If you are married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma, understanding his or her inner world is one of the keys to cultivating a meaningful marriage. I have heard trauma survivors describe their inner worlds as “a constant noise” they live with. The noise has a lot to do with the hyper vigilance we touched on. Sadly, these survivors are used to the noise, and they own it as normal. Because the trauma impacted them at such an early age they do not know anything other than the noise. It is their normal. But this noise profoundly affects how they perceive, interpret, and experience life. The “noise” can also go up in volume depending on if a situation is particularly overwhelming.
Think of it like this. You are walking down the side walk in a neighborhood where snakes have recently been spotted. Everywhere you step you are cautious, and you frequently glance behind you to ensure that nothing is slithering along at your heels. Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you think you see something curled up in the grass. At that moment, without any conscious effort on your part, an alarm is fired in your brain and a physiological sequence of events is activated. Hormones are released. Your heart rate speeds up. Your blood flow engages with a new priority, which is to help your arms and legs fight or flee. And your brain quickly determines which one to do, fight or flee. This all happens in a split second. Then you realize it’s a false alarm. What you are seeing is just a garden hose. You breathe a sigh of relief, but now you’ve been spooked. You hasten your steps to get out of that neighborhood. Finally, once you are out of harms way, your heart rate begins to return to normal, your blood flow returns to supporting your vital organs, and you are no longer in fight or flight mode. All is well.
Now, imagine living in that hypervigilant or “spooked” mode constantly. Imagine not being able to find an exit from the neighborhood. That would be an exhausting way to live. But that is how many survivors of childhood trauma live everyday. In childhood they lived with threat and danger. Not only did the trauma convince them that they are perpetually unsafe (there is always a snake at their heels), but it ravaged their neurobiological development. Now the alarms are constantly going off and there is little reprieve. The ability to regulate thinking, feeling, and physical sensations is profoundly fractured, and the ability to have appropriate and fitting internal responses to adult stresses is severely compromised. Their brains have difficulty properly regulating the flight, fight, or freeze response. As a result, it is difficult for them to fully experience enthusiasm and absorb good experiences, though on the outside they may look like they are living a well adjusted life.
It is not hard to empathize when you understand these inner realities with which childhood trauma survivors live. Meeting your spouse with kindness and compassion is a loving way to respond to their hypervigilance. You may be the first safe family member with whom your spouse has ever lived. This is a tremendous opportunity for you to build toward intimacy.