“I just feel like life, hope and energy have been sucked right out of me. He has no empathy, refuses to do things that are kind and loving, and says such mean things.”
“I’m having physical side effects from the stress, and I cry myself to sleep almost every night. I’m lonely. I’m hurt. I’m longing for love.”
“I know you said that people with unresolved trauma or not ‘bad people.’ I know he’s not a “bad person.” But how do I get him to see that he’s doing ‘bad and damaging things?’ Why won’t he see what he’s doing to me? And to our marriage? How long can we sustain this before it destroys our all love and intimacy?“
I knew all too intimately what she was speaking about.
I knew she was referring to something I wrote in a recent blog about the two sides of the trauma coin that people land on:
- The first being someone who can hardly function and has majorly evident symptoms.
- Apparently, her husband was the second side of the coin which is someone who denies trauma, or admits to the trauma but proclaims that has absolutely no impact on their life. (Not because they got help to resolve it, but because they choose to deny its impact on themselves, their lives, and the lives of those who love them).
Since I began the series on trauma, I have had numerous men and women alike ask about a partner who refuses to acknowledge the trauma, the impact of the trauma, and/or get help.
If I could summarize the question that I’ve heard hundreds of times, I think I could accurately summarize it into this:
“What can I expect, and how can I deal with what I get?”
This week I will share the five things that you can expect. And give a bit of feedback on how to deal with these things in a healthy manner. All while holding onto hope for the relationship.
1. UNHEALTHY COPING MECHANISMS.
The unhealthy coping mechanisms almost always show up in the realm of addiction. Although any addiction will do, what I normally see is one or more of these:
- Spending/shopping addiction
- Addiction to profession/work
- Food addiction
Whatever the unhealthy coping mechanism, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can reason them out of it. Also, don’t expect that shaming them will bring them to their senses.
The gal I mentioned above was trying to cope with a husband who was alcoholic (as a result of unresolved trauma). He would have periods of sobriety, then relapse.
She knew when the relapse was coming because he would become “cocky” about his sobriety, and would stop attending meetings or doing any recovery work.
It is so hard to see them self sabotaging their own process, but it’s what brings them relief from the well of turbulent trauma within.
What can you do to help?
Say the serenity prayer daily. Being aware that wanting to help with their addiction (or unhealthy coping mechanism) is something that falls into the category of: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.“
Understand that the way that they are coping with all of the trauma within is by medicating.
When you understand the full definition of addiction, it will help you have some compassion.
- When someone uses a processor substance to medicate painful reality
- Which has harmful consequences to themselves and those they love
- Which they choose to ignore, deny, or just defy, or explain away
- And leave a trail of destruction.
Do your best to understand how having the trauma buried deep inside drives a desperate need for relief.
When you address the consequences of the drinking (or other unhealthy coping mechanisms), do it from a place of emotional mastery. Then use this outline and speak from compassion:
- When you __________________ (name the behavior without judgment).
- I feel ________________________ (name feelings, not thoughts).
- Would you be willing to ______________________? (This should be a positive, specific, behavior-change request).
For example, I helped her formulate this:
“When you lose your sobriety, I feel scared and hopeless. Would you be willing to attend 2 to 3 meetings weekly and check in with your sponsor regularly?“
Please understand that even if they agreed to your request, there is a significant possibility that they will not fulfill the request. That’s part of the self sabotage. (More on the sabotage below).
The other thing that I recommend to people in this situation is to work through the 12 steps yourself. And use your concern about the marriage or relationship as the “hurt and hangup” of the hurts, habits and hangups.
2. CONNECTION DISORDER AND/OR NARCISSISTIC TENDENCIES.
With the toxicity of unresolved trauma brewing underneath the surface within, connection is very scary.
Now they are great at connecting in the beginning of a relationship. But overall, their life is a theme of being disconnected. Disconnected and unaccountable.
Unresolved trauma requires a vault of steel to keep it buried.
Unfortunately, that vault is not selective. It locks everyone out, but even more so for anyone that has intimate access to them. That could mean you.
Unfair? YES! But truth? YES!
Although most people say that these partners are narcissist, most are not in the pure form of a diagnosis. However, they use those narcissistic tendencies to keep people at arms length … away from the vault.
The gal I was working with said: “It is so, so painful. I do everything I can to create connection. But nothing seems to work. As a matter of fact, it’s almost like he enjoys my efforts but also enjoys refusing them.”
It’s very hard not to take the connection resistance personally. Because the partner gets the resistance on steroids.
Often, they have set themselves up as one-man band, who has no accountability to anyone. But you can imagine how scary it would be to have to be accountable, because someone might reach into the trauma. They truly believe it would ruin their lives.
What can you do to help?
Be consistent in your efforts to connect. If you speak about the connection, do it in a way that is about something you desire, instead of in a manner that would cause them to feel that you are implying that they are pathological, or have a problem.
As the gal said to me, well he does have a problem! She was right. But the problem is not that he is a narcissist, not that he is a bad person. He or she has all of these things well protected because they are afraid. Afraid of dealing with them. Afraid they might pop up.
Clearly, they do have a problem, but look at it as one you would like to help with, instead of one you are shining a spotlight on for the world to see.
I know this is hard, but do whatever you can to keep inviting little moments of connection. They crave them.
And more importantly, you need them desperately to continue the path of love with them. And sometimes you will be surprised!
3. LACK OF EMPATHY AND COMPASSION.
“No matter what I share with him, it immediately becomes about him, and there is not an ounce of compassion or empathy in him.”
She had explained how something he had done hurt her deeply. She addressed it in a healthy way. But he immediately began justifying, and explaining, never acknowledging her tears or brokenness. Then he turned it on her and said: “Are you on drugs? You have serious emotional problems.”
I know how deeply this hurts when these things occur.
And of course, it’s not a healthy or an appropriate (or loving) thing for a healing partner to do. But once again, remind yourself that acknowledging your pain is a little too close to their pain deep within. Which they will do anything to avoid.
What can you do to help?
This is a difficult one. Here is why.
We all have four basic needs for survival:
Understand these are not desires or preferences. They are SURVIVAL needs. Likely they will not be meeting few, if any, of those needs.
For you to be effective at remaining solid, and standing hopeful for healing in the relationship… You must get these needs met in a healthy way.
Don’t misunderstand. That does not mean finding another partner.
It means finding other healthy ways to get those needs met. (For example, getting your need for love and support met by volunteering in a senior center. They are often lonely and pour love out on visitors).
Although they likely have made you feel pathological that you have needs, or may have even called you “needy“… That does not make it so!
Your needs are important, and you deserve to have them met!
Explore other ways to get them met, so that you have the strength and hope that you need.
4. SELF SABOTAGE.
This is so sad to watch, but something very important to understand in order for you to remain centered.
You will do nice things for them, and they will sabotage them.
They will have great opportunities, and they will sabotage them.
They will make promises, and sabotage them.
Because they are bad people? Of course not!
For most people with trauma, it invaded their lives totally unexpectedly. They have high antenna for anything coming their direction. They will take a baseball bat to it, even if they are wonderful things. It’s all about self protection.
Better to miss out on good things than to be unprotected.
Her was asked to check in every couple of hours daily, because he had no set schedule and traveled often. The max time for check in would be three hours.
On a day when she had a very challenging medical issue pending, she reached out… No response for three hours plus. She reminded him of the three hours in a healthy way. She did not hear from him for the rest of the day.
Her “punishment” for reminding him of his commitment, and her disappointment.
The next morning, he acknowledged being insensitive and committed to keeping better track of time. He promptly went 3+ hours before reaching out again.
This time, telling her it was because he “didn’t think she wanted to hear from him.” (Total gaslighting!)
She was hurt and totally bewildered by this.
After processing, she realized that their relationship was at a turning point.
His travel would soon come to an end, and they would have an opportunity to fulfill some things they had dreamed about. Of course, something good was coming his way. Out came the baseball bat (in 3+ hour form).
Remember, in self sabotage, they do not take time to judge good or bad.
They see something coming …
They reach for the baseball bat …
And BAM! It’s gone …
Then they are safe again …
What can you do to help?
Another tough one.
When you can get to a place of emotional mastery and compassion, simply remind them of the good things coming their way, and engage them in dreaming about it again.
If they are open to deep conversation, you can speak of this self-sabotage, but from a place of how it saddens you to see what they could be missing out on.
Sadly, anything too direct or harsh will send them straight into denial and gaslighting… (Making it all about you).
As suggested, she would take these moments to think of him as a little boy in the midst of trauma. It would help her to have compassion and reach out to him to re-engage in the dream, or in positive connection.
Is it hard?
But you can do this!
5. DISCREPANCY BETWEEN WHO THEY ARE AT HOME, AND WHO THEY ARE IN PUBLIC.
This one is so difficult to see and experience. At home they are often grouchy, on their cell phone or other devices, drowned in sports, news, other media, or work.
They are irritated when they have to engage at home. If they do engage it’s very short-lived.
You will wonder what you are doing wrong to cause that? Likely not much at all. But once again, your intimate presence is way too close to the trigger on the vault. And they will do most anything (yes, more self-sabotage), to keep your finger away from the dreaded trigger.
They are not doing this purposely, most of the time. (There may be moments when they are particularly vulnerable that they do it purposely).
But then when out in public, it’s a whole different way of coping. You see the person you fell in love with.
Often they are entertainers in public. They tell story after story. They make people laugh. They are truly charming and delightful!
You will sit and watch that and long for that at home.
The gal said, “I see the light in his eyes there! I see the smile! it is so beautiful! Why don’t I get that at home?”
I explained it’s just a different way of making sure that no one gets to the vault. If they steal the show, there won’t be intimate conversation.
There is also an opposite way of dealing with this situation. Some go and clam up and disconnect and barely participate in the gathering.
What can you do to help?
First of all, plan some outings, and expect to see him/her light up. Enjoy the moment, and tell them how much you enjoy hearing them laugh and seeing the light in their eyes.
In an odd sort of way, validate yourself that you are the one that taps into their greatest fears (the vault). And they know you are the closest one to them.
If you weren’t that, or just another “nothing” relationship, things would go very differently. They would not resist you, or push you away. So in a strange way, it speaks of how close they feel to you.
This is such a difficult thing.
They truly are wonderful humans inside.
They are held prisoner to keeping the vault protected that locks away their trauma.
People often ask me, “How long should I stay and hope for the best? How long do I hang in there while they do things so destructive to me? And to our relationship?”
Not an easy question to answer, and not a decision that should be made without getting help from someone versed in this arena.
But here is my general guideline of when it is time to get help on this decision.
- When it begins to affect your health in any serious ways.
- When you are having difficulty functioning day to day.
- If you are so broken that you begin to fall into depression or desperation.
Understand that you cannot force them to get help.
But when you’re experiencing any of the things I listed, it is a good time to try to get them to go to counseling with you at least once.
In most cases when they get to me because of this, we find that the other person is unaware of the impact they are having, and they are often willing to do some things differently. Whether that starts with commitment to change the relationship for the better or begin to address their own trauma …
When either of those occurs, there is great help on the way!
On your side, you have to work diligently at being willing to not use all of the hurt, and all of the pain, as a weapon in the process.
If you are thinking: “What’s the point? They have proven that I am not valuable or loved.”
Rest in this truth. On a daily basis, I have dozens of people who sit in my office and work through these things.
Healing of trauma, healing of relationships, is always possible.
All it requires is two people dedicated to healing the relationship as healing partners, and doing “whatever it takes.”
In the meantime, as suggested earlier, practice the serenity prayer often:
God grant me the serenity
To except the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference!