• Holly Muir and Spencer Greenberg

Understanding Relationship Conflicts: Clashing Trauma

Here is a common situation that you might have noticed: close friends (or romantic partners) suddenly have their relationship explode – both people feel like the other one hurt them and that they themselves did nothing wrong. These heart-breaking and all-too-common situations can arise from a pattern we call “Clashing Trauma.” This article investigates how one person’s trauma can “clash” with another person’s trauma to cause relationship breakdown, and what you can do to resolve conflicts like this if you experience them yourself. You might find it helpful to read if you...

  • have some trauma in your past that sometimes gets triggered by other people's behavior;

  • find that your friends or romantic partners sometimes suddenly hurt you for inexplicable reasons;

  • struggle to understand other people’s hostile reactions to actions you take;

  • want a new model that might help you understand conflict with people close to you.

It has been estimated that over 70% of adults in the world have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Consequently, the majority of friendships and relationships will involve at least one person who has experienced trauma. Let’s look at some specific examples of what we mean by Clashing Trauma: 1. Trauma around anger and abuse Bob is sensitive to teasing because of a physically and emotionally abusive ex that used to tease him incessantly. Anne lightly teases him in what she thinks is a playful way, and he blows up in anger. Anne is sensitive to anger because her mom berated her as a child. She stops replying to Bob's messages, which makes Bob even angrier. 2. Trauma around abandonment and unwanted sexual advances Bob is physically affectionate with his close friend Anne. It starts to freak Anne out – when male friends have acted this way in the past, they have usually tried to initiate a sexual relationship with her in a way that she found traumatic. To prevent this, Anne stops being warm to Bob. Bob, however, regards Anne as a dear and platonic friend. Because Bob was suddenly abandoned by close friends in the past, he finds Anne’s sudden coldness very upsetting. The fear of abandonment causes Bob to be more affectionate toward Anne as he tries harder to reconnect. This triggers Anne further, causing her to withdraw even more, leading to Bob feeling even more hurt and confused. 3. Trauma around substance abuse Anne has a history of alcoholism that Bob doesn't know about. Years ago, she resolved to stop drinking when she realized she was becoming like her parents, whose drinking would often lead to physical fights. Bob drinks around her and encourages her to drink, which makes her angry. Bob has protected himself from people’s anger in the past using humor, so he tries to downplay Anne’s reaction by joking around and making light of the situation. Anne finds herself even more triggered and upset by Bob’s behavior – she wants her anger to be taken seriously because alcoholism was a huge challenge in her past. In all three examples above, one person’s reaction to their trauma being triggered in turn triggers the other person’s trauma response. Clashing Trauma is an example of a broader pattern of Clashing Reactions, where one person’s reaction to an action that upsets them triggers the other person to become upset or angry, which in turn intensifies the first person’s negative emotions, and so on. We’ve noticed that a surprisingly high proportion of fights between people who care a lot about each other fit this basic pattern. The cases of Clashing Reactions that this article is focused on involve reactions that have their foundations in trauma, but be mindful that trauma doesn't have to be at the root for similar patterns to occur.

What is trauma?

Trauma refers to enduring changes in your emotional reactions or self-protective behaviors that are the result of painful or frightening incidents in your past. Examples of trauma that people are usually familiar with include experiences with war, abuse, or sexual assault. For example:

  • A soldier who was shot at in combat may find that loud noises that sound like gunshots cause her to panic, even in completely safe environments.

  • A man who was sexually assaulted by someone with an English accent may feel anxious around people with those same accents.

But it is important to remember that trauma occurs on a spectrum; many people have emotional reactions to reminders of upsetting experiences in their past even when those experiences were not life-threatening or severely upsetting. For instance:

  • Someone who received bad news over the phone may experience a sense of dread and anxiety when they receive a call from an unknown number.

  • Someone who was teased by a school teacher for stuttering during a class presentation may find that they get nervous when asked to speak in front of people.

Trauma is the result of a mechanism your brain uses to protect you. This mechanism is often helpful - by sensitizing you to patterns that are similar to ones where you were hurt or frightened in the past, your brain tries to protect you from getting hurt again. Unfortunately, this protective mechanism sometimes goes too far, leading to reactions that can seriously impact people’s welfare (at which point we call it “trauma”).

The soldier, who is now in essentially no danger of getting shot, may have recurring panic attacks that reduce her quality of life, and avoid places she used to love just because there are loud noises there. Trauma can manifest in relationships too; many people are hurt by those close to them (unintentionally or not) and this can make us extra vigilant about avoiding similar painful experiences in the future.

