Those who survive complex childhood trauma are often caught in a vicious cycle. They long for intimacy, but the very stresses that are a normal part of building a meaningful marital relationship trigger their defenses and their coping mechanisms. They typically end up in one of three modes – fight, flight, or freeze. Sadly, the very intimacy they crave, they sabotage or derail.
When you are married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma, it is key that you learn how to not take their rejection personally. It really is them, not you. Again, this does not mean that you have no weaknesses or areas in need of growth. But even if you are emotionally healthy and safe, trauma can significantly complicate your spouse’s ability to bond with you in deep and meaningful ways. Their fight, flight, or freeze mechanism is so easily triggered that they are in survival mode even when there is no real danger or threat. Unfortunately, not only does this mean that marital intimacy is very elusive, but it means that you likely experience a great deal of emotional rejection and abandonment, even if that is not your spouse’s intention. And your spouse is likely very unaware that he is isolating you.
Note that your spouse may live in an emotionally anorexic state, starved of true connection. This is because many survivors of childhood trauma find some reprieve in aloneness, and even reach points where they are prepared to totally disengage from those who love them most. This is why trauma survivors find it easy to hold on to fantasies. A fantasy is the facade of being in a relationship without having to navigate through genuine connection. This is a lonely and disconnected way to live.
Your spouse’s emotional distance is not because you are unlovable or undesirable. His or her emotional distance is a product of trauma.
Even when survivors of complex childhood trauma are married to safe, sympathetic, emotionally healthy spouses, they guard themselves and remain hypervigilant toward their spouses. So it is important that you as the spouse remember this: While you might have problems, and while you might not always handle the problems correctly, and while you are most certainly not perfect, you are not the problem.
This knowledge is an important anchor because one of the survival mode mechanisms of trauma survivors is to blame the spouse. You are the closest one to the survivor, and, just based on proximity and the nature of marriage, you will activate the survivor’s triggers. The defensiveness in marriage that survivors can be prone to is what makes it tremendously difficult for them to be objective. The weight of this blame over time can be crushing to the spouse of the trauma survivor. Even avoidant trauma survivors, who by nature have an easy going and non confrontational way about them, can deploy an arsenal of blame when confronted. This is because they so easily feel criticized and threatened.
This dynamic of blame tends to be very confusing for spouses. They begin to wonder what they are doing wrong. They begin to doubt even the sound judgement and wisdom they possess. These spouses need to remember that the trauma brain is continuously scanning the environment for danger. What the non-trauma spouse says or does gets evaluated based on that scan, and their words and actions are misread by the trauma survivor as a personal attack. The trauma brain becomes trapped in a cycle of negative internal dialogue, and the sympathetic spouse is viewed as an enemy and a danger, rather than as an ally and intimate friend. As a result, the non-trauma spouse is treated defensively. What that defensiveness looks like varies from trauma survivor to trauma survivor.
Objectivity is one of your greatest allies when it comes to this issue. Objectivity will allow you to differentiate between when you are at fault and need to take action to right your wrong, and when your spouse is projecting a perceived fault onto you. This will help guard you from pervasive frustration and self doubt. This is good and important self care.
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.
The first anchor is being able to understand the nature of the issue. If you do not have at least a cursory understanding of trauma, you will likely weary yourself mentally, emotionally, and even physically trying to out fires, establish rhythms, and solve problems. Trauma issues in marriage need more than good communication skills and weekly date nights to solve the problem – though communication skills and date nights are important, too! Trauma issues need, among other things, understanding.
So what should you understand about your spouse and the complex childhood trauma he or she has suffered? For one thing, know that traumatic childhood experiences are far from superficial. Traumatic childhood experiences go way beyond feelings and actually change the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. One of the complications of this is that the survivor’s brain is virtually always in a state of hypervigilance, constantly scanning the environment for threats. The overactive fight, flight or freeze mode lends itself to the body’s nervous system being easily activated. This is taxing to the mind and body of the survivor.
If you are the spouse of a trauma survivor it is important for you to note that your spouse may not appear to be hypervigilant, but there is tremendous hypervigilance going on internally. This has profound implications for your marital dynamic, and it explains why gaining emotional and relational traction may seem so difficult. Your spouse, due to the trauma, lives in survival mode. Building lasting marital intimacy in survival mode is quite a feat.
Understanding the nature of complex trauma and its physiological impact on the survivor helps you to put your spouse’s actions and reactions in an appropriate and constructive context. You are then better positioned to engage with him in helpful and meaningful ways.
According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 13 individuals worldwide suffers from anxiety. The organization reported that anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the world with the most common anxiety disorder types being specific phobia and social phobia. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States ages 18 and older, or around 18% of the population any given year.
Panic disorder is more prevalent in woman than men and often has an onset during the late teen or early adulthood years. Approximately 7.7 million individuals, age 18 and older, in the United States, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Available anxiety statistics tell us that only about a third of those suffering from anxiety disorders seek professional anxiety treatment, even though the disorders are decidedly treatable.
Self-mutilation is another way survivors of trauma employ in an effort to cope with the experience of severe emotional and psychological pain. Some research shows that during cutting or self-mutilation, the brain releases natural opioids that provide a temporary experience or sense of calm and peace that many, who cut, find soothing.
Dissociation is probably the most common defense mechanism the mind employs to protect itself from the trauma of sexual assault. It is the escape of the mind from the body in times of extreme stress, sense of powerlessness, pain and suffering.
The reality of being married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma is that it will often feel like storms are constantly rolling in to shore. These storms can be costly, exhausting, and overwhelming. They can accost every area of your life in ways that are difficult to quantify.
Because survivors of complex childhood trauma can function with the appearance of normalcy in everyday life, especially if they are very talented, there can be such ambiguity in your experience. On one hand, your life can have the appearance of, or potential for, what others would call success. On the other hand, you are often simultaneously recovering from a storm, experiencing a storm, and watching new storm clouds gather. It can be a steady, unrelenting cascade. This makes it seemingly impossible to gain stability and traction in your life.
Feelings of discouragement are common here. It is disheartening to feel like your life takes two to ten steps back maritally, relationally, financially, and/or professionally every time you try to take one step forward. Much of what you gain, you perhaps feel like you lose. There is a high cost to living with the effects of unhealed complex trauma. If you have children, it is even more complicated. You are likely doing your best to create as normal a life as possible for them, while being regularly confronted with the reality that you cannot shield them from all of the implications of living a life that is affected by trauma.
If you decide to work toward your marriage surviving, there will be storms to weather. (Please note, if there is abuse, weathering the storms does not mean staying and enduring it. You need to seek professional help and intervention immediately for the safety of yourself and your children.) Weathering the storms will require tenacity, but please understand that it is not your responsibility to “fix” the trauma. Weathering the storms will also likely require the help of a knowledgeable trauma counselor who can help you identify what storms to weather and how to weather them. The journey is not in vain if you walk it constructively and with intentionality.
Complex childhood trauma often, though not always, has its roots and origins buried amid the parents, caregivers and/or authority figures of the trauma survivor’s childhood life. As unbelievable as it may seem, some trauma survivors find it very difficult to view those adult figures as having harmed them. Instead, survivors may blame themselves. They may also blame the non-abusive parent. And incredibly, many of them blame their spouses. Some trauma survivors are not even aware of their trauma, even though they live with the effects. Furthermore, it is common for them to not see how the poor and dysfunctional relational examples they may have been exposed to in childhood have distorted the way they perceive and engage in relationships.
While it may be virtually impossible for you to connect the historical dots of trauma in a way that your spouse can see and acknowledge them, being able to connect those dots for the sake of your own awareness is valuable. It will help you to understand and counter your spouse’s negative self talk and misdirected blame. It is important to note that countering his or her self talk and misdirected blame does not mean being combative or argumentative. But it does mean speaking truth to yourself. And it also means being willing to speak the truth to your spouse in a fitting manner when appropriate.
Survivors of complex childhood trauma are very beholden to their dysfunctional childhood blueprints. Your willingness to gently counter the lies and assumptions can shed needed light for them. It can help them to challenge their internal narratives and begin the process of discovering how to free their brains from the trauma imprint. But remember, this is not about strong arming your spouse. You cannot force him or her to connect the dots.
- Emotional reactions
- Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Physical and biomedical effects
- Sexual effects
- Interpersonal effects
- Social functioning
Responses can vary greatly within the seven categories. Also, survivors may fluctuate between being highly symptomatic and relatively symptom-free. This variability is completely normal.
- Administration for Children and Families
- National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information
- National Institutes of Health-National Library of Medicine
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect