Trauma, Sexual Dysfunction, and Relationship Challenges

April 4, 2024   •  Posted in: 

The impact of traumatic experiences in life can be far-reaching. Unresolved traumatic experiences can manifest in our most intimate relationships, leading to trust issues, sexual dysfunction, or aversion. These can then be further complicated by online infidelity or addiction to online pornography – often a result of the earlier trauma.

This article outlines what trauma is, why it has such an impact, and discusses the types of issues that can subsequently arise in sex and relationships. For those seeking support, appropriate treatment options are also described.

What is trauma?

Trauma is a psychological and emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event or series of events. These events are perceived as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. Trauma can result from experiences such as abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, or surviving a natural disaster.

Complex trauma refers to repeated or prolonged exposure to traumatic events, often during childhood or within a close relationship. It can lead to long-term emotional and psychological difficulties.

Recommended Reading What Is Complex PTSD?

Developmental trauma occurs when trauma experienced during crucial developmental stages in childhood disrupts healthy emotional and psychological growth.

Vicarious trauma (also known as secondary trauma or compassion fatigue) refers to the emotional toll experienced by individuals who are indirectly exposed to trauma, such as healthcare workers, first responders, or therapists working with trauma survivors.

All types of trauma can have profound and lasting effects on an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It can manifest in various ways and impact different aspects of a person’s life.

Trauma can affect individuals differently. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop trauma-related symptoms or conditions. However, common reactions to trauma may include feelings of fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. These reactions can interfere with a person’s ability to function daily and maintain healthy relationships.

How is trauma related to trust and trust issues?

Trauma can significantly impact trust, both in oneself and in others. The relationship between trauma and trust is complex and can manifest in various ways.

Individuals who have experienced trauma, especially interpersonal trauma, may develop a heightened sense of distrust in others. This can result from a fear of betrayal, abandonment, or further harm. They may find it challenging to open up or rely on others for support.

One study [1] found survivors of trauma held negative beliefs about others in direct proportion to the severity of the trauma.

Trauma survivors often become hyper-vigilant as a defense mechanism. They may be constantly on guard, expecting danger or harm from others. This hyper-vigilance can make it difficult to trust people who are always prepared for potential threats. This is supported by research [2] into the brain activity of trauma victims that suggests sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) allocate more mental resources towards identifying socially threatening stimuli.

Multiple studies [3] have found trauma can also disrupt the ability to form secure attachments and close relationships. Trust is a crucial component of attachment, and trauma survivors may struggle to let their guard down enough to create deep, meaningful connections with others.

In romantic or intimate relationships, unresolved trauma can lead to trust issues. Trauma survivors may struggle to be vulnerable, communicate needs, or fully engage in the relationship due to fear of being hurt again.

Trauma can sometimes lead to reactive trust issues, where individuals might be overly trusting and then overly mistrustful. This inconsistency in trust can confuse individuals and their relationships.

Trauma can also lead to self-doubt and self-criticism, i.e., mistrust of self. Survivors may lack trust in their judgment and abilities, making it challenging to trust others since they cannot even trust themselves.

Finally, trauma can influence decision-making patterns. Individuals may make decisions based on fear or mistrust, hindering personal and professional growth.

It’s essential to recognize the impact of trauma on trust is highly individualized and can vary based on the type of trauma, the person’s resilience, their support system, and their coping strategies. Healing from trauma often involves addressing trust issues through therapy, support networks, and self-care. Building or rebuilding trust, both in oneself and in others, is a crucial part of the recovery process for trauma survivors.

What is sexual dysfunction?

Sexual dysfunction refers to a wide range of problems or difficulties that can occur during any phase of the sexual response cycle, preventing an individual or couple from experiencing sexual satisfaction.

The sexual response cycle typically includes four phases:

  1. Desire: This phase involves sexual interest or arousal, including the willingness to engage in sexual activity.
  2. Arousal: During this phase, there is physical and psychological readiness for sexual activity, often accompanied by physiological changes such as genital arousal (in both males and females) and increased heart rate.
  3. Orgasm: This phase is characterized by the climax of sexual pleasure and is accompanied by intense physical and emotional sensations.
  4. Resolution: After orgasm, the body returns to its normal, relaxed state, and there is a sense of satisfaction and well-being.

Sexual dysfunction can occur at any of these phases and can affect both men and women.

