Are little 't' traumas hurting your romantic relationships?

Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event that changes how we see the world. Here's how to prevent the past experience from affecting your current relationship.
Image: Couple talking
Whether it’s lying, cheating or ghosting that you’ve dealt with, talking about it with your current partner will ensure you don’t bring past trauma into your current relationship.Tetra Images / Getty Images
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By Jenna Birch

When I was 22, my boyfriend dumped me one day after telling me that he was falling in love me. When we got back together, he explained that he was momentarily scared of his own feelings. But from that point onward, I was always wary. (Spoiler: It did not last.)

A year and a half later, I dated another guy who claimed to be both enthralled by me and reluctant to pursue a relationship at the same time. He came and went often, disappearing for days at a time — even after he called me his girlfriend. He liked to twist the truth and rewrite history. He didn’t tell me he was in love with me until after we broke up. He later told me he was over me, and then asked to get back together for dinner six weeks later.

Next, I entered the dating pool, where I was sometimes ghosted, often strung along, and rarely talking to someone for more than a few weeks before the bubble of new-relationship bliss popped. All the while, I was starting to internalize the idea that no one stays.

As we date and build relationships, we all we all accumulate these sorts of traumas. A trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event. But every trauma is not obvious, like a natural disaster, terrorist attack, plane accident, or instance of physical abuse, which psychologists refer to as “Big 'T' traumas.” Some traumas, called “little 't' traumas,” are smaller and more subtle. And you might not even know they’ve happened to you.

Traumas, both big and small, usually have a common thread: Helplessness. Small-t traumas may not be inherently life-threatening, “but perhaps better described as ego-threatening,” says Elyssa H. Barbash, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Tampa, Florida.

It seems that we may not be very good at identifying traumas in our past. Lisa Firestone, PhD, a psychologist and Director of Research at the Glendon Association, says she’s done an exercise in the past where she has people write down 10 traumas from their childhood that really affected them. “Most people can’t think of 10 right off the bat,” she says. “Most people need to reach.”

But it’s not that the traumas don’t exist; Firestone recalls one person’s trauma as the death of a dog, another as a bike accident involving a father and son, and yet another as a horse-riding accident. “Most people haven’t ever viewed these incidents as ‘traumas’ before,” she explains. “However, these events changed how they saw the world or saw themselves.”

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Of course, traumas big and small are not limited to childhood; they can occur at any time. And as I learned firsthand, little "t" traumas are especially common within adult romantic relationships. In my personal case, I’d certainly experienced some defining events, developing an abandonment complex of sorts. My first two partners left me, and then returned. After that, I entered the challenging dating pool, only to be ghosted over and over again by promising prospects. Inevitably, this changed both how I saw the world, and how I saw myself.

Do you have little "t" traumas from past romantic relationships?

Lying, cheating, gaslighting, emotional abuse, bullying and more can often fall under the umbrella of little-t trauma. “A person who has experienced these in previous relationships is likely to be more guarded, less trusting, more reactive, more careful, and overall more hesitant to be vulnerable in future romantic relationships,” says Barbash.

Among daters, even ghosting, breadcrumbing and orbiting (think: all the modern buzz terms) can be classified as a little-t traumas — especially if they happen again and again.

Among daters, Barbash says even ghosting, breadcrumbing and orbiting (think: all the modern buzz terms) can be classified as a little "t" traumas — especially if they happen again and again. “This can impact the person’s self-worth, confidence, and increase their resistance to meeting or pursuing new relationships out of fear of continued rejection or abandonment,” she says.

Little "t" traumas definitely affected the early days of my current relationship. Once a few months passed and I was emotionally invested, I felt hypersensitive to signs he was pulling away — like forgetting to text me when he woke up one morning, or feeling reactive when he chose to hang out with his friends instead of me. At that point, I had to dig deep within myself and ask if the problem was him — or me.

