Updated: Feb 5, 2022
“Perfection is not the price of love. Practice is. We practice how to express our love and how to receive our partner’s love. Love is an action even more than a feeling. It requires intention and attention, a practice we call attunement.”~John M. Gottman, Eight Dates: A Plan for Making Love Last Forever
Safe love is our birthright. It is what holds us when we are shaken up or when we feel lost or broken. It is our loyal guide through darkness, the North Star leading us back in the direction of home.
As children, we first learn about love through the relationship with our primary attachment figures- our parents. If our needs are recognized, validated and honored in those original relationships, we feel safe and we feel loved.
If our needs are systematically ignored, dismissed or if we are shamed or punished for expressing needs, love loses its sacred quality of being a safe place to land. Instead, love becomes a scary and confusing place.
Systematic denial of one's needs for safe love and safe belonging (through neglect, abandonment, abuse, cruelty and specific acts of violence) is the basis of RELATIONAL TRAUMA.
The important thing to remember, however, is that even when there is a history of relational injury, which causes love to feel unsafe and scary, one does not stop longing for love.
Our needs are the basis of what makes us human and, therefore, so long as we are clad in flesh, our needs can never, ever go away. This is what makes relational trauma so complicated to heal and so deeply painful to experience. Imagine craving something that is also profoundly terrifying. Often there is tremendous shame that accompanies wanting something that one believes is bad/dangerous.
When we waver between craving and rejecting love, it is impossible to develop a secure relationship with anyone.
When adults with the unconscious/unlooked at childhood relational trauma enter committed relationships, they soon discover that their once deeply felt love has become a place of painful and confusing entanglements. With time, these painful knots- both current and old- create too much tension and something (or someone) in the relationship snaps.
In adult relationships when love is hijacked by trauma, couples enter a dark place.
They lose a steady orientation towards safe love. Without the understanding of how childhood trauma shows up in adult relationships, many adults keep unconsciously enacting traumatic situations in their relationships, going deeper and deeper into their wounds. The deeper they go, the more treacherous the terrain becomes and the more difficult it seems to be to re-orient to the place of safe love.
Arguments and disagreements are normal and expected in all relationships. After all, all humans are complex and a relationship between any two (or more) complex human beings is bound to uncover ways in which each person's individual complexity disagrees with another's. Moreover, arguments and disagreements can be a sign that a relationship is ready for new growth and that there is an underlying desire for a stronger foundation or deeper intimacy.
Relational conflicts of any kind can be quite messy and upsetting. They may provoke anger and there may be frustration expressed. There may be confusion and shock. Feelings may get hurt and individuals may feel unheard, unseen or misunderstood.
Trauma-fueled arguments create deep and lasting disorientation. When a childhood injury is provoked in a relationship, there are two simultaneous (and equally powerful) forces at play: one that genuinely wants the hurt be made better and one that rages about the hurt being there in the first place.
Whenever there is an unresolved (unconscious) relational injury, there is a great likelihood that hurt would be perpetuated and acted out in relationships.
If you are wondering whether trauma has intruded on your love, read on...
In my practice as a psychotherapist, I have found that these relational patterns could be powerful indicators and places to start when exploring the impact of trauma on a relationship.
1. Persistent arguments about the same thing, same pattern.
Wounded parts of ourselves are incessant about wanting to be heard. They wish to be avenged and they want their birthright to experience love safely to be restored. Because relational injuries originated in close bonds, relationships where there is a similarly powerful bond tend to naturally bring those injuries back to the surface. Without the awareness about the impact of trauma, a couple can get stuck in exposing each other's wounds over and over without much movement toward healing at all.
2. The eventual loss of the ability to trust or to believe that your partner is your friend.
When presented with a threat, parts of our brain that register events in linear, sequential ways are deactivated. Therefore, when a trigger in the immediate environment kicks up the old pain, we are instantly catapulted into our past and there is often a sense of disorientation and timelessness. Not only is it then more difficult to maintain a here-and-now perspective of the partner, our brain begins to associate the partner with the original pain.
3. Seeing yourself, the relationship, your partner in black and white terms.
Brain on trauma has no interest in processing the trauma. Brain on trauma is about survival. Making general sweeping statements is much more energy-efficient to the brain that needs all its energy to ensure our survival.
4. Preoccupation with one's own needs/survival (i.e. Loss of empathy)
When trauma invades the relationship, partners begin to have really hard time being there for one another. Listening to one another becomes almost impossible as every comment coming out of the partner's mouth becomes something injurious and, therefore, something to defend from. Space collapses for discussion and partners become preoccupied with own survival (i.e. being heard, being the right one, etc.). Brain on trauma is brain that is all about survival. To our body and our brain emergency demands an immediate strategy for survival. There is no time to think. There is only impulse to act.
5. Over time, romantic partners get stuck enacting dysfunctional parent/child dynamics with one another.
A person who has a history of relational injury as a child will often project the "injurious parent" onto their partner. On the other hand, the partner who the projection is given to, without any awareness of it happening, would ultimately succumb to the projection, taking on more and more characteristics of the "injurious parent."
There is often a false belief that trauma can be mastered. It is not the case. No matter how often we are disregarded, abandoned or shamed, it will never stop hurting any less. What we do have, however, is an opportunity to create safety in the present time, in our present relationships.
Restoring love as a safe place to land takes incredible courage. This work is not for the faint of heart. This journey requires the willingness to validate the pain that for some has been unacknowledged for a very long time.
This journey is in some ways a journey back to the origin of it all-love. It's a journey of many steps. Each of them precious and necessary.