Married to Pain: Loving a Survivor of Childhood Trauma
BY RYAN BREEN
Adult survivors of childhood abandonment and complex trauma abound in our society. Theirs is a sad reality shrouded in the darkness of shame that keeps their experience locked away only to be known by their volcanic overreactions or quiet avoidance that are triggered by present day cues. They are our sisters, fathers, spouses, etc. They live fenced in by crippling fear and loss of identity stolen at such a young age. They’ve developed and matured as we all do; driven by survival and attachment, the same instincts they came into the world with, the same instincts that gave them a fighting chance at survival. However, the other component necessary for reaching potential, the social environment, was not favorable. It seemed as if this third ingredient almost wanted their destruction from the very beginning as if they were not meant to be alive in the first place. This environment, or soil if you will, would go on to nurture beliefs deep in the psyche of the individual. These beliefs would go on to be infused with the person’s sense of self and so they would live out those beliefs as if they had to. They would live out those beliefs in ever reinforcing and destructive consequences. Those consequences reinforce a world view that is dark and a sense of self value that is worthless. They live in a reality that holds no possibility for hope. Each day they walk past choice and opportunity only to choose what is familiar.
The pain of watching a loved one continue down this path is traumatizing in itself. For the caregiver, parent, or spouse this constant replay of self-sabotage that makes no sense to the naked eye is common sense to the individual that has lived through a childhood of horror. We can only see what we have been trained to see, hear what we have been trained to hear, and in some sense feel the way we were trained to feel. The complex trauma survivor with abandonment issues is trained to feel pain and experience a reality that brings the continuation of pain. Virginia Satir stated that even more than survival, the greatest human drive is familiarity. People in general will seek what is familiar even unto death. We tend to live very unaware of the unconscious process that powers our lives and dictates our so called choices. Even as success in relationship begins to take root the need to self-sabotage will kick in to steal any reward. In spite of this pattern the complex trauma survivor makes the effort every day to courageously climb the mountain that they keep falling down from. Despair is inevitable. Inside of them continues the drive to attach and feel the security of unconditional love so necessary to human existence.
Being married to a complex trauma survivor is like driving a car that is out of alignment. The car is constantly pulling in a direction that inevitably wants to drive off the road. Being married to that person requires a constant hold on the wheel in order to avoid the destruction of the survivor and ultimately the relationship and everyone else in the car. The car itself does not know it needs a tune up. The pull to one side feels so natural and normal. The crash into the side rail of the highway only serves as mild reminder that something must be wrong but that something is outside of the car’s power to change. The crash comes with a jolt of emotion and anger so strong that everyone around must run for safety or endure emotional distance that threatens their own sense of attachment.
The emotional outburst of the complex trauma survivor, who has not delved into the work of learning to emotionally regulate, is a force in itself. This outburst or avoidance seeks to respond in a way that she wished she could have responded long ago when she was being victimized. This outburst does not seek to solve the problem of alignment but seeks to destroy the cause of that familiar pain that wells up inside. The spouse’s attempt to control the wheel in order to prevent the person from crashing is interpreted as another attempt to control thus inciting the survivor and thus perpetuating the feeling of being powerless. The spouse lives in constant fear of crashing into the guard rail and develops a hyper-aroused state of their own, a power struggle that takes place in a deep pool of fear where the only hope is to tread water or drown, never to find dry land.
The attunement of the spouse’s nervous systems means that he will feel her anxiety, her tension, and her pain. He only hopes that she is able to see the pull of the alignment as the cause of the crash and not something in the environment which will take all the blame, not him, and hopefully not the children.
He knows that once she fixates on the object in the environment she will cease to be able to take responsibility. After hours, maybe days, she will come back to normal with nothing learned that will help avoid the crash again. No apology offered because in her mind the reaction was about survival and in a survival state all reactions makes sense. He can only wait until the next trigger sets off the bomb again. He waits and waits in anxious anticipation, trying to prevent every previous trigger from happening again. Trying to be perfect without losing his sense of self and responsibility, without losing touch with reality, this is what it means to “walk on eggshells.”
