“Our marriage is barely hanging on by a thread. I saw a counselor who suggested that I find a good moment and share my feelings succinctly. Not just the things that bothered me, but how much I missed him and the fun we used to have… I waited and waited for the right moment … I practiced the tone in my voice and my facial expressions. I whispered passionately to him, “I miss our fun and laughter, the things that we used to do together, I miss you! What can I do to help us get that back?”
“His response broke my heart: ‘I’m still the same person, so obviously you have a problem. And you’re welcome to go find someone else.”
As she shared his response, she began to sob from the depths of her heart.
She asked the question so many partners of people with unresolved trauma ask:
- “What am I doing wrong?”
- “What’s wrong with me?”
- “Why does he hate me so much?”
Unresolved trauma has great impact on all relationships, particularly on intimate relationships and marriages.
Last week, I spoke of the new broadened definition for trauma:
“Any experience that has affected us in any way that diminishes who we are, dullens our gifts and talents, and makes life more difficult than it would have otherwise been.”
Many times when we think of trauma, we think of children being locked up or put on leashes. Men who witnessed the unthinkable at war. Women who have been brutally raped. Yes, all of those are trauma. Horrible trauma.
However, we tend to minimize the effects of the trauma of broken hearts, divorces, betrayal in relationships.
The truth is, the quality of your marriage, and the quality of your intimate relationships is 100% proportionate to the amount of healing you have done on any unresolved trauma. Regardless of how severe the trauma was or was not.
It hurts relationships. It hurts people you love.
This week I am writing about how it affects relationships, hoping that it will inspire and encourage you to heal any unresolved trauma you have brought to your relationships.
You need and deserve the healing. But so does your marriage and your relationships.
Here are the ways that unresolved trauma affects relationships.
1. UNRESOLVED TRAUMA LEAVES YOU WITH THOUGHTS AND BELIEFS THAT CAN SET UP RELATIONSHIP DISTRESS AND/OR FAILURE
If you have had a relationship end, whether through break up or divorce… And one of these things happened:
- Your heart was broken
- You were deeply hurt
- You were betrayed
- You were abandoned
- You had a horrible divorce
- You lost your lifestyle
- It affected your children
- You were deeply angered by what occurred
- You felt wrongfully accused
If any of those things happened, your breakup and/or divorce was traumatic.
At the moment of any trauma, new thoughts and beliefs are set in stone with in you. Those thoughts and beliefs begin to guide our lives. Every thought, every feeling, every decision, every moment. Guided by what was etched on your soul at the moment of trauma.
We don’t sit around and think about what we believe now, or what we think now… But it is etched deep within and begins to have major impact on us and our relationships.
It is really important to access those beliefs, and change them if they are not empowering.
How can you do that? Ask yourself this series of questions:
- Based on what I saw growing up, and my experiences in other relationships, what do I think love is?
- What do I think it is supposed to be?
- What do I think commitment is?
- What do I think it is supposed to be?
- What do I think about living joyously and fulfilled with a partner?
- What do I wish it was?
- What do I believe about what it requires from me in order to have a powerfully intimate relationship?
- Do I believe I am capable of that?
- Do I believe I’m ready for that?
That’s just a place to start.
When I did my first couple’s session with the story of the wife I opened with, I asked her husband: “What do you believe about having a marriage that is fulfilled, intimate, filled with joy, fun and laughter?” …
His response was very informative: “It might last a few days, and you better enjoy the ride. Because those days are numbered.”
Although it was said with a certain amount of humor, I had no doubt that he had been traumatized from his divorce, and beliefs were etched in the stony wall of his heart that were sending another marriage down the tubes.
Does he have those beliefs because he’s a horrible person? Of course not!
Did he respond to her with a hurtful statement when she told him that she wanted to re-capture their love? Absolutely not.
He responded as someone who had been traumatized by a painful divorce. (Further work revealed some trauma from his childhood as well).
I asked him how he thought that his belief that any good in marriage had a limited timeframe was affecting his current marriage?
By the time we got to that question, we had talked enough that he was in a very vulnerable place.
He dropped his head as he painfully stated: “I’m probably just beating our marriage down because I know it’s going away.”
Then with gentleness he looked at me and said: “Why on earth would I do that?” Then with great tenderness he looked at his wife and said: “I’m so sorry. You try so hard! I hope you will give me another chance at this.”
I want to encourage you to look at what relationships in your childhood, your adolescence, and your adult life taught you to believe about relationships.
We changed his belief to: “We’re going to have a great marriage, great intimacy, laugh a lot, do fun and funny things so often that you better buckle your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. Because I plan to screech into heaven on that ride!”
Examine those thoughts and beliefs, change them to empowering ones, and you will see dramatic change in your relationship immediately!
