benefit to be traumatized “less.” The trauma must stop and the perpetrator must apologize AND make amends. If that can’t happen, the victim must move on.

Thus, relationships almost always must change if recovery from trauma is to take place. And because breaking away from toxic relationships is so difficult and building new but healthy relationships is so complicated (and slow), a large part of trauma recovery is devoted to these “new beginnings.” It takes guidance and patience to make the move from trauma-filled social interaction to a trauma-free social network, but the bulk of the narrative of a new life for a traumatized person involves re-imagining healthy social support and gradually building that improved social order. Typically, this requires an authentic facing of truths about the unhealthy relationships and careful but complete confrontation of harmful social interaction. Such “leaps to the truth” usually are difficult, requiring lots of support from the victim’s new community. In essence, it’s out with the old (and abusive) and in with the new (and supportive). If your current relationships suffer because there’s too much “Let’s Pretend,” what do you really have to lose when you begin to develop new ones? You have a entire new life to gain.

Our forthcoming book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, tells the stories of seven people who each confront the traumas of their past and build healthy social networks that have purpose, meaning and connection. In addition, the book presents in detail what must be done to make the changes that result in a cessation of trauma happening and a new life being built. Perhaps a new narrative of a trauma-free life might be stimulated by consideration of the stories shared in our book. When the truth comes out, and positive relationships are found and nurtured, folks can write a difficult narrative of their changed life.

 Beth: And—be prepared to be completely honest with yourself and others in your life. It’s the only way to heal and find out how strong you are. That’s what the brave survivors who shared their stories here did or are in the process of doing.

All of us had to start somewhere: with one step, and then another, and another. You’re not alone. You can do it.

Take the first step:


http://rainn.org (Click on “Get Help” link)

Read more about our forthcoming book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, on our website.  Check out Beth’s eating disorder recovery blog here, and her YA author site, here.

Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash