Past terrors affect our ability to manage present relationship challenges

Couples where one or both partners have experienced terror as the result of abuse or neglect earlier in life face unique challenges in their relationship. The following scenarios reflect some of the difficulties these couples may face.

One partner's expression of anger or frustration, no matter how carefully they manage this, is experienced by the other as terrifying and abusive. The first person ends up feeling he is 'walking on eggshells', or not able to raise issues without causing distress. He may even feel there is no place for his concerns to be addressed in a constructive way in the relationship, and over time start to feel resentful about this. The second person may or may not be aware that her reaction is not entirely in response to her partner's anger, but is a re-living of earlier experiences where a parent's or someone else's expression of anger was a precursor to violence or other abuse. Even if she has a good awareness of this link, she may have very little control over her responses.

Or.... One partner tends to shut-down emotionally in response to any expression of intense emotion from their partner, having learned early in life that this was the best way to stay 'under the radar' in a family where adults could be unpredictable and violent. This may leave the other partner feeling alone or disconnected in the relationship, and at a loss to know how to create a safe way to build trust and emotional safety.

These difficulties are exacerbated where both partners have had experiences of trauma as children. One person's expression of distress (whether communicated as high emotion or as shutting down) may be experienced by the other as just like what a parent did, and trigger feelings of fear or even terror. This becomes even more difficult to manage when that person's expression of terror is then interpreted by their partner as unsafe. Before you know it, a vicious cycle has got going where both are feeling terrified by the other's attempts to connect and get close.

If you and/or your partner are having this experience, it's important to get help. It's not enough to understand what is going on, although this is a good start (we can at least have more compassion for ourselves and our partner when we can remember that this is about trauma from the past rather than what is happening here and now). Trauma recovery also needs to include working through past hurts, understanding that our body and sensory resposes are post-traumatic symptoms, and accessing specific therapies that will help uncouple past responses from present relationship challenges.

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