We may not be responsible for the world that created our minds, but we can take responsibility for the mind with which we create our world.
– Gabor Maté
If you’ve experienced trauma in your past, even if it was long ago, you may struggle in the present with frustrating hindrances in your current relationship. Trauma can hi-jack your nervous system and switch you from a pattern of connection to a pattern of protection. We usually think of trauma as something obvious and dramatic: rape, war, natural disaster, violence. But we now understand through neuroscience that there are less dramatic, but no less disruptive conditions, which cause trauma and, later in life, trauma responses. Sometimes these are obvious like PTSD triggers, but often it’s very subtle—like relationship patterns and emotional expectations that almost seem like part of your personality.
Perhaps you wonder if your present relationship is under siege from your past trauma. Maybe you notice triggers in your responses, or patterns where you disconnect sexually. Maybe you totally miss in attempts to communicate with your partner. If this is the case, you are a survivor! You need to know that the trauma responses you have in your adult life are in no way your fault. But now that you are an adult, those reactions are your responsibility—meaning now it’s up to you to do the healing.
Identifying and navigating enduring vulnerabilities
Ana* worries that her husband Pat is a “taker.” She wonders if he’s actually selfish and unappreciative of how much she gives in the relationship. In truth, her partner is not making demands of her, but she’s over-extending herself to “do” for him. This is an unconscious defensive pattern she developed as a response to relational trauma—negligence and abuse from her care-takers in childhood.
Ana has such a strong impulse to anticipate her husband’s “needs,” and meet every one of them promptly, that she actually doesn’t hear or attune to his real requests. Pat says, “No thank you,” but she goes ahead and gives or does something anyway. He often suggests she focus on her own interests instead of him, but she claims she doesn’t have anything more important than what he needs—or rather, what she perceives he needs. She consistently misses the heart of his messages to her. He really doesn’t want her to do so much for him. Her behavior is creating disconnection at the very moment she is going for connection.
So Ana has grown angry, insecure, and frustrated. She attacks Pat for his lack of appreciation, wondering if he is truly selfish. The hypervigilance programmed into her nervous system keeps her rigidly unable to change her own pattern of “over-doing” for him, and the attempts she makes to win his approval are totally back-firing.
Evidence of her past trauma weaves like a deep trench through her present story. But sadly, even Pat’s patient insight about it has left her unable to change course, once the impulses to repeat the relational trauma pattern fire in her nervous system. Their confusion and pain led them to couple therapy where they learned that trauma has created for Ana what we refer to as an “enduring vulnerability” in Gottman Method Couples Therapy.
This is the wound or difficulty from the past that impacts the present relationship.
Managing unconscious expectations
Ana is struggling with expectations. She expects that Pat requires her constant attention and support. When he doesn’t appreciate her for all that she does for him, she’s confused and feels that he criticizes her instead. Now she wonders if he is selfish and narcissistic. She expects that through her giving to him, she’ll receive care and value.
Unconscious expectations created by those who wounded us in the past get projected onto our present attachment figures—particularly romantic partners.
It’s as if Ana and Pat are working off of different scripts while trying to perform the same scene in a movie. Pat may be working from a script he learned unconsciously in childhood (called aninternal working model), or he may have been improvising—following what feels true and right in the here and now.
Ana, however, is following a trauma script. But what feels like it should work from the script she’s following only earns her the opposite of what she’s expecting. Instead of his appreciation, she receives what feels like criticism. This is because what she’s doing doesn’t line up with, or attune to, the reality of his actual feelings and needs.
Pat says he wants her to stop doing so much for him. And yet, my guess is that if she were to actually change what she does, she’d feel panicky and fearful. An irrational worry might take over, maybe connected to a fear of abandonment. It would resonate as “true” in her body, and if that body-based belief had words, it might say something like, “No matter what he says, he really expects me to work everything out for him, and if I don’t please him, he’ll abandon me or hurt me. I’m only valuable when I serve his needs.”
These would be the powerful beliefs of her wounded inner child. It’s as if the inner child is trying to help Ana by driving her towards performing a role according to the old script that kept her safe in the past.
The reason this is so painful is that Pat can’t have a relationship with a role or a performance. He can only connect with the real Ana. What’s so frustrating for couples dealing with trauma, is that at the very moment you think you’re connecting—in Ana’s case, through helping her husband—trauma has actually hi-jacked her nervous system and switched her from a pattern of connection to a pattern of protection.
So this pattern—playing this role of supporting her husband whether he’s requested it or not—is actually a defense. The thing about defenses is that while they protected us from threats in the past, they hinder us from genuine connection in the present, when no real threat exists.
Because here’s the truth: nobody can connect to another person’s defenses.
Many people struggle with this issue. And these defensive patterns can take many forms.
