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.
Let’s assume that you do act in some of the paranoid ways described at the very start of this article.
Maybe you spy on your partner.
If your roles were reversed, how would you feel about your partner behaving that way toward you?
Would you feel betrayed?
Would you be upset at their flagrant lack of trust in you when you’d done nothing to earn their suspicion?
Would you feel that they were being disrespectful and controlling?
Yes, you want to avoid getting hurt again, but take care that in doing so, you don’t become the person who hurt you.
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.
Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool when it comes to behavioral change. And that includes how you think and act toward someone.
So, each time you put your trust in someone, reward yourself in some way.
That could simply involve a congratulatory, though imaginary, pat on the back for showing the courage to trust someone.
Or it could involve a tub of your favorite ice cream or tickets to a concert.
The more you do this, the greater the positive association you will form around trusting other people.
9. Recognize When You Are Self-Sabotaging
Remember those self-fulfilling prophecies we spoke about earlier? Well, it’s vitally important that you recognize when they are happening.
It’s important because if you can break the cycle and change the patterns of behavior that lead to self-sabotage, you prevent the hurt that comes with it.
And when that hurt is partly made up of broken trust, you avoid reinforcing the trust issues you already have.
You can make your relationships healthier and allow the good things to be reinforced instead of the bad.
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.
Paranoia, hallucinations or brief psychotic episodes are not uncommon for survivors of child sexual abuse.
This is a common reaction to premature sexual exposure or a traumatic sexual experience. If a child is too young to be excessively masturbating or is engaging in pre-mature sexual play or behavior, this is typically a sign that the child has witnessed, been a participant in or has been exposed to adult sexuality. In adolescence and adulthood, this can take the form of promiscuity, illegal sexual activity such as prostitution or participation in pornography, escort services, etc.
Abusing substances is a common coping mechanism for people, who have experienced trauma. Even the “normal” experimentation with drugs of adolescence is not so “normal,” especially if you raised your kid to know the impact of drugs on the central nervous system, the consequences of addiction and the long-term effects of habitual drug use.
Just like the intrusive terrorizing memories of war veterans, survivors of sexual abuse often experience nightmares, intrusive thoughts and disrupted sleep.
An overactive stress response system* is among the most common psychiatric symptoms in survivors of sexual trauma. This is manifested in extreme fear, social anxiety, panic attacks, phobias and hyper vigilance. It is as if the body is in a state of constant alert and cannot relax.