Sometimes, it can feel like you are spinning your wheels in your relationship. You know you have reacted in a way that you are not proud of, and promise yourself you will do something different next time. But then it happens again, and it feels like a switch just flipped. Having been through abuse or neglect as a child is tough. And if you keep feeling like you are hitting a wall with your partner, past trauma might be showing up in your relationship. Here is why dealing with the past, can help your relationship in the future.
We develop an attachment style throughout the course of our life. This is how we connect and develop deep relationships with others. Childhood is a very formational time for developing our attachment style. When we go through abuse or neglect, especially from a parent or caregiver, that event teaches us that close relationships are dangerous.
This leads to us developing an attachment style in which we try to fulfill those unmet needs. But at the same time, we have this part of us which builds walls to keep us safe. So we end up in this push-pull, back and forth, feeling stuck. I think this article does a great job of quickly explaining how trauma and our attachment styles can be related.
We go into survival mode when we experience something traumatic. And we can go back into that survival mode whenever something triggers that same feeling. You have probably heard of these survival mode responses, “fight”, “flight”, or “freeze.” The last one can cause a lot problems because it disconnects us from our own emotional experience as well as the people around us.
This is a process called “dissociation.” This is what people are talking about when they describe out-of-body experiences. Or when you see someone’s eyes glass over, and it seems like they are not there. This one is tough on relationships because it is not always predictable what will trigger it. Even positive emotions can trigger a trauma response, because the body has learned that closeness equals danger.
“Fight” and “Flight” Get us in Trouble Too
These are a bit more obvious in how they cause problems in our relationship. If you go from 0-60mph, and immediately start yelling, cursing, or criticizing your partner there will be problems. They might start to pull away. Or you might trigger a trauma response in them, and both of you will go through the roof.
And what if you go into “flight” mode? You feel yourself trying to avoid your partner. Or you avoid intense emotions. Again this will cause a wedge to grow between yourself and your partner.
Healing from trauma is not hopeless. You can absolutely overcome the pain of the past and the patterns that keep you feeling stuck. Sometimes this can be done in couples therapy. It can be very powerful to develop close, intimate connections with your partner while healing from the past. In other cases, I would recommend going to individual therapy beforehand so that couples therapy can be helpful to you. If you are wanting to talk to a Therapist and see which would be right for you, give The Marriage & Family Clinic a call.
About the Author
Ryan Hicks is a licensed therapist and marriage counselor at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, Colorado. He specializes in working with couples in high conflict and working with couples in the LGBTQ community. When he’s not working with couples, you’ll find him rock climbing or taking in the great outdoors of Colorado.