The unfortunate truth about life is that it brings opportunities for trauma. According to Mental Health of America, BIPOC are especially vulnerable to racial trauma and can experience symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Racial trauma can be devastating, personally, as well as for your relationship. Frequently, we don’t even recognize how impacted we are by the incidents of racism we experience. That impact can appear in several ways, including depression, anger, headaches or other physical pain, insomnia, flashbacks and low-self esteem.
My husband and I have had our own experiences with racism. Some were subtle, like being the front runner for a job until the hiring committee saw a picture of what we looked like or consistently being singled out for “random” searches at the airport. Other repeated occurrences have been blatant, including racial slurs hurled at us and being stopped and interrogated by police for no other reason than “you match the description of someone we’re looking for.” Resulting frustration and fear have caused my husband and me to argue because we disagree on how best to respond. Racism does not impact everyone the same. Your story may be very different from the story your partner or spouse tells.
No matter how emotionally resilient you are, the trauma from repeated personal and societal racism takes its toll. The idea that we must be “strong” and ignore how racism affects us only compounds that trauma. Having a response to something wrong is normal and healthy. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the opportunity to feel those feelings before new trauma occurs.
To cope with racial trauma, you and your partner may detach emotionally and not even realize it. You could spend all day keeping your emotions suppressed to be professional at work, calm for the kids, and fun for happy hour. When it’s time to engage with a partner or spouse, you either explode from suppressing so much emotion or have gone numb.
If you’re struggling with the impact of racial trauma, get the help you need and deserve. Several resources are available here. Acknowledging racial trauma and the role it plays in your life is a big step. Taking it further to see the impact on your relationship is a leap. If you’re at that point, below are some tips that can help.
Coping with Racial Trauma in Your Relationship or Marriage:
- Designate Your Relationship as a Safe Zone. Commit to creating a safe zone between you and your partner. Maintain a strict judgment-free policy where each of you can share your stories and feel what you need to feel. Practice listening with empathy and patience, keeping in mind that neither of you is the enemy. Having this safe zone together allows the two of you to be vulnerable and real, which will strengthen your underlying bond.
- Give One Another Space to Heal. There will be days when you need to talk immediately about something that’s happened. On other days, you’ll be struck speechless because you don’t yet understand how you feel. Your partner will have those same moments. Part of a safe zone relationship is being able to say, “I’m not ready to talk.” Sometimes the best way to support another person is to give them time alone. Remember that your need for space may differ from your partner’s, but both needs are valid.
- Practice Self-Care. You can’t support your partner through tough times if you aren’t caring for yourself. Make self-care a habit. Have a routine of the things that make you feel happy and at peace. Meditate, journal, have spa days, get your hair done, or spend quality time with family and friends. Stress and trauma can make your brain think you don’t have time for self-care, don’t deserve it, or that self-care won’t change anything. These thoughts are not true. Self-care is a wise use of your time, you deserve it, and it’s essential to your health and wellness.
- Engage in Advocacy. Racial trauma can leave you feeling helpless. Advocating for yourself or others can replace that feeling of helplessness with empowerment. The way you chose to advocate is up to you. The fact that you get up each morning and continue living your life is a form of advocacy.
- Tap into your support network. Your romantic relationship is an excellent source of support, but it can’t be the only one. Asking one person to be your everything, all the time, is not a reasonable request. You also cannot be the sole support for your partner. The health of your relationship or marriage depends, in part, on maintaining connections with family and friends. Those relationships also offer support during times of racial trauma. You create a broad support network to lean on in difficult times when you nurture all of your meaningful relationships.
Racial trauma is a sensitive, complicated issue. Be patient with yourself and your relationship as you work through it and if you need help, ask for it. You can only be your best when you are actively caring for your mental wellness.