Defensiveness blocks connection
My client Jennie* came to see me with her husband, Daniel. Jennie was depressed, even though everything in her life should have been making her happy. But Jennie was constantly exhausted and in a low mood. She complained that she always felt behind at work, and also in her tasks at home, yet she could never take a break. If she couldn’t be happy, neither could Daniel, and in their misery, they had grown apart.
Here’s what they described to me.
“If there is one load of towels to put in the laundry, she can’t go to sleep at night.” Daniel said, “She’s a total perfectionist about our home, and every meal has to be cooked from scratch out of a gourmet cookbook.”
“It’s true,” Jennie agreed.
Jennie was doing the perfect home-maker thing full-throttle while also attempting to be a top-notch performer at work. All this, as well as parenting their toddler with Daniel.
You may have noticed the repetition of a key word here: should.
We therapists have a nerdy little joke about that word: “Don’t should on yourself.”
If you hear yourself thinking should, pay attention! It’s likely due to fear about performing from an old script. Should is often connected to shame. People in this bind will do anything they feel they “should” to avoid the pain of shame which trauma wounds can trigger. But when we notice we’ve been forcing ourselves to perform from a “should” script, we see a place to start healing!
Keeping things in perfect order was, for Jennie, a protective move to avoid shame and self-loathing. It was the script she followed as a kid with her mother and step-father. From the time she was nine, she had to care for the younger children of her mother’s husband.
She grew up with emotional neglect, dismissing her own needs and feelings. She also suffered emotional abuse when she was told her needs didn’t matter. She recalled some episodes of physical abuse—fights when her mother slapped her or pulled her hair.
Now, many years later, sitting in my office, Jennie reflects with new insight about following hershould script. “Seeing the results of all my work, everything being perfect, really calmed me down for just a second. It definitely made me feel safe, like nobody could blame me or hurt me. I won’t get caught with things left undone.” Her eyes filled with tears, “It sure sounds crazy to hear myself say that out loud.”
Daniel reached over and took her hand. “I’m sorry I’ve criticized you for this. That must be so hard,” he whispered.
“And I’ve put that on you,” she continued, “as if you were the one who would be mad if the towels weren’t clean or the dinner wasn’t perfect. That wasn’t fair.”
“I seriously couldn’t have cared less,” he shrugged.
“I know that now.”
Through learning to hold a safe attuning connection with Daniel, Jennie grew able to feel and believe the truth: that Daniel loved and accepted her as-is, no performance required. He wasn’t going to disapprove or abandon her if she didn’t accomplish all of the “shoulds.”
Daniel didn’t connect with Jennie’s defenses, the behaviors she performed as if to please him. What they both wanted and needed was true connection in the here and now, or what we call attunement.
“Can you allow his touch to soothe you, now?” I asked Jennie. “Soften your body. Relax your jaw, and just let everything inside you feel soft and safe. See if you can open to the warmth and soothing of Daniel’s loving presence.”
She closed her eyes and paid attention to the connection with Daniel. A soft smile came to her lips. “I can feel safe with you, Babe,” she assured him.
At home, Jennie continued to practice paying mindful attention to feeling the safe, loving connection with Daniel. She let his love in, while at the same time tolerating the discomfort of letting go of her old scripts.
She and Daniel practiced attuning to one another’s reality. They looked into one another’s eyes when feeling soft and safe, and discussed their real emotions and needs in the present moment, avoiding “the shoulds.”
But when “the shoulds” in her brain started to overwhelm her, especially when under stress, Jennie learned to confide this to Daniel. “I’m struggling with feeling overwhelmed. Like I shouldbe doing more.” And he helped her soften and breathe deeply to calm the hyperarousal, and then challenge the old belief so she could actually change, and not follow, the script.
Eventually, she no longer felt the compulsive tug of the old wounds, forcing her to perform in the old way.
I need to add that Jennie did this work with Daniel in the context of our therapeutic relationship. For many people, having the wise support of a trauma-informed therapist is invaluable. I hope you’ll be able to connect with one for yourself.
Jennie noticed that she often felt anxiety. She had never named it before, but its aching restlessness had been driving her to perform for years. Rather than following its old script, she learned that what she really needed was a soothing hug and reassuring words. Her whole body needed to let go in order for her to change direction.
Once you’re aware of your own emotions, and can accept them with kindness, you’ll grow in your ability to be aware of your partner’s feelings too. Recognition of real feelings is the goal, and this is often a huge and difficult shift for trauma survivors.
As you become more self-aware, you can attune to your partner. Turn toward their feelings with acceptance of what’s real for them. Let go of the anxiety around what “should” be. See if you can build trust and safety with your partner by practicing telling one another the truth about feelings. Accepting what’s real, rather than performing roles from old scripts, leads to the joy of living together in the here and now.
And remember, our truest needs are for safe, healthy relationships—whether with a romantic partner, close friends, or community. It’s usually in relationships that we were wounded, and it will be through relationships that we will heal.