2. UNRESOLVED TRAUMA LEAVES YOU WITH UNRESOLVED FEELINGS WHICH WILL LEAK OUT OR ERUPT INTO YOUR RELATIONSHIP.
In our culture, as supported by media, movies and songs … You are just supposed to “get over” hurt. However, most people do not “get over it.” They bury it deep within.
It festers for months, years, decades. When things get tense, as they do in relationships, your responses will not be based solely on that tense moment. It will be super charged and fueled by those feelings you have tucked deep within.
And your partner will have the sense that they made a snarky comment, or said something critical (both unhealthy and inappropriate), but your reaction will feel much like they had chopped all the fingers off of your right hand.
Recently in a session, she had mentioned something that her adult son had accomplished. You could see the anger rising up in him.
Confused, she looked at him and said, “What’s going on with you?
Like a snapping turtle he barked out: “Nothin’!”
Gently, I pointed out his change in facial expression, body language and tone.
With a distinct accusatory tone, he asked if she had given him (her son) money. She assured him that she had not, and then asked why he continuously accused her of doing so.
After some discussion, I learned that in his former marriage, his wife had had a son and she had continually enabled him throughout the marriage despite numerous discussions about it. Apparently from what he described, his ex-wife’s son was sociopathic, a pathological liar, and dangerous due to involvement with gangs.
Because he had not resolved the wounds from that marriage, a situation with her son triggered it, and he assumed the worst of his wife. Thus the anger arising in him. Not because she had done anything inappropriate at all.
But because the trauma of that former marriage was laden with unresolved feelings.
I explained to him as I would like to say to you … He deserves to be free of all of that toxicity in him.
His wife deserved to not suffer the consequences of what occurred in a former traumatic relationship.
And his marriage deserves a clean slate, unencumbered with baggage from past trauma.
Understand that this does not make people like him “bad people.” It means that there are toxic feelings running underneath the surface, creating reactions that would have otherwise been very different if the trauma and accompanying feelings had been resolved.
Do whatever it takes to heal any trauma in your past, giving your current relationships the best opportunity possible to grow and flourish!
You deserve that!
Your partner deserves that!
Your relationships deserve that!
3. IT PUTS A LIMIT ON THE AMOUNT OF LOVE THAT YOU CAN TOLERATE RECEIVING, OR RISK GIVING.
We all have a “love thermostat” based on past relationships.
Do we want to put a limit on the amount of love we give and/or receive? Of course not! But ultimately does it happen?
If there is unresolved trauma of any sort, the response is absolutely yes!
Not only does unresolved trauma or deep hurt leave us with a very small window of love that it is safe to risk giving … It also has a very small window of the amount of love that can be received.
Why on earth would we be that way?
Well, it’s certainly not who you are or what we want, but it is absolutely what occurs with unresolved trauma.
The couple I was working with learned so much about each of their love thermostats based on their own trauma.
She had grown up with a father who was brutal with his words, in his abusive “discipline”, and his harsh and unreasonable expectations.
Yet on Sunday mornings, after the Sunday newspaper was read, they would all roll up portions of newspaper and have a newspaper war batting each other until the newspapers were torn to pieces. There was so much fun and laughter in those moments.
She had learned to not expect anyone to love her, and to be treated harshly. And that the only love that could be trusted was in moments of fun.
The husband had grown up in a home where his dad was often absent due to work, and his mother was continuously angry and surly. In moments of need, as a little boy, instead of comforting him or helping him, she would hit him over the head and push him away.
And all of that together, and there’s a recipe for disaster. She had done tremendous work on her early trauma, and the trauma of previous relationships.
He was just beginning his journey. But seeing how his harshness played into her early abuse inspired him to work harder.
Seeing his trauma and its affect on his life inspired her to pour even more love out on him.
Examining things like this makes the world a difference in relationships.
In a very sweet moment in my office, he was able to understand how his ongoing harshness pushed away her heart and the love she was trying to give.
In sincere longing, he asked her: “Will you give me another chance to love you? To really love you ? And to receive the love you’ve been so good and faithful to give me?”
The embrace and tears that followed set the stage for a new beginning.
What about you?
You deserve the love being poured out on you. Will you open your heart again?
And will you pour love back into the one who loves you so dearly?
You deserve the power in that kind of love!
So does your partner! And so does your marriage!
4. IT LEAVES US LOOKING FOR PLACES TO PLACE BLAME EXTERNAL TO OURSELVES. MAKING US VERY UNACCOUNTABLE.
One of the first things that clues me into the presence of unresolved trauma is when someone lives a life of isolation.
Now isolation here does not mean what you might think. This man that I was working with has hundreds and hundreds of friends, a large extended family, and is fairly well known in his area.
Yet there are no close, intimate relationships. No one really knows who he is or what he struggles with.
That’s the result of unresolved trauma. We cannot let anyone in for two reasons:
- First, because the other might hurt us or reject us
- Secondly because we don’t want them to know what’s really going on inside of us
Living in isolation, even though surrounded by people, gives us a unique opportunity to place blame for almost everything external to ourselves.
No one’s around to dispute it if you place blame externally.
When people with unresolved trauma feel backed into a corner where they might have to take responsibility, they are masters at explaining it away, or justifying why they did what they did.
You can only imagine the struggle this creates in relationships.
With unresolved trauma, we feel as if there’s already so much wrong with us that anything else would be the last straw that would send us into the quicksand of shame that we could never extricate ourselves from.
We would eventually be suffocated and die. This keeps the desire to keep any self responsibility pushed away.
At an earlier point in their relationship, the husband had come home intoxicated, and when she was upset, he packed everything he had, and got in his car and drove 500 miles.
For almost a full year, he explained, justified and blamed. He blamed her for an argument that she did not even remember as his reason for getting drunk. He blamed her being upset about the drinking as the reason he left.
It was not until a moment in counseling that he was able to say that it had not been her fault. He drank because he was an alcoholic, and she had every right to be upset with what he had done.
These moments are so powerful, because although it feels like becoming accountable and taking responsibility is jumping into the quicksand of shame… He saw something very different than that occur.
She reached out her hand to him, called him from his shame, and proclaimed that she would walk with him and help him in any way that she possibly could.
We all blame when we have unresolved trauma. Not because we’re horrible human beings, because we feel that if we owned our faults, our addictions, our hangups, our mistakes… That it would take us under.
The truth is, taking responsibility exonerates us. It builds trust. It builds respect.
Don’t allow your unresolved trauma to cause you to play the blame game in your relationship.
Take responsibility for who you are in the relationship. For what you have done, and haven’t done that you should have.
It creates a new beginning, and you deserve that!
Your marriage deserves that.
5. It kills intimacy and prohibits connection.
Connection disorder is rampant. And one of the greatest causes of it is unresolved trauma.
With unresolved trauma, we have been deeply hurt. Whether by an act, a person, a situation, an accident, a horrible loss… And the list could go on and on. If we hadn’t been connected to someone or something, the trauma would not have been nearly as impactful.
So doesn’t it make sense that it is a natural reaction to avoid connection?
Now I’m not speaking of social connections, or social media connections, because often times, people with trauma have a great way of making social connections.
However, too much social connection wears them out. Many professionals say that’s because of introversion. Although trauma can create a certain amount of introversion, that is not the root of the problem. The root is the unresolved trauma. That’s what wears people out.
I have never worked with a couple where one or both of the partners who were struggling in their relationship did not have unresolved trauma.
Not only does unresolved trauma make connection somewhat scary, it makes intimacy even more scary.
When I use the word intimacy, I am not speaking of sexual intimacy exclusively. I’m speaking of those moments where there’s deep connection, amazing fun and laughter, and that sense of knowing that we are partners in crime … Or I guess better said, partners in unity. Partners experiencing a beautiful harmony together.
People often make excuses for the lack of connection and intimacy:
- We’ve been together a long time
- We’ve grown apart
- We just have different interests
- We’re just getting older
All those sound like “normal things.”
But I’ve seen literally hundreds of couples that come with those “mild concerns.” We resolve the trauma in one or both of them, and they immediately fall in love again.
Whether one or both of the people in the relationship have unresolved trauma, I say it’s a lot like trying to have a relationship with a porcupine. You put effort into loving them, and you come away with puncture wounds.
You can imagine what it’s like when both have unresolved trauma.
You deserve great connection, and deep intimacy. Your partner deserves too.
And you deserve the deep intimacy and beautiful connection in your marriage.
It’s the way it supposed to be.
That does not mean that our relationship will be free of any challenges. Because I believe challenges are crucial to connection and intimacy.
Because when we join hands, on the same team, and address conflict, challenges or issues … it becomes super glue to the relationship. But rarely can a couple where one (and certainly where both) have unresolved trauma, do well with any disagreement, or concern. Usually they take the relationship south very quickly.
My wish for every relationship is that both partners would be willing to address any unresolved trauma.
You sure deserve the beauty of connecting and the intimacy and fulfillment that comes with it.
You deserve so much better.
Your marriage deserves so much better!
Do what it takes, and I promise you will be so very grateful you did it. So will your partner, your children, and your other close relationships.
You can do this!
Don’t settle for less!
You, your partner, your marriage, and your children deserve to see the life of a champion! They are looking for it in YOU!