3 Surprising Ways Trauma Contributes to Marital Conflict

Marital Conflict

If you’ve ever gone through something traumatic, such as childhood abuse or neglect, a natural disaster, a violent assault, a hate crime, or a pandemic, you know that you don’t just shake it off and move on. Trauma has a way of sticking in your brain, seeping into your unconscious mind, and sparking your nervous system. Adverse childhood experiences or traumatic events in adulthood can have a lasting negative impact on your life and can lead to the development of internal “Wounded Dragons.”

In his book Your Brain Is Always Listening, Dr. Daniel Amen writes that these inner “dragons from the past” arise from trauma. They breathe fire on the emotional brain (amygdala), driving anxiety, panic, depression, anger, negative thinking, numbness, and irrational behavior. The Wounded Dragons can take a devastating toll on your emotional well-being as well as on your relationships. In fact, unresolved trauma can create a host of challenges that lead to marital conflict.

Trauma has a way of sticking in your brain, seeping into your unconscious mind, and sparking your nervous system. Unresolved trauma can create a host of challenges that lead to marital conflict. Click To Tweet

3 Relationship Challenges Due to Past Trauma

No matter what type of trauma you have experienced, it can affect your ability to develop and maintain a loving relationship. And if trauma occurs during adulthood, it can negatively impact your marriage. Three of the most common relationship challenges facing people who have lived through trauma include the following.

1. Trust issues

People who have lived through traumatic events often lose their sense of security and safety. It’s common to feel like danger is lurking around every corner, which can make it difficult to trust people, even those you previously trusted. This may cause you to create walls in relationships in an effort to protect yourself from getting hurt. But this can backfire. Shying away from emotional or physical intimacy can make your partner feel left out or unfulfilled and can create a source of tension.

2. Triggered reactions

Anything that remotely reminds you of the past trauma—such as to scents, sights, or sounds—can dredge up painful memories and cause involuntary reactions. Something as seemingly innocuous as hearing a song can trigger a trauma survivor to react with anger, sadness, or anxiousness. You may lash out at your spouse, retreat from them, or tune out mentally. For your romantic partner, this may seem to come out of nowhere. In fact, the reaction may be unconscious and automatic, meaning you may not even realize why you’re behaving this way. It can leave your partner feeling confused, attacked, abandoned, rejected, or unloved, which may lead them to respond in kind. It creates an unhealthy cycle in which arguments and marital conflict become a common occurrence.

3. Fight, flight, or freeze response

When you have unprocessed trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), reminders of past trauma may trigger your brain’s stress response. This internal survival mechanism kickstarts whenever you encounter a real or imagined threat. It is due largely to the amygdala, a region deep in the brain that is responsible for our “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This can be a lifesaver if you’re ever chased by an angry bear, but it can be counterproductive if it occurs in everyday situations that your brain erroneously interprets as dangerous. Here’s how these responses can impact your relationship.

  • Fight: Automatically reacting by screaming at your significant other, picking fights, blaming them for your issues, bringing up past problems, or getting physically abusive can damage the relationship.
  • Flight: If you automatically run the other way in stressful situations, it can have a detrimental effect on your marriage. Being conflict avoidant or pretending problems don’t exist can cause issues to fester and become insurmountable. In other cases, you may feel the urge to run away from a relationship at the first sign of trouble.
  • Freeze: In some stressful instances, you may shut down and withdraw from your partner. This can create a disconnect between the two of you that leaves your significant other feeling isolated and unwanted.

3 Ways to Heal Past Trauma and Improve Relationships

Past trauma doesn’t have to get in the way of a happy marriage. Working through the emotional pain of traumatic events can be helpful in preventing or overcoming relationship problems. Some of the most helpful therapies include:

  1. Consider trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). Developed in the 1990s by a trio of professionals, TF-CBT can be effective for children, teenagers, and adults who have experienced trauma. This therapy aims to help trauma survivors overcome anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, powerlessness, self-abuse, and acting out. When you gain greater control over your emotions, it can help you cope more effectively with the normal ups and downs of married life.
  2. Stop ignoring past trauma. It’s normal to experience painful emotions related to past trauma, but many people attempt to block out those emotions. This is counterproductive, as scientific research shows that avoidance increases the risk of psychological issues, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders, and more. When you are struggling, try talking to your significant other rather than shutting them out. Couples therapy may be beneficial in helping you develop or rebuild trust in your relationship, so you feel more comfortable sharing your fears and anxiousness.
  3. Try EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). This helpful form of psychotherapy can minimize the emotional pain associated with trauma. EMDR, which involves moving the eyes from side to side while bringing up traumatic memories, helps remove the emotional charges connected to those memories. Processing traumatic memories with this therapy aids in rewiring and calming the brain, which can help you react in healthier ways to everyday stresses.

When you address past trauma and learn to process it in a healthy way, it provides a path to less stress with your partner and a deeper, more intimate, and more fulfilling relationship.

Past trauma, PTSD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Great article! My sister and I were both neglected in childhood. She’s chosen to not face her trauma and will not go to a counselor and she says she’s done with relationships. I’ve faced my trauma more and have a pretty good relationship.

