Is My Past Trauma Causing Issues in My Marriage?

Trauma and Crisis in a Marriage

By: David Lechnyr, LCSW

We have a tendency to believe that our marriage will “always be there” and never be in crisis. We also realize that all relationships have their ups and downs, and this helps prepare us for difficulties down the road. However, when a significant crisis or traumatic event happens, the stability of any relationship can be put in jeopardy. Understanding a few key concepts can help us to “manage” these difficult times in healthier ways.

Is it a Crisis?

A crisis can happen when we experience a loss in our family, a loss of a job, the death of an important family member, the loss of our hopes, the death of a child, or even an unexpected illness. Many things can create a crisis in our lives. However, the most important thing to realize is that a crisis often happens when our usual way of handling things is disrupted for any reason. It often affects not just us, but our entire family. A crisis presents challenges to each of us because they “affect our sense of stability” of what we have been comfortable with in life.

Is it a Trauma?

A trauma can happen when one feels a “loss of control” over their lives. This can include issues of rape, hostage situations, observing or experiencing traumatic situations such as death, and so forth. Child abuse, domestic physical, psychological and verbal abuse, and other unresolved issues upsetting issues can all impact how we function in the present. These situations force us to deal with something unusual and out of line with the usual life experience. Traumatic situations seem to “etch” their images into our mind and we find these images coming back at us over and over again.

How Trauma/Crisis Affects Us

When facing a crisis or a traumatic situation, it is easy to initially feel numb and overwhelmed. We can feel exhausted and confused about what is happening. We contemplate and worry about what we can do to solve our problems. Some people initially handle a crisis quite well only to later find themselves falling apart. Other people have problems from the moment they face the crisis. Others just get angry. When we have a crisis or trauma, the situation demands that we face a reality that we would rather not pay attention to in life. We are forced to change and re-evaluate our lives.

Resistance to Change

Though change is a constant in our lives, we spend a lot of time trying to maintain what we know to be familiar, comfortable and predictable. We resist change and want things to stay the same, even if this is not possible. After all, we’ve worked hard to grow to the point where we feel that we can have control over our lives. Since we’re human, we tend to feel that things should just happen with little effort on our part, and we become upset when this does not happen.

Grief & Loss Stages

Whenever we go through any type of loss, we find ourselves experiencing a strange sense and wave of emotions. Each reaction during grief and loss creates a cascade of conflicting feelings and behaviors within us. Often, we can experience more than one at the same time, and very rarely do they happen in any specific order.

Our first reaction is usually one of denial in order to protect ourselves from the overwhelming impact of what we are experiencing.

The second reaction is anger over our frustration of what happened. We are angry at the world, others, and our family. Sometimes, we have a hard time letting go of our anger. It becomes a protection against our “having to feel” and experience the necessary emotions that would allow us to move through the grieving process.

The third reaction is bargaining, where we hope that if we are “better, do more, try harder, or ask God for special favors,” and so forth, that this might in some way help us in handling the feelings of loss and traumas. We think, “if only I had…” and end up feeling intense guilt over our actions, or inactions.

The fourth reaction is one of sadness; everything from silence to tears. These emotions are a part of the necessary work of feeling difficult emotions that are exploding deep inside of us. Often the sadness transforms into depression, which is more painful than pain. This is the real work of traumatic losses. It is experiencing the emptiness, the loss, the loss of hopes, the trauma of what happened that challenged our lives and thinking, and the lack of hope that anything will change in the future.

The fifth reaction is disorganization — even for organized people who are tired of being disorganized, confused and out of control. It is like one has a hard time focusing their lives again.

The final reaction is acceptance. This is when one is able to work through the feelings and accept the loss and experiences that happened so that one can move on with their lives. The problem is that we do not go through these emotions in any organized manner. We many times feel that we are caught up with all the emotions at once, feeling confused, lost and wondering if we will ever be “normal again.”

Falling Apart

Whenever we experience a crisis or trauma, this is essentially a threat to our life, belief system, or even our well-being. In order to survive, we find ways to cope and move forward as best as we can. Unfortunately, this often puts us into a “survival mode” where everything else, including reason, “goes out the window.” Many times, we deal with threats by becoming angry and lashing out to those we are closest to – often our family and our spouse. The more we feel threatened, the more chance there is that our anger will “explode” onto those we care most about as we try to cope.

When these emotions continue to “erupt” over and over again, they threaten our closest relationships, pulling us apart and causing us to feel out of control. The more we allow these emotions to have free reign, the more there is a chance that it will hurt the ones we love and cause the relationship to explode. We may not want to do this, but it will seem like we have little control over things.

Another reaction, outside of anger, is withdrawal. This mechanism of defense is one way in which we can “numb ourselves” to the experience of the pain and hurt that we are, or have, experienced. If this withdrawal continues, it can threaten our relationship, family, work, and every other aspect of our lives. Either way, anger and withdrawal cause major problems and seem to “interact together” in an endless loop. One of our important goals in recovery needs is to find a way to stop this cycle so that both you, and your relationship, can focus on healing in more positive and realistic ways.

Support & Nurturing

During times of crisis or trauma, we feel the need to reach out for support, nurturing, and help. Sometimes, this ends up going on for much longer than we might expect. Men often want to “get over it” and not talk about the emotions while women tend to need more time to “process the experience.” Both ways are natural and to be expected. However, the couple needs to take time to talk about what has happened and what each of them needs when something upsetting has occurred. Sometimes the more one needs nurturing, the less the other one can do it. Many times, this is why it is critical to seek out professional help in order to help “process the experience.”

Solutions and Recovery

It’s important to talk about what has happened and how the trauma or crisis has changed the focus of the marriage. This can’t be accomplished by blaming each other or trying to establish fault. It requires communication and understanding, which is where therapy often comes into play: Often, we lack the important tools to use in our communication with each other.

This is especially difficult with a crisis or trauma as the way we have coped with things in the past doesn’t work in the here and now. Something else has to happen in a more positive way before the relationship spins out of control in, ironically, our attempts to control things. Crises, losses, and traumas disrupt our “trust in life” and brings in a “cruel reality” that we had hoped we would never have to experience. Therapy helps us to have the courage to be imperfect, since none of us can handle everything, know everything, or fix everything.

Despite your best intentions, if you find yourself doing things in a way that alienates or causes additional trauma to your marriage, then it’s highly likely that your relationship will continue in crisis and remain under stress. This will lead to what happens for most couples under similar situations: Separation, divorce, or “ongoing chaos”. By doing this, we end up in denial about our real situation, which ends up just delaying your ability to deal with the real underlying problems.

The goal is to find a different way, using the right tools of marital communication, the right focus of mind, and finding your way amidst the landmines of turmoil. Sometimes we can do this on our own. Often times, therapy is a smart move: We find ourselves too enmeshed in the situation to distinguish past from present, our relationship’s future from its past, or separating our view of our partner from the real underlying crisis or trauma.

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