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.
We look forward to sharing this excerpt and more in the coming weeks.
Disclaimer: If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, please read this with caution. It may trigger unwanted and painful memories. Self-care is critical. 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.
We humans utilise an enormous amount of mental and physical energy to keep ourselves safe. Our brain evolved over millennia to assess incoming information for safety or threats. Our mind–body connection allows us to mobilise instantly for fight or flight when we perceive a threat. Our ego uses defence mechanisms to avoid painful or overwhelming experiences, and it can create elaborate stories to try to protect our identity.
Often, we make safety calculations and create a safety officer of our prospective partner, who will typically let us down, exposing our miscalculations as a fantasy. This has to do with how important attachment relationships are throughout life, and how our relational templates impact our adult relationships.
A major area we need to understand when investigating why couples really have cycles of conflict is the role of childhood trauma.
The impact of childhood trauma
Childhood trauma creates physical and mental imprints that endure into our adult lives and impact our relationships. It alters and hijacks a child’s normal development. Children who experience trauma don’t develop minds that are ready for exploration and learning like securely attached infants do. They can’t cope, are easily frustrated when upset, need extra attention and reassurance, and are constantly anxious due to their elevated arousal levels. They have distress intolerance. A significant number of these children end up with diagnosable mental health problems by late adolescence.
Childhood trauma typically leads to insecure infant attachment due to the level of fear, anxiety and distress the child has experienced and encoded. For example, there are three babies – Kat, who is both clingy and angry, Zachary, who keeps his feelings inside his fortress for one, and Tim, who collapses at his mum’s feet with no strategy to rely on.
These babies, like all babies who develop an insecure attachment style, have needed to adjust their expectations or adapt their behaviour with their attachment figure. As children, we don’t even know that we’ve done this. We weren’t born clingy or avoidant. We became that way through thousands of micro-moments with our attachment figure. This is a completely different experience from the children who received consistent caregiving from their parents. They learnt to maintain manageable levels of arousal and developed their own capacity to regulate it. As a result, they developed resilience and distress tolerance.
As adults, we have no idea about these adjustments we made in our childhood. We also don’t know the hefty price we have paid for these in our relationships. We just feel the immense pain and distress from the movement of the tape measure that lives in our back pocket, constantly preoccupied with the emotional distance we feel between us and our partner.
Karen and Bec struggle greatly, living with preoccupation, fear and a sense of threat in their lives. They both feel needy, requiring constant reassurance about their partner’s love. They fear being abandoned (and we know how primitive this fear is), they struggle to trust each other and they struggle with their moods and anxiety. They’re sensitive to the distance on the tape measure and their egos work overtime creating stories of blame and using defence mechanisms to protect themselves. They are often highly aroused.
All of these are adjustments they’ve needed to make – away from their normal developmental trajectory. They can’t find a secure place to relate to each other from, and this weaves insecurity and threat into the fabric of their lives together. For both Karen and Bec, this way of relating is the result of their childhood trauma. As children, they didn’t feel sufficiently protected, soothed or helped with overwhelm and upset, and didn’t develop resilience and the ability to tolerate distress. And just as they were in childhood, as adults, Bec and Karen are preoccupied with the tape measure in their relationship, because preoccupation with their attachment figure was their strategy.
What about the impact of their childhood trauma for partners who retreat to their fortress for one with dismissing attachment? They feel immense loneliness and pain when they retreat to their fortress, as it’s the only way they know to deal with their feelings.
Let me use couple Jana and Louis as an example. They set up a life together where they didn’t need to rely on each other. They valued being independent from a young age, and often laughed about how needy other people could be. They minimised emotional connection, both in themselves and in others. Their emotional range was narrow, and they rarely revealed their anxiety. They felt like a great match in this area. Can you see that this way of relating is traumatic for both partners? They didn’t choose to be like this, but they needed to find a strategy to keep safe emotionally by turning off their attempts to engage their parents when distressed. This is the result of childhood trauma.
This was fine until Jana became dependent on Louis when she became ill during her pregnancy. When faced with Louis’ fortress, she shut down even further, retreating further into her own fortress and pulling up the drawbridge.
Then we have my new client Phoebe. She grew up with a frightening father, a heavy drinker who’d become aggressive towards her mum and the kids after returning from work. Phoebe’s trauma impacts her to this day. She’s been chronically aroused since childhood, and struggles with intimacy and trust in relationships. Phoebe’s trauma responses are evident in her unresolved/disorganised attachment style. She doesn’t have a strategy at all – she had no safe parental presence, no tape measure to hold onto and no fortress to retreat to.
I’ve seen many partners like Bec, Karen, Jana, Louis and Phoebe. They all needed to make adjustments when faced with ongoing childhood trauma. They altered their behaviour and expectations, and encoded these alterations in their relational templates, all the while moving further and further away from their normal developmental trajectory. They don’t necessarily know that this is what they’ve encoded, but they will feel it when triggered by their partner.
How do we know if we’ve encoded our experiences as traumatising? The answer for me is, I see it and feel it. Canadian physician and author Gabor Maté’s definition of trauma is ‘a psychic wound that hardens you psychologically that then interferes with your ability to grow and develop. It pains you and now you’re acting out of pain. It induces fear and now you’re acting out of fear . . . Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.’
As a therapist, I see and feel their reactivity, their fight or flight responses, their struggles with distress intolerance, their tape measures and fortresses, their ego-based stories and defence mechanisms, and so much more. I see and feel the psychic wounds that interfered with their normal emotional development. I see and feel the burdensome price they pay for these wounds within their adult relationships. I see and feel how hard they need to work to feel ‘normal’ inside of themselves.
They have no idea that they are normal – they are normal for someone who has experienced this type of trauma. They’re textbook normal, but they never feel it. Their unconscious mind and body haven’t forgotten the childhood trauma, and they don’t realise how much of an imprint it has created in their relational template. The trauma raises its head with their partner, and tragically, their committed relationship often becomes a traumatising one.
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.