“Acknowledging, and not avoiding” is the best way to deal with little "t" traumas, says Barbash. Do you think you have you been affected by a little-t trauma? If so, are you able to identify when your past is creeping into your present? “The best way to prevent cumulative effects of little "t" traumas that create a big problem is by dealing with each situation as it occurs,” Barbash says. That means taking a hard look at why you feel the way you do. Here's a healthy 4-step process to follow to help you identify and cope with these traumas:

  • Step 1: Identify your personal traumas. You probably know which ex (or exes) were toxic, or which relationships made you feel terrible. Maybe your partner was controlling, making comments about what you wore or how you spent your time. Or maybe their stories never added up; or you discovered almost certain lies or cheating. Perhaps they constantly “moved the goal posts,” making you feel like you were never enough. Step one is identifying the aspects of the relationship that elicited negative emotions. Step two is identifying the underlying reason why, i.e. the cheating, lying or controlling nature.
  • Step 2: Reflect. Once you’ve identified your little t-traumas, you should take ample time to seriously reflect upon what you will and will not tolerate moving forward, as well as your hopes for a future relationship, according to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health in Chicago. Once you’ve had time to resolve that the relationship is over, look back through a clearer lens. “Examine the things that made you feel sad or hurt throughout the relationship,” she says. “Look for patterns of behaviors in your ex, or situations that made you feel uncomfortable or shamed.”
  • Step 3: Don’t accept the blame. With whatever trauma was inflicted upon you — whether it be lying, cheating or another abuse — know that it’s not your fault. “Nothing you did or didn’t do caused them to make the decision to engage in those behaviors,” Barbash says. “Every person has thousands of options of how they can handle a situation, and lying or cheating are simply two of those options; do not blame yourself and allow their actions to dictate your self-worth.”
  • Step 4: Learn a lesson — and take it with you into the next relationship. Barbash says you can turn your little "t" traumas into lessons. Learn from those previous experiences “to pick up on red flags, when possible,” and not ignore them early on. “The next time, you don’t have to pursue a situation or relationship that has the indicators of being problematic or emotionally difficult,” she says. You can commit to that before you ever start dating again, or pick up with a new partner. Once you’re on the cusp of a growing new relationship, “it is best to ask your partner to sit down and discuss the things that you can and can’t tolerate in a relationship,” says Ivankovich.

How to keep little "t" traumas from impacting your current relationship

As you become more emotionally involved with a new partner, it’s still possible you may be triggered due to your past experiences. You see them talking to someone else while out with friends, and your mind leaps to cheating. Or perhaps they've been distant over text, and your mind leaps to them being checked out of the relationship. “Try to evaluate the situation fairly,” says Ivankovich. “Is there evidence, or suspicion only? If there’s evidence, how did you come about the evidence? If there’s suspicion, what led you to this conclusion? Was it due to snooping, from others’ or your own observations, or was it fear?” In other words, how big is the leap to the negative outcome?

Firestone says it’s common to have “an oversized emotional reaction” when you have repetitive little "t" traumas in your past — so be mindful of that before you jump to conclusions and confront your partner about a perceived wrong. Instead, here is how to prevent past traumas from negatively affecting your current relationship:

  • Ask yourself: Is the trigger based in reality or fear? Of course, if you have direct evidence that your partner’s been untrustworthy or unfaithful, then you should not hesitate to bring it up. But if you have fear, you have to ID the source. “If your fear is based on your partner’s current pattern of behaviors, communicate that with them,” she says. “But if it’s based on a fear from a past relationship, suddenly triggered in your new one, then communicate with yourself first; restructure the thoughts to be mindful of the partner you know, not the partner you’re scared will appear.”
  • Admit to your partner that you’re triggered. It’s okay — important even — to tell your partner when you feel triggered by their behavior, even if the reaction is unwarranted. “People fear speaking to their partner about sensitive topics for two reasons: fear of rejection and because speaking of these traumas makes them vulnerable to experience the hurt all over again,” says Ivankovich. “But remember, if the hurt is still that prevalent, even after time, then the hurt has not been resolved; any perceived slight or hurt will reopen the emotional wounds."
  • Talk it out. It’s better your partner know that you’re working through your past pain than for you to project that pain onto them or shut them out. “Sit down and explain to your partner the basis of your past hurt, which is now informing your current fears,” says Ivankovich. “Explain to your partner the reassurance you need to feel secure.” It’s hard to maintain a healthy relationship if the person who loves you feels blamed for emotional damage they did not inflict – and they can’t understand where it’s coming from. The right partner will want you to feel safe in your current relationship, and will help you get there through consistency and communication.

My boyfriend has always responded thoughtfully to my greatest fears — even though he’s not to blame, and I’ve explained that on several occasions. I’m glad that we had a long talk about why I was overreacting to tiny triggers, and that I explained exactly what my little "t" traumas were and why they existed. He’s tried to remain consistent and communicative ever since. I’m happy to report we have very few issues these days.

Why? “It’s because you explain your anxieties so well,” he once told me. I’m just glad I learned how.

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