What is going on when people’s trauma clashes?

Here is what we think is going on in situations where friendships or relationships break down due to Clashing Trauma:

1. Anne takes an action that seems normal and reasonable to her. Anne doesn't know it, but her close friend (or partner) Bob is sensitive to this kind of action due to trauma in his past. Bob therefore experiences intense negative emotions as a result of her action.

2. Bob instinctively tries to protect himself from this negative emotion using whatever approaches seemed to help him during past traumatic events (e.g., by avoiding Anne, yelling at her, getting very distraught, or trying to control her behavior). But he doesn't explain clearly to Anne what is happening. Anne is caught off guard by Bob's reaction—she doesn’t understand why he's behaving this way. Even worse, due to trauma in her own past, she gets triggered by Bob’s reaction and starts experiencing intense negative emotions of her own.

3. Anne now acts instinctively to try to protect herself from the way that Bob is making her feel (e.g., by lashing back out at him, avoiding him, shutting down, or trying to control him). This reaction results in Bob feeling even more upset, causing him to intensify his self-protective behavior.

You can now see how Clashing Trauma works:

  • From Bob's perspective, Anne suddenly did something that triggered his trauma, and when he tried to protect himself, she doubled down and hurt him more.

  • From Anne's perspective, Bob suddenly started acting in a strange and hurtful manner, and when she acted to protect herself, he hurt her even further.

  • From the outside view, it’s clear that neither person intended to hurt the other, yet both feel hurt, and the relationship suffers.

Incidentally, if you think that you might be Anne or Bob, you're not alone. When we shared a draft of this article, one friend of the author reached out asking if Anne represented them, and another reached out asking if they were Bob. But the post wasn't actually about either of them! We are trying to describe a general pattern that we've observed many times. Or, put another way: if you think you are Anne or Bob, then this post may well apply to you, but it's also about lots of other people as well.

How can you prevent Clashing Trauma?

Strategy 1: Prevention

The best way to prevent this pattern of conflict is to discuss in advance with trusted friends and romantic partners what triggers you each have, how to avoid these triggers, and what the best actions to take are if you trigger each other by accident.

For instance, Bob could have told Anne in advance that he can feel very attacked when someone is critical of him and that he tends to lash out in anger as a defense mechanism. Then Bob and Anne can work together to plan how Anne can give Bob feedback in ways that won't trigger him.

Strategy 2: Interception

Barring Prevention, upon being triggered the first time, Bob would ideally wait until he's calm and then tell Anne (without blaming her) that her action triggered negative emotions for him, explaining what the trigger was and how to avoid it. (See our post on non-violent communication for advice on how to communicate this kind of thing without making the other person feel bad.)

Then, Anne, caring about Bob, would ideally apologize for inadvertently hurting him and commit to trying to avoid those triggering actions in the future. But behaviors can take time to alter—Anne should set realistic expectations about how quickly she can make that change.

Interception is hard, but appreciating the negative consequences of unresolved Clashing Trauma might help motivate you to implement this strategy.

Strategy 3: Repair

If it's too late for Interception, try Repair: once Anne is hurt by Bob's response to her behavior, Anne could wait until she feels calm and then initiate a conversation with Bob.

During the conversation, she could explain how Bob's behavior seemed (to her) to suddenly and mysteriously change and how this had hurt her, while expressing interest in hearing Bob's experience of the situation. She would try to genuinely understand Bob's experience (non-violent communication could also be a helpful way to employ this strategy).

Bob could then explain what he experienced in the situation and what made him react that way towards Anne. They could each commit to new behaviors to reduce the chance they trigger each other in the future.

Understanding trauma

Each of the Prevention, Interception, and Repair strategies involve Anne or Bob explaining their triggers, or the trauma that grounds them, to each other. These strategies will therefore be harder to implement if you don’t understand your own trauma, or what can trigger it. One way to build an understanding of your trauma and triggers is to discuss it with a trained therapist or trusted friend (or partner). Conveniently, this is a great segue into setting up Prevention strategies with a trusted friend or partner so that you can avoid triggering each other!

Did you find this model of relationship breakdown helpful?

The next time you feel suddenly and unexpectedly hurt by a close friend or romantic partner, it may be worth asking yourself - could this be an instance of Clashing Trauma? Or, more generally, could it be a case of Clashing Reactions? In either case, consider the strategies of (1) Prevention, (2) Interception, and (3) Repair. A lot of great friendships and romantic relationships end for preventable reasons. We hope you can use these strategies to stay close to the people that you love.