Trauma Informed Relationships: A Concept
Trauma informed care is a medical term that is used to create a more holistic experience for patients with their health care providers. It incorporates the biological, psychological, neurological, and social impact of trauma on an individual and uses all these areas of concern and specificity to craft a health care plan or course of action that is tailored to the specific individual. This related both to physical and mental health treatments, as many medical conditions are linked to personal/ cultural trauma that a patient has been the victim of. According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration), there are six principles of trauma informed care:
- Safety (Mental, Physical, Emotional)
- Trustworthiness and Transparency
- Peer Support
- Collaboration and Mutuality
- Empowerment, Voice, and Choice
- Cultural, Historical, and Gender Specific Issues
In doing research on trauma informed care for my own personal knowledge and reference material for my podcast, I had a thought… what if this idea was carried over into interpersonal relationships? What would that even look like?
Safety is tantamount to interpersonal relationships- whether the person is a spouse, child, sibling, or friend. Safety is about providing space for a person to feel a layer of protection and comfort by your presence. Safety is about not doing harm to the other person. Safety is about lacking malice in your intentions. Safety is about your positioning not ever being under threat. Safety is a lack of violence and micro-aggressive behavior. It is about allowing expression and space for the person. It is about trust and understanding. Safety is something that all relationships should have, but especially relationships that are meant to be lifelong.
Practical applications of the safety principle in interpersonal relationships are:
- Keeping the channels of communication open by not gaslighting the other parties of your relationships when they come to you with issues.
- Clear and nonviolent communication via “I” statements and lack of loaded or insulting/ condescending language
- Being solution oriented rather than focusing on faults and problems
- Lack of physical, financial, mental, or emotional abuse
- Being approachable and making other parties feel a sense of ease rather than one of apprehension
- Being patient, sympathetic/ empathetic and understanding
Trustworthiness and Transparency
The thread of all interpersonal and business relationships is the capability to trust; and that trust is often built on the transparency and accountability of the other party. For example- if you went to a dry cleaner and they habitually lost your items or returned them late and still soiled- chances are that you would not continue to provide this dry cleaner your patronage. If you had a child that continuously abused their freedoms by oft being late despite a stated curfew, chances are the privileges and freedoms of that child would be revoked temporarily. Lack of person to person integrity harms relationships, sometimes to levels that are irreparable.
Practical applications of this principle within interpersonal relationships:
- Clear and concise statement of boundaries and commitment to honoring those boundaries
- Having integrity and being honest within your interactions, lacking manipulation, lying by omission, not being sneaky with the intent to deceive the other party
- Clear and open communication and being receptive to the input of the other party when making decisions that could possibly affect them
- Clear and open communication about commitments that you’re no longer able to honor, offering notice and restitution or replacement
- Respecting the privacy of the other party, and not using privacy and trust extended to you to deceive or hide malicious, manipulative, or dishonest behavior
- Reassuring partners of their security within the relationship
Peer support is a means to create healthy, healing relationships for those who have experienced trauma. Support groups play an active role in the healing of those who have suffered from trauma because the commonality of a specific trauma lends itself to a level of sympathy and empathy that those who have not experienced that specific trauma might be inherently lacking. I think that this is an idea that should be extended to your family and close friends.
Practical applications of Peer Support in interpersonal relationships:
- Offering sincere support and space/ time for a person to vent to you or share their mental health issues to you
- Asking the other party their triggers and avoiding them
- Inquiring and respecting the pronouns a person wishes to be used in relation to them
- Keeping confidence of private information that has been divulged to you
- Being cognizant of the communication styles of the other party- not everyone is a verbal communicator
- Asking the other party their needs and doing your best to provide them
- Knowing when to get professional help and knowing which organizations to reach out to if the person does need help and support that is beyond your ability to provide
- De-escalating a person who has become violent to self or others due to being psychologically triggered
Collaboration and Mutuality
In all interpersonal relationships, working together to achieve a common goal is something that is important. When you are someone’s parent, you are working with them to help them become productive adults. When you’re someone’s spouse, you are working with them to build a life together. When you’re someone’s friend, you’re being each other’s support and companion. Critical to these relationships are reciprocity and equitable effort in maintaining these connections. Realizing that relationships require work and collaboration from both parties to be successful is a call for each person within the relationship to do their part to make the relationship successful. You can help your kid with their homework, but you can’t do the work for them. You can help your spouse with their resume, but you can’t go to interviews and do their job for them. In each case, if one party is not doing their own work/ part, the overall mission fails- this is an idea that is applicable in almost all interpersonal relationships.
Practical application of Collaboration and Mutuality in interpersonal relationships:
- Inquiring the strengths of each party; playing on those strengths, offering support/ action where they have “weaknesses”
- Realizing that you are responsible for your own growth and must do your own work
- Being accountable to the commitments that you have made for self and for others
- Sharing power and decision making where applicable and appropriate
- Being able to take constructive criticism without defensiveness, and provide constructive feedback in a way that isn’t attacking the other party
- Leveling power imbalances that are financial, age based, or otherwise inequitable to give other parties a fair voice in their own care/ decisions that will affect them
Empowerment, voice, and choice
Each relationship is unique and will require a different approach. You will not relate to your spouse the same way that you relate to your child. You will not relate the same even from one spouse to another. Being mindful that each relationship with an individual requires an individualized approach is essential. Empowering via validation, reassurance, and actively listening to the other party is what makes relationships successful and meaningful.
Practical ways to apply Empowerment, voice, and choice to interpersonal relationships:
- Actively listen to the needs of the other party rather than assume
- Focus on positive attributes rather than deficits or flaws
- Mutuality, voice, and choice all go hand in hand, so giving the other party an equal voice in decisions that inform their care/ relationships is tantamount
- As with collaboration and mutuality, leveling of power imbalances is also important to making the other party feel empowered and giving them a voice/ choice within the context of the relationship
- Absence of abuse and manipulation based on power imbalances
- Giving space and freedom for the other party to be their own person without your influence, jealousy, or control
Cultural, Historical, and Gender Specific Issues
As previously mentioned, each relationship is different and will require a different approach. The way that you navigate a relationship with a white man will be different from that way that you should navigate a relationship with a black woman because the specific issues that affect a black woman will not affect a white man. Because some trauma and health issues are exclusive or common/ disproportionate to specific demographics, being aware of the specific cultural, historical, racial, and gendered issues facing the other parties of your relationships is critical.
Some practical applications of awareness of cultural, historical, and gender specific issues in interpersonal relationships:
- Being aware of the health and wellness issues that affect the specific demographic of the other party. Providing personal and/ or political advocacy for those issues
- Do not dismiss, silence, or gaslight the other party when they are referencing or discussing demographic specific issues that you do not understand or disagree with
- Do not center yourself in those discussions
- Realize that sometimes you will be in the demographic of people that have benefited politically, economically, or socially from the issues that have caused trauma for others, do not perpetuate that violence and actively reject that “benefit” and power imbalance when/ if applicable
In a society like America that is full of violence based on race, sex, religion, and economic standing, trauma is almost positively something that will inform and affect the way we relate to one another.
Trauma informed relationships are a proposed paradigm shift in the way that we view relationships with other and relationships with ourselves. We owe ourselves the space to heal from trauma, just as we owe the people we love the right to not have trauma inflicted upon them by us. Humans are a social animal. Recognizing that we live in a world that is inherently socially, politically, and economically violent to certain demographics and using that truth to inform the way that we interface with people of that demographic is so sensical it almost seems superfluous to have to “coin” and define this phrase at all.