Couples Therapy With Trauma and Abuse Survivors
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 happened.
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.