‘The effects of unresolved trauma can be devastating. It can affect our habits and outlook on life, leading to addictions and poor decision-making. It can take a toll on our family life and interpersonal relationships. It can trigger real physical pain, symptoms, and disease. And it can lead to a range of self-destructive behaviours. But trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence.’ (Peter A.Levine: ‘Healing Trauma’)
Counsellors in Coupleworks frequently work with couples who are struggling to deal with the repercussions of traumatic life events. Depending on our backgrounds, past experiences, and psychological states of mind, we respond in our own unique way to the impact of sudden, shocking or distressing events and couples can be upset, confused and shaken when the other’s response seems alien and the opposite of their own. For example, the death of someone much-loved can cause one person to shut down, close off and withdraw, and appear unavailable at the very time their partner is looking for connection and support.
We can all become overwhelmed by powerful reactions to difficult childhood experiences, violent intrusion, attack, abuse, loss and bereavement. The critical factor seems to be that at the time we had a perception of helplessness, a sense of disconnection from our usual effective competent self, and a feeling that we had lost the ability to deal with the incident. The pain, the shock, the level of threat experienced, and the sense of incapacity, causes the brain to release a flood of adrenaline and cortisol and react with a ‘Flight’, ‘Fight’ or ‘Freeze’ response. We are not in control of this reaction and symptoms can be observed in disconcerting bodily reactions: either overwrought physical hyperarousal – or denial, numbness, dissociation, immobility and freezing.
Peter Levine explains that, not dealt with, these aftereffects can be evident and ever-present. Or they can be unstable – ‘they can come and go and can be triggered by stress. Or they can remain hidden for decades and suddenly surface… They can grow increasingly complex over time and can even feel unconnected with the original trauma.’ There can be a detrimental effect on mental health and the development of psychosomatic illness.
It can be particularly confusing for a couple when re-enactments are played out in their relationship but they are not aware of the trigger. They have not made the link to the trauma that is the source. It can result in each partner feeling bewildered, hurt and disconnected. A seemingly unbridgeable gulf of misunderstanding opens up and they feel lost and emotionally unavailable to each other.
For example, it can feel lonely and hard to reach a partner suffering from a distressing bleak depression. A frightening rift can be created when a partner turns to alcohol or drugs in order to obliterate the pain. Angry or violent outbursts are terrifying and disturbing. Complaint and critical attack fosters resentment and negativity erodes good will.
Careful and sensitive relationship counselling can aid recovery. Appropriate and gentle guidance towards approaches for dealing with the distress can create understanding. Peter Levine again: ‘It is not necessary to consciously remember an event to heal from it.’ But it is important that it is addressed and managed in a supportive environment. With the recognition of their resilience, and of the love, care and concern that they hold for each other, the couple can emerge from their difficulties to establish a deeper more fulfilling relationship.