Center for Shared Insight, PC

Relationship Conflict: Four Trauma Responses that Aren’t About You

October 3, 2022
Posted By: Kristen Hick, Psy.D.

Relationships can be confusing to navigate and understand. If you are experiencing dynamics in your relationship that seem more intense than expected, ongoing or seemingly out of the blue, like withdrawal, unexplained or unusual conflict, or an inability to work through certain situations, don’t assume it is something you are doing. So often, past trauma is the root of relationship challenges.

Just as kids act out hard, painful, or confusing experiences with their parent(s) growing up, adults often act out unresolved emotions and trauma from their childhood or adulthood through their primary relationships - with friends or partners. These are automatic and unconscious ways of working through those unresolved experiences. Individuals’ experience of trauma also influences how one’s attachment style develops and later influences adult relationship behaviors and patterns.

In this post, we dive into ways people react in relationships that stem from their own difficult life experiences, more than the actual relationship. 

Four reactions to trauma

Trauma can mean different things to different people - so a good rule of thumb is if it feels traumatic to you or your partner, that usually means you or they have experienced some kind of trauma. For the purpose of our discussion, trauma refers to an intense emotional and psychological response to a disturbing, distressing or life or relationship-threatening experience. When someone experiences trauma, they experience a loss of felt security, emotional and/or physical safety, and usually power. Some examples include a car accident, being separated from a parent for a long period of time, a loved one dying, community violence, sexual harassment or assault and/or or being verbally, physically, sexually, financially, religiously or psychologically abused. Even a parent’s chronic misattunements to a child’s needs or experiencing a caregiver’s mental illness or addiction (which can involve a parent being preoccupied, absent, neglectful, and/or emotionally less stable before, during or following an episode) are forms of trauma.

When faced with situations, experiences, and feelings that trigger someone’s verbal (i.e., experiences recalled in a way that you can verbally recall it) or nonverbal memories (i.e., being reenacted in actions or reexperienced through somatic symptoms in your body, such as stomach aches, nausea, or dizziness) of past trauma, people can respond with a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. These responses can be triggered without warning or in situations you may not perceive as necessarily threatening, but feel so to that person. They often occur when the safety of the relationship is threatened. These four varying sympathetic nervous system responses originate in the reptilian or primal part of the brain.

You can recognize how past trauma shows up in your relationship by looking for the following subconscious survival responses. These reactions arise when a current situation triggers an unresolved, past situation. The brain and body usually respond to cues in the same way they did to the initial trauma. There are four types of primal responses, which are adaptive coping strategies once used to cope with the trauma and then become wired as they way to cope when trauma gets retriggered. 


In a fight response, the brain and body become highly activated and more engaged. There is an incredible sense of inner overwhelm, which can sometimes include shaking and crying. You may witness aggression, clenching of fists, agitation, fighting, harsh texts and communication, an inability to let the conflict go or back down, raised voices, anxiety, or even physical or emotional violence. Often in response to fear, someone having this response will confront the threat and stand up or assert themselves. The fight response may result in spinning up stories and building cases to demonize the other person (black and white thinking is common when trauma is triggered), while making negative assumptions. The purpose of this coping strategy is to regain a sense of safety, security and/or power through engaging, fighting back, and/or a  lack of distance. 


In a flight response, the brain and body are too activated and seek to disengage. There is a fleeing from the situation, either emotionally or physically. This might look like someone disengaging from an argument, by walking away or leaving the situation or house, withdrawing from a person, situation or life, getting depressed and isolating themselves from loved ones, being unwilling to listen when talking with someone, setting rigid boundaries that keep others away, or not returning texts or phone calls, and ghosting. The purpose of this response is to regain a sense of safety, security or power through distance and powering-down.


In a freeze response, a very different survival response occurs. The brain and body feel too activated, feel flooded and feel stuck, like a deer in headlights.  Someone in a freeze response may be distant, disengaged, dissociated, numb, apathetic, disconnected, or engage in stonewalling, though not intentionally, but because they are in an emotionally frozen state. Often, they are preserving resources, energy, and taking steps to avoid pain. Someone in a freeze response will have difficulty focusing, eating, sleeping, and engaging in activities. They may use alcohol or other substances to numb and avoid the pain. Psychologically speaking, they are stuck in the trauma, so to partners, they seem cut off, aloof, and disconnected.


While not as well known as the other trauma responses, ​​a Fawn response looks like going along with things or playing “nice” but in a disconnected way. While similar to freeze, fawn is not as frozen. Someone in a fawn state might be going through the motions or undecided about the relationship and therefore not yet reacting to the situation with a stronger trauma response. In a Fawn response, individuals tend not to establish, assert or uphold boundaries, similar to when they were experiencing the original trauma(s). A good example of this might be that they say, “yes” when they really wanted to say, “no”. This results in them later feeling upset with themselves or others who have taken advantage of them or not known where their boundaries were. 

Overcoming trauma responses

You may recognize your own reactions and past partners’ reactions in one or more of the trauma reactions above. While it’s beneficial to your relationships to own and reflect on your behavior and how it might contribute to the dynamics in any relationship, don’t automatically blame yourself for what is happening. If you or your partner is in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode, one or both of you is likely responding to your own unresolved pain. It’s also important to consider how a partner or friends’ trauma response may trigger your own trauma response (e.g., a partner’s flight response could trigger a fight response in you). 

Recognize that when a person’s trauma occurred within a relationship, either with a parent, other family member, caregiver or partner (e.g., either directly such as being abused by that person or indirectly by not intervening), trusting, relying on, and getting close to others as an adult may be very challenging.  Communication challenges, difficulty resolving conflict, anxiety or ambivalence with closeness may all be present. Empathize by recognizing that they may be reacting to a situation far beyond the dynamics of your relationship. 

As you work to understand why your partner may be reacting with a trauma response, try not to over-personalize their reaction or assume it is something you did or you can fix. Instead, learn more about your partner's triggers, and how your responses can make things better or worse. Adapting the way you engage could be helpful in your partner’s repair and healing process and helpful to you both building a stronger relationship together.

Encouraging your partner or friend to seek professional support through therapy or counseling is an important step. As they work through things with a professional,  you can show up consistently and compassionately for this person, holding space for them to sort through their feelings without believing it is something you can fix. Focus on the “here and now,” (e.g., focusing on breathing and noticing objects in the room to calm and center) to help facilitate your partner to ground in the present instead of being stuck in the past trauma). When they are ready to engage again, ask sensitive questions to understand their underlying experience and the emotions that are triggering a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. Many times, they will need to talk for just a few minutes about what got triggered. Going into great detail about the trauma can be both painful and counterproductive for healing. Recognize that while they have their own healing work to do, you can support their healing through your own relationship with them.

Having someone you love react strongly to conflict or friction can be incredibly painful and confusing. Working with a therapist to provide insights and strategies to help you cope during this time in your relationship is an essential means of support. Contact us to learn more about how we support relationships through individual therapy.

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