Attaching oneself to a person who has suffered abandonment and complex trauma may seem like a fruitless endeavor. The test of faithfulness and steadfastness will not come without pain to the spouse. Connecting with this person will require an accurate application of love that is completely selfless. Real love in its essence is not transactional. We in this culture are taught to expect good feelings in exchange for our love. These expectations create disappointment, as inevitably our loved ones will hurt us and trigger our own wounds to flare up. As we go into our own defensive postures a cycle of disappointment ensues as inevitably we “fall out” of love and give up on the relationship. Amazingly this is the plight of most people and this is why our culture is giving up on marriage. Sadly what we are doing is actually giving up on a rich human experience of growth and the experience of true love. What our spouse is really doing is giving us a course on our own ability to self-regulate. The ability to maintain a sense of being grounded even as the storm around us roars.
Marriage is unlike any other relationship as emotional boundaries that protect us from publicly being triggered are not effective. It is the attempt to impose those boundaries that sends off the attachment signals in our spouse that then threaten safety. Our spouse will trigger us and our attachment needs will be expressed in frustrating behavior. The complex trauma survivor is drawn into relationship like anyone else but the drive towards intimacy will open up the closet of wounds unleashing either strong avoidance or overreactions, both of which are destructive. In those moments the survivor seems to dissociate and lose any sense of problem resolution. Intimacy is an allergy to the survivor and the reaction is like a rash. To the spouse this emotional rash is terrifying and the inability to engage in left brained solution focused compromise and conversation makes it that much worse. These reactions continually take their toll on the spouse and hopelessness kicks in. This makes the spouse either give up or stay miserable.
Marriages are made of Minimizers and Maximizers, Avoiders and Engagers. The complex trauma survivor is one of these categories but on steroids. They exist on either end of the continuum. In the event that an explosive outburst happens it can be likely that the spouse will seek to engage the survivor in trying to talk. If that spouse is avoiding, the engager will only perpetuate the issue and add fuel to the fire. But what is the spouse to do? How can they tend to their own arousal that feels overwhelming? As we learned in childhood we attempt to engage in our attachment figure but as an adult the figure is your spouse. What do we do when they are the one inciting our anxiety and are not receiving us? We begin to float in our own anxiety. Why do we think that life is about avoiding discomfort? Perhaps the discomfort has something to say to us? Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The seemingly irrational response of the survivor stimulates the abandonment fears of the spouse. A fight ensues which escalates out of control with the trauma survivor shutting down while the spouse continues to push. It is in this moment that the argument has no productive purpose. It is in this moment where a mindful spouse can put aside his insecurity and give the space the survivor is demanding and it is in this space that we are called to sit with our fears and anxiety and not be mastered by them. It is also in this space that we are facing our worst fears. It can be as simple as forcing oneself to go for a walk or as involved as meditation and prayer. Taking a few minutes to focus on breath work can work wonders for the spouse who is in distress due to the reaction of the survivor. Five minutes of time can seem like an eternity when your need to attach is not being met. However, it is as if in those five minutes you are able to regain perspective and the stress goes down a notch. It is from this refreshed moment that you can attempt to reengage the survivor. As much as they believe they are unworthy of attachment and set out to prove that belief and as much as the intimacy is a painful allergy, what they need most is to be pursued. To be pursued into the life giving safety of healthy attachment. Their rejection of the spouse’s attempts will be infuriating. However, it is that emotion and sense of rejection that one needs to be mindful about. It may take several days of mindful attempts to fully reengage the spouse but that is what they need. They need to be convinced of their value and to not be given up on. They need to experience the reality of unconditional love that empowers and heals.
All traumatic events are devastating to the victims who endure them but in most cases the depth of the injury is made worse by the inability to reconnect with healthy attachments. This is the essence of complex trauma. The survivor is one whose brain developed detached from healthy regulatory attachments and it is one who experiences true loneliness. They only heal by regaining the attachment that they desperately want but simultaneously reject. The spouse of the survivor benefits from learning their own regulations skills, deeper sense of self, and a deeper spiritual relationship with their higher power. Spouses of survivors are called to love ferociously. The growth they experience is their benefit and real intimacy with the survivor is worth the wait.
AUTHOR'S WEBSITE: http://www.couplescrisiscounseling.com
Image credit Anita Martin. Copyright 2016: All rights reserved.