We are living in the age of the brain. Our scientific knowledge about the neurological realm has expanded, and keeps expanding, to new frontiers at a faster pace than ever before. The discoveries allow us to go deeper into understanding the relationship between internal experience and behavior in humans and other animals.
We also keep learning more about trauma. As our knowledge increases about what trauma actually is and what it does to us, we can make increasing connections between the brain and behavior, and between body, mind, emotions and how it all plays out in relationships.
Most of life occurs in relationship, including internally via mental constructs, thought, and emotions, whether about others or about ourselves.
The more I learn about trauma, the more I realize that much more of us than I used to think have something we are carrying around internally that constitutes some degree of traumatization from childhood. Dr. Gabor Maté, medical doctor and expert on addiction, trauma, and child development, says that what traumatizes us is not the actual events, but the loss of self-connection, connection to our essence. This resonates in me as exquisitely accurate.
In my twenty years as a relationship counselor, I have hardly ever experienced a client presenting their childhood history with an adjoining, accurate awareness and acceptance of the traumatizing material they were revealing.
I’m a relationship counselor, not a trauma specialist, so maybe it has to do with the mindset my clients are coming in with, but they almost always, at first, present traumatic material in their reports of their backgrounds in a matter of fact manner, like it’s no big deal.
Male clients have a stronger tendency to speak dismissively about their childhood wounding, and to stick with the downplayed position longer than female clients, who usually have tears when sharing about these sorts of things, but I do see the denial from both. They often smile or laugh while speaking about painful scenarios, with an air that implies it’s not the important stuff to talk about. And usually the stories are told only as a result of my asking questions, and then more questions.
When I’ve heard enough to know that there are certainly events and chronic situations that constitute a traumatized childhood development, what most often happens upon my gentle use of the term trauma is that the client shrugs it off, laughs, or says something like, “I don’t relate to that word,” or, “Nah, I didn’t have it anywhere nearly as bad as some of my friends; now they had trauma!”
The trauma denial is societally and familially groomed into us. It exists in our adult lives because it activated automatically and became a part of us in childhood, and for very good reason – survival. We do not live in a world, and most of us do not grow up in households, where we are encouraged, invited, taught, allowed or are actually safe to identify and express all of our feelings and perceptions.
The truth is the opposite: we learn in childhood, by conditioning via approval and disapproval, to only identify and express – even to ourselves – the feelings that will not obstruct our access to the most important survival resource – attachment to and love from the people in charge of us.
The behavioral and emotional fallout from a traumatizing childhood takes various forms, in different contexts, most notably in relationships – with family members, co-workers, friends and the biggie: mates. Some adults do know that they had traumatic experiences in their past, and some are able to identify moments when they are retriggered into emotional flashbacks and reactivity. Some can actually do something in the moment to help themselves and others deal with the trigger, using communication and self-management techniques and tools.
Some people know they were traumatized and wield it as a weapon when they are triggered – perpetrating as a victim, lashing out with blame in emotionally abusive ways onto others, unable to control the reactivity. There are some people who demonstrate this type of attacking reactive behavior who are not aware that it comes from a trauma trigger, at least in the moment, but the fighters, vs. the fleers and freezers, tend to be more aware of trauma in their past, they just can’t control the triggers.
For this article, I am focusing on the adult who thinks they didn’t have trauma, per se, in their past, or thinks it wasn’t “that bad” – when in reality there was some combination of addiction, mental illness, terminal illness, loss of a parent, abandonment, neglect, abuse of some kind(s), violence and violation in their childhood. The person who learned a long time ago to dismiss, deflect, minimize and dissociate from the pain in order to survive, physically and emotionally, and they’re still doing it. Except now they’re adults, and if they are in a partnership, you can bet that their partner is suffering from this trauma denial.
Let’s talk about what the partner of someone in trauma denial goes through. First of all, individuals with traumatic pasts not only tend to find and choose each other as mates, they tend to attract someone with a similar severity of childhood wounding – within a range of a segment of the scale, in other words, in the neighborhood of each other’s degree of psychological injury. Often, the partner of a person who had trauma in their family of origin has trauma in theirs as well, but not necessarily the same intensity, and almost certainly with a corresponding, complimentary – meaning, opposite, or, residing more on the other side of the polarity – pattern of reactive behaviors to their own flashback triggers.
There tends to be one partner who incurred childhood trauma and is ostensibly unaware of that fact and the impact on them, and others via their behavior, but who suffers from and displays a variety of symptoms and impairments in functioning – including addiction, anger management and impulse control issues, aggression, violence (emotional, physical), anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD and other mental, emotional, psychological and social conditions.
The other partner may have trauma, or less severe wounding, in their history, and some of the above impairments and conditions, but tends to be more aware of the pain in their past, and is the codependent.
Ah, the codependent. Let’s talk about the codependent. It’s not just the partner of an alcoholic, addict, abuser – physical or emotional – narcissist or psychopath who is the codependent. It can also be the partner of the person with undiagnosed, untreated, unidentified and active PTSD. The unidentified as traumatized child, who grew into a traumatized adult, and is the walking wounded, unconscious that they are reacting to the world like they are still a helpless, defenseless child in an actively dangerous situation.
The behaviors displayed in the adult with PTSD can include anger outbursts and abuse of different forms, but there are many, perhaps more, cases where the reactive behavior pattern includes or is mostly dissociation, hiding, avoidance, disappearing, withdrawal, checking out, shutting down, disconnection from partner and self, inability to identify and voice feelings, needs, and reactions in the moment.
Does any of this sound familiar? Like I said, I’m starting to see that a hell of a lot more of the population is traumatized than I previously realized.
One partner tends to do the majority of shutting down behaviors. The other partner is left to try to decipher, interpret, initiate talking, chase down, draw out, communicate, connect, find out what is going on, try to repair, heal, work it out, resume some semblance of normalcy. This is the codependent, the partner who usually works harder at the trying-to-salvage-things end of the equation, while the other one is shut down.
As I have said, the codependent may have trauma in their past, too. But their psychological imprint for attracting and being a mate involves craving approval/love in the form of connection, and when it is threatened, they feel safest when fighting for it, vs. the partners they attract, who also need approval/love, but it comes more in the form of safety from dangerous vulnerability in connection, and they have the imprint of shutting down to get it.
This is a powerful distinction, and another lens through which to view the Minimizer-Maximizer, Engulfment-Abandonment, Distancer-Pursuer dynamic of the Imago Match in mate relationships that I use to help partners understand and heal their Core Scene – a pattern of conflict and disconnection.
This writing explores the idea that it is not just trauma and related, triggering emotional flashbacks, but also the denial of trauma within one partner that prevents them from being consciously present when a conflict is occurring – or even just in situations and scenarios that trigger the PTSD, such as sitting down for a meal at the family table, or being asked a question – and has them instead engage in reactive behaviors that protect them from what is happening in the moment with some sort of shut down and unavailability. This lack of presence is reacted to by the other partner with overfunctioning behaviors – desperate attempts to get back to connection – further overwhelming the trauma denier, perpetuating the codependent cycle.
It is the denial of self – the all-too-willing sacrifice of the codependent’s own functioning that is the major contribution they make to the suffering in the painful dynamic. I’ve written a lot about codependence, and there will be more.
The focus here is on the person who cannot identify or express what is happening for them in a moment of a trauma trigger, something they are deeply and unconsciously conditioned to emotionally and cognitively disconnect from, deny or minimize awareness of existence attention, and avoid dealing with. It is, albeit unconscious, at its root, denial of the original trauma(s) in moments of emotional flashbacks later in life that is that person’s silently fueling the intolerable despair, desperation, and rage in their codependent partners.
What to do? Sometimes there is nothing more that can be done in a relationship, and to prevent further damage to each person, ending it is the best course. No one can make that decision for anyone else, but some relationships show a clear predictability of a path of re-wounding and no realistic likelihood of real healing progress moving forward.
Sometimes healing is possible. One or both partners will need to delve deeper into childhood wounds – in individual work, and possibly also deep couples work – with the help of a trained expert, safely exploring and releasing stuck grief, fear and anger from those old places. The healing path would also need to include the integration of more tools for self-soothing, self-connection and conscious communication with other.
For the first time in my career and my personal life, I have come to the doorstep of the topic of trauma in a most real way. I have finally now opened the door and I am open; I accept this topic, this realm, as my next steps for learning, growing, self-connection and connection with others. I will be exploring trauma – what it is, how it happens, what helps – sharing and offering along the way on this healing journey in an unfolding process.
Thank you for reading.