Some common types of sexual dysfunction include:

  • Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD): A lack of interest in or desire for sexual activity, which causes distress or difficulties in interpersonal relationships.
  • Erectile Dysfunction (ED): The inability to achieve or maintain an erection sufficient for sexual intercourse in males.
  • Female Sexual Arousal Disorder (FSAD): Difficulty with physiological changes (such as vaginal lubrication) associated with sexual arousal in women.
  • Premature Ejaculation (PE): Ejaculation that occurs too quickly during sexual activity, often before or shortly after penetration.
  • Delayed Ejaculation: Difficulty or an inability to achieve ejaculation, even with sufficient sexual stimulation.
  • Anorgasmia: The inability to achieve orgasm despite adequate sexual arousal and stimulation.
  • Dyspareunia: Painful intercourse, which can be caused by various factors such as physical conditions or psychological issues.
  • Vaginismus: Involuntary muscle spasms in the vaginal area that make penetration painful or impossible.

One study [4] reports that negative, confusing, guilt-inducing, or traumatic sexual experiences are almost universal for both females and males, suggesting that problems with sexual dysfunction could be widespread. The Cleveland Clinic backs this up with a statement that 43% of women and 31% of men report some degree of sexual dysfunction.

It’s essential to note sexual dysfunction can have physical, psychological, or relational causes. It can result from factors such as medical conditions, hormonal imbalances, medications, stress, anxiety, depression, past trauma, relationship problems, or a combination of these.

Seeking help from a healthcare professional or therapist experienced in sexual health is vital for individuals or couples experiencing sexual dysfunction.

Treatment for sexual dysfunction typically involves addressing the underlying causes and may include therapy, counseling, medical interventions, lifestyle changes, or a combination of these approaches.

What role does trauma play in sex aversion?

Trauma can have a profound impact on a person’s sexual functioning and may lead to aversion to sex. This aversion can manifest in various ways, and the specific effects can vary from person to person.

Here are some ways in which trauma can affect a person’s aversion to sex.

  1. Trauma survivors may experience hypervigilance and heightened anxiety, which can make them acutely aware of their surroundings and any potential threats. In a sexual context, this heightened state of alertness can make it challenging to relax and enjoy the experience, leading to aversion.
  2. Trauma survivors may have flashbacks or intrusive thoughts related to their traumatic experiences. These can be triggered during sexual activity and create distress, making it difficult to engage in or enjoy sex.
  3. Some trauma survivors may experience physical discomfort or pain during sex, which can be associated with tension in the body or trauma-related conditions such as vaginismus or pelvic floor dysfunction. This discomfort can contribute to aversion.
  4. Certain sexual acts or situations may emotionally trigger trauma survivors, causing them to associate sex with past traumatic experiences. This can lead to an aversion to sexual activity.
  5. Trauma survivors may engage in avoidance behaviors as a way to cope with their trauma. Avoiding sexual activity or intimacy can be a way to protect oneself from perceived harm.
  6. Trauma can affect a person’s body image and self-esteem. Feelings of shame, guilt, or worthlessness can contribute to sexual aversion, as the survivor may feel undeserving of pleasure or intimacy.
  7. Some trauma survivors may lose interest in pleasure or may dissociate during sexual activity as a way to disconnect from their bodies and emotions. This dissociation can contribute to sexual aversion.
  8. Trauma can disrupt the ability to form secure attachments and connect emotionally with a partner. This can hinder the development of intimacy and lead to aversion to sex as a means of avoiding emotional vulnerability.

However, it manifests that sexual aversion resulting from trauma is a valid and understandable response to distressing experiences.

What is the relationship between trauma and online infidelity?

The relationship between trauma and online infidelity is complex and can vary from one individual or relationship to another. Trauma can contribute to online infidelity in several ways:

Coping mechanism

Some individuals who have experienced trauma may turn to online relationships or infidelity as a way to cope with their emotional pain or distress. Online interactions can offer a temporary escape from the challenges of their real-world relationships or traumatic memories.

Emotional disconnection

Trauma can create emotional disconnection within an intimate relationship. Individuals who feel emotionally disconnected from their partners may seek emotional connection elsewhere, including through online interactions.

Self-esteem issues

Trauma can lead to self-esteem and self-worth issues. Seeking validation or affirmation from others online, even if it involves infidelity, may temporarily boost self-esteem for some individuals.

Avoidance of intimacy

Trauma can result in intimacy issues, making it difficult for individuals to be vulnerable and intimate with their partners. They may turn to online infidelity as a way to avoid physical or emotional intimacy in their current relationship.

