The level of distress for couples who experienced trauma is higher. Trauma impacts the quality of couples’ relationship. The couples have difficult time feeling safe with one another, especially if they have family of origin trauma. If there is trauma that is coming from their present relationship, an affair or an emotional injury, that is particularly traumatic for couples.
They have a high level of distress, which makes it hard for them to feel safe and regulate their emotions. Seeking comfort is difficult, especially if the person that they are in relationship with is unsafe. That elicits a lot of panic and fear for people in relationships.
If couples have a history of trauma from their family of origin, and they have a present relationship trauma that is double impact on relationship, meaning that everything is unsafe. So these couples tend to struggle more with anxiety, depression and difficulty regulating how they are feeling and coping, so sometimes they will communicate their feelings in critical or blaming way that comes across as an attack for another partner.
When partners feel unsafe, they often go back to what they know. If something had happened that makes them feel afraid or panicked, they tend to fall back into what they know in terms of how they related from the time they were young. Who could the child go to seek comfort, was there someone there that the child felt safe and trusting, could the child lean on and ask for a hug if he or she needed one?
When a child learned to numb feelings to protect himself or herself from pain, it may helped the child to survive when the child had no one to lean on. The child has survived his childhood by not relying on anybody and being independent. Back then the more he lean out and tried to get connection from people in his family, he kept getting hurt.
However, numbing feelings in present relationship, may make both partners feel disconnected, unloved and unappreciated; thus, negatively affect the relationship. Getting angry and lashing out when feeling unsafe and afraid to trust tends to lead to disconnection. What was learned in order to survive in childhood is not working any longer in present relationship. It is pulling the other partner away.
For couples who experienced trauma, is very difficult to get in touch with their vulnerable feelings of hurt and fear. They may become anxious when they feel unsafe and vulnerable. They tend to shy away from seeking comfort and expressing that they need something, because possibly in the past it was not safe to do that.
What tends to lead to emotional connection is getting in touch with vulnerable feelings, sharing soft feelings with their partner and asking for reassurance. For example: “I do not know what to do when things get difficult between us. I only know to pull away, close down and be on my own. It is completely foreign for me to reach out and ask for comfort. I don’t even know what that would feel like.”
When partners do not feel appreciated and loved due to disconnected, they may start feeling like they are not good enough or that they are not lovable because they’ve have hardwired into their system to believe that because their partner has been withdrawn for so long that it’s something about them. The partner wants to feel close, but fear that they are not good enough or fear of trusting their partner to be here for them stand on the way.
Sharing hurt feelings, fears and longings and the other partner to really hear and be impacted by that pain and respond to it differently than they happened in the past will help restore loving bond. When there has been an injury to their trust, talking about it and reaching out to their partner from the place of vulnerability creates a healing experience and helps restore trust and connection.
With restored trust and safety in present relationship, when partners become accessible, responsive to each other and engaged, they would be able to feel a sense of healing about what they’ve been through growing up or even what they’ve gone through in their relationship.
The change occurs when a person gets down to a vulnerable place and is experiencing that emotion and is able to seek comfort or reach for their partner in a way that’s different and have their partner reached back. For example, the partner may say: “I was able to talk about my feelings with my partner instead of getting triggered by my trauma. I was able to reach for my partner instead of pulling away, or lashing out or self-medicating pain with drugs.”
The key change event in therapy would be a withdrawer reengagement, meaning that the person who comes typically from withdrawn, fearful and defended place is now able to open up and be more honest and be real and talk about vulnerable feelings and is able to express what he or she need in the relationship. When the withdrawn partner becomes more available and accessible, it shifts how the other partner is feeling in the relationship.
The other partner who was longing for closeness and was protesting against emotional disconnection by demanding, criticizing and blaming, wanting to connect but reacting to disconnection, has typically been experiencing their partner as not available, not accessible, now starts to experience their partner as accessible and this tends to soften the person who used to pursue and demand. It helps the pursuer feel safer, come from a place of vulnerability instead of coming from a critical attacking position and talk about the need for closeness and connection. The partners are still afraid, but they are able to reach to each other for comfort and reassurance.
For example, a wife is critical to her husband who works all the time and is often late home for dinner, because the wife misses her husband and feels disconnected. This is a reactive response to not feeling connected or safe with her husband. Helping the wife to get behind that reaction and restructure how she responds to that that trigger of being disconnected. Helping her get in touch with more vulnerable feelings of sadness due to missing her husband and feeling disconnected from him, will help the wife talk to her husband softly instead of getting angry and coming across as blaming and criticizing him.
Instead of getting angry and saying to her husband” “You always work, and you are never here for me,” the wife can softly express her vulnerable feelings, by sharing: “I miss you. I want to spend more time with you.”
It may be difficult for the wife to reach out to her husband partner and seek comfort because she feels like he hasn’t been there for her. Fear may stand on the way of connection.
Putting into words what the wife experiences, expressing her fears and longings, will help the husband be responsive instead of shutting down if the wife gets angry. Getting down to that primary core emotion and expressing what she needs, which is knowing that she can count on her husband, that she is loved and that she can rely on him be there when she needs him.
When one partner speaks softly, another partner is more accessible and engaged. As a result, the couple feels safe and connected.