    Comment by Suzanne Levinson — August 13, 2021 @ 4:20 AM

  2. Thank you all very much for these reminders – a freshening of past training for me . It’s a now word – as they say 👍

    Comment by Annette — August 13, 2021 @ 4:46 AM

  3. Good info. Especially as a marriage gets longer

    Comment by Deb Johnson — August 13, 2021 @ 5:02 AM

  4. This was a wonderful discussion with real practical guidance in improving relationships scarred by childhood and/or adult trauma. This certainly applies in marriage relationships. It would also apply just as impactfully in other family relationships, such as parent and adult-child relationships. Probably many of Dr. Amen’s followers would benefit by a similar discussion pertaining to the relationships between parents and adult children. My children have been scarred by the fearsome behavior and sudden, absolute abandonment by their father, during early childhood. This was followed by witnessing and experiencing verbal and physical abuse from a stepfather during 4 school-age years. As their mother, deeply concerned with the welfare and emotional development of my children, I left these marriages after just a few years, as the men’s behavior patterns revealed they would not, or could not, change. So now, as their only parent, I have received for more than the last 25 years the entire brunt of their acting out:. For more than 15 years two adult sons have acted out absolute ostracism of me (their mother) with an impenetrable wall of complete silence, as well as disallowing me any relationship or contact with my grandchildren. Neither of them respond to my efforts to my acknowledgment of their pain and the damage done during childhood to each of them due to adverse childhood experiences that were all-too-present and real to them as youngsters. My expressed sorrow about their pain are met with absolute silence. Cards & letters have gone unanswered for 15 years by these young men now in the 40’s. My daughter has different tendencies, but still demonstrates acting out behavior fueled by hostile attitudes generated from adverse childhood experiences, now well into the fourth decade of life. I was the parent who provided for and protected them; the one who has always been “there” for them. But, I am the one they are determined to punish through their unceasing relationship-destroying behaviors. As if the wife abuse did not leave me and my adult children with enough scars, these adult children show no restraint in heaping on the abuse of their mother, completely rupturing our family unit; promoting no healing. An article addressing the vitally important life-long relationships between parent and adult children, and best approaches to promote healthy relationships through psycho-emotional healing and reconciliation would help a large population of individuals. I do hope to see such an article in the near future.
    Thank you, Dr. Amen and staff, for all you do to help people heal their brains, emotions, thought processes, and psyches.

    Comment by Carol — August 13, 2021 @ 12:14 PM

  5. This was such a blessing to read!

    Comment by Patricia Reeves — August 13, 2021 @ 12:41 PM

  6. This is called Amen clinic and there is no mention of God?

    Families that pray together stay together!

    Anything that helps is good. Nothing can help you more than God.

    Comment by Darren Hyatt — August 13, 2021 @ 4:01 PM

  7. Yes i feel like this what my daughter deals with.
    Tgey have her on medication im not sure its right
    She has put on a significant amount of weight fue to medication we are currently looking into new methods….

    Comment by Sandra Valdivia — August 14, 2021 @ 4:11 AM

  8. I can relate to your information.

    Comment by Sandra Dickey — August 14, 2021 @ 4:15 AM

  9. I found this very useful

    Comment by Toni — August 14, 2021 @ 4:34 AM

  10. This article was helpful for me, thank you. What was particularly helpful was the 2nd part of the article, the ways to help improve one’s mind and health. I think it would be helpful for many people to know they they can retrain their brain. Could you please post more articles about how someone can retrain their brain? Thank you

    Comment by Jill K. — August 14, 2021 @ 4:36 AM

  11. wish I knew this 17 or 18 yrs ago. . . all this fits me. . . Glad yall put it in print sir. Cheers, B.J.

    Comment by John Van't-Haaff sr. — August 14, 2021 @ 7:48 AM

  12. I saw the title & automatically thought of my 3 kids & their spouses. After reading the article I see me! Something came up in our marriage of 18 years in September of 2019. There are those who would have left, I chose to stay & see if we could work through it. I’m happy to say we have come a long way since the incident. Now this article has opened my eyes to something & it will allow us to continue to work together, coming closer all the time.
    Thank you!

    Comment by Lynn Bonser — August 14, 2021 @ 8:06 AM

  13. Thank you for this as I am married to a man who suffered severe childhood trauma and I’ve observed all th se behaviors in him and yes they have taken a toll on me but grateful to my work and training. The problem is that he doesn’t want to receive help.

    Comment by Angelica — August 14, 2021 @ 8:24 AM

  14. This article as usual from Amen Clinic is very helpful. My specialties are anxiety, depression, relationships and domestic violence. Keep them coming.

    Comment by Mary Dermody — August 14, 2021 @ 9:06 AM

  15. Hi, do you do online counselling for people living outside the US?

    Comment by Tracey — August 15, 2021 @ 1:07 PM

  16. Thank you for this article. I’ve been dealing with this for years in my marriage and my wife is now getting proper help. One of the toughest parts of this situation is that it’s brought not only conflict into the relationship, but confusing conflict. There are times where she has been angry out of nowhere, distant out of nowhere, etc. For several years it was posed as a problem I had brought into our marriage until this year when a new therapist started addressing the “real” issues. While I’m thankful it’s very sad that now I feel that we’ve lost a lot of time on issues between us that weren’t even actually real.

    Comment by Philip McAdams — November 10, 2022 @ 7:10 AM

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