By: Mark A. Mayfield
Karen and Frank walked into my office and plopped onto my chesterfield couch. Karen curled up in one corner with a pillow hugged close to her chest. Frank sat on the opposite end of the couch, staring out the window with his arms crossed and his brow furrowed.
I had been seeing Karen and Frank for marriage counseling for several months. They had been married five years, and those years were difficult and strained because Karen had experienced significant relational trauma prior to marrying Frank. Karen's trauma involved sexual assault from a dating relationship in college coupled with a verbally abusive father.
I settled back in my chair. "By how you're both seated on the couch, it appears you're not doing so well," I said. "Tell me how the week has been."
Neither Frank nor Karen responded immediately. After several minutes of silence, Frank said, "I can't seem to do anything right. Karen is either silent or emotional. I often feel like I'm tiptoeing around the house."
As Frank talked, I noticed that Karen hugged the pillow closer to her chest and began to weep.
This type of interaction is all too familiar when a spouse brings a history of unresolved trauma into the marriage.
There is a struggle to understand the spouse's hidden pain, triggers and sometimes seemingly irrational responses. However, love and commitment to a spouse can create a desire to stick with and help him or her through those dark days.
Here is some information for understanding and helping your spouse as he or she deals with past trauma:
God designed our bodies to overcome, to thrive and to protect. One way this happens is through the fight, flight or freeze response. This is a subconscious, conditioned response to danger. When an individual is faced with danger (emotional, mental, physical or spiritual), the autonomic nervous system, paired with the brain's limbic system and cerebellum, will kick in to protect the person's major organs and/or provide the person with enough energy to flee the situation.
The brain fragments sensory information created by danger and stores it in subconscious areas. When a person experiences similar danger-based circumstances, he or she will react with the fight, flight or freeze response, often with adverse effects.
For example, let's say you are going for a run. As you are running, a vicious dog rushes out of a nearby house and starts to chase you. Your subconscious response then takes over. Blood rushes to your major organs and your limbs to provide a swift escape. Once free from impending danger, your body will come back to equilibrium. But several days later, when you walk past a pet store, one of the dogs starts to bark, and you immediately feel the need to run. This is called a "trauma response trigger." Your conscious mind did not see a threat, but your body remembered the trauma from the day before, and your subconscious mind decided to kick in to protect you from the threat.
At varying levels, this is what happens in a marriage when one spouse has a history of unresolved trauma. A word or action from an unknowing spouse can trigger the subconscious of the trauma-sensitive spouse and send him or her into a fight, flight or freeze reaction.
We are designed for connection and created for relationship. However, when we experience trauma, the innate need for connection is disrupted. As a result, maintaining a relationship with someone else becomes difficult. Why? Because below the surface, the body is scanning for danger. Emotional distance becomes the norm. Mutual empathy can be a difficult task. And trusting other people — even a spouse — becomes extremely hard. Remember that these reactions or triggers have little or nothing to do with the spouse but are a reaction to internal stimuli.
This basic understanding of trauma is intended to provide a framework for spouses to understand what's happening behind the exterior behavior and emotions. But here are practical things you can do to help navigate your marriage through this difficult situation:
Listen. This step may seem too simple; however, it's extremely important: Take time to listen to your spouse. Don't just listen to the words, also "listen" to his or her body language, facial expressions and heart. Ask clarifying questions to explore deeper meaning. Listening in this way will help your spouse feel seen and heard.
Empathize. Empathy is working to put yourself in the other person's shoes without assuming responsibility for his or her emotions. What might it feel like to experience the emotions, thoughts and physiological expressions that your spouse is feeling? By empathizing with your husband or wife, not only are you attempting to work on comprehend his or her struggles and feelings, you're also jumping into the trenches with him or her.
Seek to understand. Seeking to understand allows someone to ask questions, be inquisitive and explore the nuanced perspective of another individual. Understanding will provide insight into how your spouse's past trauma is affecting his or her current functioning. In effect, you will begin to understand his or her triggers and fears.
Find outside support. Someone who has a history of trauma should not attempt to heal without help. Nor should a husband or wife try to fix what he or she sees as the problem. Seeking quality, qualified counseling is of the utmost importance for the spouse who is struggling and for the couple.