Revenge or retaliation

In some cases, a person who has experienced trauma within their relationship may engage in online infidelity as an act of revenge or retaliation against their partner, especially if they perceive their partner’s behavior as a source of trauma.

Escape from relationship problems

Individuals who have unresolved relationship issues or conflicts with their partners may use online infidelity as a means of escape. Online interactions can provide a sense of excitement and novelty they feel is lacking in their current relationship.

While trauma can contribute to online infidelity, not everyone who has experienced trauma will engage in infidelity, online or otherwise. Online infidelity can also be a symptom of underlying issues within a relationship, such as communication problems, dissatisfaction, or unmet emotional needs.

If trauma-related issues are contributing to online infidelity or relationship challenges, individuals and couples must seek professional help.

Therapy can provide a safe and supportive environment for addressing trauma, improving communication, and working on relationship dynamics. Building trust, repairing emotional bonds, and finding healthier coping mechanisms are essential steps in addressing the complex interplay between trauma and online infidelity.

What is the relationship between trauma and addiction to online pornography?

The relationship between trauma and addiction to online pornography can be complex and multifaceted. Trauma can contribute to the development and maintenance of pornography addiction in several ways.

Coping mechanism

Some individuals who have experienced trauma turn to pornography as a coping mechanism to numb or distract themselves from the emotional pain, distressing memories, or intrusive thoughts associated with their trauma. Pornography can provide a temporary escape from these difficult emotions.

Self-medication

Trauma survivors may use pornography as a form of self-medication to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues triggered or exacerbated by trauma. Pornography can provide a sense of pleasure and relaxation in the short term.

Dissociation

Trauma can lead to feelings of disconnection from one’s body or emotions. Some individuals may use pornography to further dissociate from their physical and emotional experiences, as it can provide a detached and fantasy-driven form of sexual arousal.

Avoidance of intimacy

Trauma can disrupt the ability to form intimate and trusting connections with others. Some individuals may turn to pornography to avoid the challenges and vulnerabilities of real-life intimate relationships, preferring the control and predictability of online sexual content.

Escapism

Trauma can create a desire to escape from the real world and its associated difficulties. Pornography can offer a fantasy world that provides an escape from the pain and stress of daily life, making it appealing to some trauma survivors.

Repetition compulsion

In some cases, individuals who have experienced trauma may unconsciously repeat patterns of behavior that resemble their traumatic experiences. This can lead to compulsive and repetitive pornography use, mirroring the trauma dynamics.

Addiction is a complex issue influenced by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. Addressing addiction to online pornography in the context of trauma often requires a holistic approach.

This may involve therapy and counseling to address the underlying trauma, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and address any co-occurring mental health issues.

Support from mental health professionals, support groups, and trusted loved ones can be essential in the recovery process.

Treatment for trauma, sexual dysfunction, and relationship challenges

Trauma survivors may find it difficult to seek help from therapists or support groups due to a lack of trust in the therapeutic process or a fear of being re-traumatized.

However, it’s essential to seek professional help when dealing with any type of trauma, as it can have a significant impact on mental and emotional well-being.

Treatment and support for trauma survivors often involve therapy, counseling, and other therapeutic interventions aimed at helping individuals process their experiences, manage symptoms, and work toward healing and recovery.

The Center • A Place of HOPE specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of individuals dealing with trauma, including those with PTSD.

Contact us today for more information.


1. Bell, V., Robinson, B., Katona, C., Fett, A., & Shergill, S. (2019). When trust is lost: The impact of interpersonal trauma on social interactions. Psychological Medicine, 49(6), 1041-1046. doi:10.1017/S0033291718001800
2. DALGLEISH, T., MORADI, A., TAGHAVI, M., NESHAT-DOOST, H., & YULE, W. (2001). An experimental investigation of hypervigilance for threat in children and adolescents with post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychological Medicine, 31(3), 541-547. doi:10.1017/S0033291701003567
3. Maja O’Connor & Ask Elklit (2008) Attachment styles, traumatic events, and PTSD: a cross-sectional investigation of adult attachment and trauma, Attachment & Human Development, 10:1, 59-71, DOI: 10.1080/14616730701868597
4. Barry w. McCarthy (1990) Treating sexual dysfunction associated with prior sexual trauma, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 16:3, 142-146, DOI: 10.1080/00926239008405260

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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