Sunday, April 29, 2012
We all come into relationships with past issues. Trust, ability to
be intimate, anger management, mental and physical health limitations and
childhood trauma are among the most common. Each issue colors, although in a
different way, how we deal with current stressors and disagreements. This
article will look at how having a partner who has survived childhood abuse
(sexual, emotional, physical) can affect the relationship.
First let me say that I believe that people are unconsciously
attracted to those whose psychological challenges fit together with their own. Their
backgrounds may be entirely different, but a couple's strengths and deficits
interconnect in a way that feels familiar - feels "like home". So I never
look at a couple, where one of them has experienced childhood trauma, and think
that that particular person has a problem and the other doesn't. Yet, I often
receive calls from partners of childhood abuse survivors saying, " We are
having problems - can you fix him/her?"
My answer is always the same: "I can't fix anybody, but I can
look at how you two interact and hopefully help you both modify your
behaviors". If the person I am speaking with is not prepared to take any
responsibility, I never hear back from them.
That said, if childhood trauma is not acknowledged and dealt with
soon after it occurs, there are lingering negative effects that can hinder
adult relationships and hinder the ability to be emotionally and sometimes
sexually intimate. The desire to be in a safe and loving relationship can be
undermined by the survivor's past experience of betrayal and cruelty by loved
ones. Each person deals with trauma in a different way depending on their
particular circumstances and their temperament. But all unhealed trauma causes
emotional dysregulation and low self-esteem. Trauma survivors expend more
energy than others managing anxiety, depression and anger. Those who have
repressed memories experience unexplained emotional triggers, nightmares, and/or
intrusive negative thoughts.
Children whose trauma was either never acknowledged or purposely
invalidated, had to find their own way of surviving the incident(s). If they
were betrayed by loved ones they either disassociated from their feelings, compartmentalized
- there was the good daddy and the bad daddy - or they turned against
themselves and adopted the story that they were to blame for everything that
As adults, that means of survival turns into self-loathing.
People who are attracted to unhealed trauma survivors are often caretakers
or controlling types. They often come from homes where boundaries were not
respected (i.e. emotionally fused families, alcoholic families, families with
emotional abuse). They are drawn to their partner's wounds and emotional
fragility. That connection can create even more emotional
dysregulation in the relationship, or it can be used to heal.
When working with couples where one partner has been identified as
an abuse survivor, I first look to create safety - safety with me, safety
with their partner, and safety within themselves. "In situations like
this, people often feel unsafe in their bodies and confused in their thinking. Feeling
safe in your primary relationship is a crucial place to begin to rebuild trust
and safety in your world." (Phillips and Kane, "Healing
Together", 2008, p. 20).
The survivor may have told their partner the story of their past -
perhaps many times. Even so, revisiting the trauma in a psychological setting
can confirm and validate their feelings in a manner that creates a deeper
connection between them. And connection is what the survivor needs most. Because
one of the most insidious effects of abuse is that it disconnects the child
leaving him/her feeling isolated, ashamed and unlovable. That sense of
isolation and feeling different and unlovable is carried into adulthood. The
most innocent behavior by their mate can trigger traumatic memories and
defensive reactions in an abuse survivor. The therapist needs to help the couple
jointly process how the past influences the present.
The next step is to help the partners find new ways of interacting.
Clear communication and active listening promotes emotional regulation for the
abuse survivor and mutual respect in the relationship. This in turn creates
safety and stabilizes the relationship so that more nuanced problem solving of
current issues can take place.
Mindfulness of your own behavior and how it impacts your partner is
an important part of couples work. When you are dealing with a person with past
trauma it is even more important. Together the couple needs to explore the
emotional triggers that derail them. As with revisiting the story of an abusive
past, exploring emotional triggers in a safe setting with your partner, helps
the survivor feel seen, loved and supported. The result is a positive
reconnection for the survivor and hope for the couple.
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT