Extracted from Relationship Reset by Lissy Abrahams, Published by Macmillan Australia, RRP $34.99
The Carousel is publishing excerpts by psychotherapist and relationships expert Lissy Abrahams from her best-selling book Relationship Reset – How to break the cycle of conflict and create secure and lasting love.
Lissy has spent years exploring the question, “Why do we fight most with those we love the best?” She knows how long-term conflict leaves us drained, anxious and worried for the emotional wellbeing of our families, but Lissy says it’s neither intractable nor inevitable. Conflict is caused by unconscious patterns of thinking and behaviour – unresolved feelings of fear, instability or pain – which can be consciously rewired for a healthier, happier relationship.
You can find more of Lissy’s relationship advice on The Carousel by clicking here.
Disclaimer: If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, please read this chapter with caution. It may trigger unwanted and painful memories. Self-care is critical. The intent is to show you how childhood trauma impacts lives and often causes conflict. If this material triggers you, it will be helpful to contact a wise friend or family member, or a therapist. If in doubt of your safety, head to your local emergency department.
You’re out of your mind!
As you know, children of trauma often don’t know how or what’s been encoded inside them or how chronically aroused and anxious they are. As adults, they also don’t know what they don’t know. In their couple relationship and in everyday life, they constantly see threats and danger in harmless situations.
When an adult who has experienced childhood trauma is triggered, their right brain reacts as if that event or threat is actually happening in the present. Their left brain shuts down or is deactivated, which means they can’t organise their experience into a logical sequence or use words to articulate how their feelings have changed.
We’ve all heard expressions like, ‘I lost my mind,’ ‘She was out of her mind!’ or ‘He just went crazy!’ Well, once triggered it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to be logical and calmly express how we feel. This is why chastising them with ‘What were you thinking?’ isn’t helpful. They weren’t thinking – they were dealing with feelings of fear. Similarly, offering the helpful hint of ‘Next time, just tell me how you feel’ is a lovely idea, but next time is unlikely to be any calmer. This is because the experience of immediate threat will once again deactivate the ability to apply logic and articulate feelings.
This is critical for understanding why a triggered partner has no awareness of the impact their past traumatic experiences are having in that moment. All they know is that they’re suddenly feeling terrified, furious or ashamed, or may dissociate. There’s no sense that the trigger has some familiarity with the past. The threat is perceived as happening now.
The effects of trauma on the couple relationship
When triggered, the partner who has experienced childhood trauma will believe it’s their partner’s fault for making them angry or upset. They truly believe their partner is presenting as a threat. Who else could it be? They know they haven’t done anything to upset themselves: that makes no sense. Trauma interferes with our ability to be aware that our partner is triggering our trauma, and isn’t an actual threat.
It’s extremely rare for trauma to heal on its own, and it’s likely to rear its head again in a committed couple relationship. This is the most similar attachment relationship to our relationship with our parents in childhood. These similarities include feeling safe when our attachment figure is close, feeling insecure when they’re inaccessible, sharing discoveries and a mutual fascination.
An adult with childhood trauma will experience the re-emergence of the distressing emotions they felt in childhood when triggered by their partner. This will mess with their minds, just like it did in their childhood. And because they’re wired to react in fight or flight, it will lead to conflict. They can’t believe their partner has treated them this way; it hurts so much. It’s experienced as a betrayal, just as it felt in childhood.
I’ve frequently witnessed the devastating impact of the biological paradox on my clients. For example:
- If the person’s trust was destroyed in childhood, as an adult they’ll likely experience mistrust in certain areas with their partner.
- If they struggled with their mood or chronic anxiety as a child, this will likely be an issue in their adult relationships, too.
- Without developing distress tolerance or having a strategy to cope, they numb their chaotic feelings with substances like alcohol. This will become an issue down the line.
- Unpredictable behaviour when distressed will emerge, and this is difficult for partners to deal with. Many lose it with them and judge them negatively.
I am going to introduce you to two of my couples, so you can see how this plays out in relationships. Like many of my couples, their unions, which originally held the hope of connection, intimacy and safety, became the opposite, and once again they were living with trauma in their home. I will show you their fights, episode after episode, so you can see how trust, safety and then intimacy were impacted by their conflict.
For the partners who experienced the biological paradox, their fear and distress are painfully familiar to them. They experience it as happening ‘now’, and the situation feels as unsolvable as the biological paradox. Based on my experience with couples in my consulting room, I’ve extended the concept of the biological paradox to couples. I’ve called this the ‘couple paradox’.
What is the couple paradox?
The couple paradox is where the childhood nightmare of the biological paradox has come full circle and now the person experiences the familiar paradox in their adult relationship. Their partner is perceived as not protecting them from harm or as the source of their fear or threat, and they feel traumatised, just as they did in child- hood with their unsafe parent.
Like all of us, they meet a prospective partner, make safety calculations, and unconsciously make their partner the ‘safety officer’ in areas important to them. Despite these attempts to create safety, unresolved aspects from their traumatic past will inevitably be transferred onto their partner and they’ll perceive them as a threat, triggering the fight or flight response and a host of defence mechanisms. Their partner will in turn likely experience this as a threat, triggering their own survival response and ego defence mechanisms.
We know that experiencing the biological paradox wires an adult to be highly aroused, hypervigilant and over-perceiving of danger in their environment and with their partner. This means danger will be perceived even in its absence. They’ll be triggered over and over again, causing repeated conflict.
Sadly, they’ll be judged for being ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’. However, we know that because of their relational wiring and their left hemisphere going offline when triggered, they’re reacting to what feels like a serious threat from their partner. They remain highly or chronically aroused. Their fights will erode trust and safety, decreasing their emotional, physical and sexual intimacy.
The couple will become increasingly trigger unhappy. Partners will view each other less positively and live more fearfully. They’ll create more elaborate ego-based stories about each other’s inadequacy as a partner or the danger they represent.
The couple paradox can be extremely distressing. The traumatised individual truly perceives their partner to be an ongoing threat. Imagine the torment of suddenly being blindsided and going into survival mode, believing your partner is now a dangerous intruder. It’s no joke.
In fact, it’s devastating. The repeated episodes of conflict can make it feel as if they’re living with the enemy. This is the last thing they wanted or expected to happen in their chosen couple relationship. They just feel so betrayed; it’s painfully encoded in their wiring. But like all of us, we don’t know what we don’t know. And we don’t know when our left hemisphere goes offline.
To read more, check out Relationship Reset by Lissy Abrahams by clicking here.
About Lissy Abrahams
Lissy Abrahams is a leading psychotherapist who has dedicated her career to helping hundreds of clients navigate life’s obstacles and challenges. Lissy studied psychology in Sydney and then completed her Masters of Couple Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy at the internationally renowned Tavistock Relationships, London.
Lissy founded and manages the Sydney-based therapy clinic, Heath Group Practice, and works therapeutically with clients around the world. She has launched a successful online course to help partners stop fighting, communicate respectfully and rekindle love.