Taking Trauma into Account with Couples Counseling
“If the relationship between [spouses] is not part of the healing process, it inevitably becomes part of the problem.”
-Susan Johnson and Lyn Williams-Keeler
Trauma can have far reaching consequences for a survivor, but none quite as profound as the impact it has on a person’s relationships. Experiencing trauma intensifies the most primal need of a human being to form and maintain healthy, loving and secure attachments. And yet, trauma simultaneously creates a barrier to that very same end, by limiting a person’s ability to trust themselves, and consequently, others. Trauma, particularly trauma inflicted by another individual (i.e., caregiver abuse, sexual assault, etc…), can render all human connection as problematic and anxiety-producing.
After trauma, it is common for survivors to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy devoted to their personal safety, constantly on edge and assessing for danger, even within their most cherished relationships. Problematically, this can leave them feeling depleted, with little to no energy to focus on effectively connecting and building relationships with the people in their lives. It’s no surprise then, that the marriages of trauma survivors are often characterized by high reactivity (i.e., criticism, arguing, expressions of anger) and/or avoidant responses (i.e., withdrawing, busying oneself, numbing). As time goes on, these relationships become marked by alienation and isolation for both members. Underneath these behaviors and responses, we see that trauma has severely impacted the survivor’s ability to regulate their affective states, with survivors experiencing overwhelming feelings of fear, shame, anger, and sadness. With limited and often rigid coping skills, these individuals deem it too risky, even in situations where it is desirable, for them to be vulnerable and intimate with their partners. Understandably, their partners, without proper education surrounding trauma and its effects, may become frustrated, worn down, and mirror reactivity
and/or avoidance in their interactions with their spouse. At this stage, the couple can become stuck in a negative pattern of distance and distrust with one another.
However, research positively indicates that a person’s ability to receive comfort and acceptance within an intimate relationship, is the single most powerful predictor of an individual’s ability to heal and learn self-regulation after trauma. The perceived ability to process with the person that matters most to a survivor, the person they most hope to be seen and understood by, is the best predictor of how much or how little a trauma will continue to impact that person’s life. It seems that human connection serves as the most effective antidote to trauma, and makes couples' counseling an important and often necessary part of recovery for a trauma survivor.
Therapy can help a couple foster an environment in which the survivor can learn to trust, stay present, and work on their self-regulation skills. Within the safety and comfort of this dyad, the survivor can learn to define themselves as worthy of acceptance and support from a caring other, and dismantle their previous belief that human connection is fraught with danger. Through therapy, their partner becomes framed as an ally in their recovery, rather than a trigger for their feelings of shame and helplessness. In essence, the marriage can come to serve as a corrective emotional experience for the survivor, as they gain a new and healthier cognitive belief (“I am worthy of love and care”). Establishing and maintaining a supportive relationship can help a survivor better manage their symptoms, become more flexible in their coping skills, and remain open to intimacy with their partners. With the therapist’s guidance, a survivor learns to ask for support, reassurance, and acceptance in a way that enables their partner to respond positively. As a result, reactivity and isolation are reduced within the relationship, along with reduced distress and despair for each of the individuals.