Do you ever get the sense that an unseen force is at work in your marriage? I’m not going all woo-woo on you here, but what if you could identify that force, understand it, and then use your marriage as a place of healing?
If you’ve been through some kind of deeply traumatic experience then it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that it will have had some effect on you as a person. But trauma can also have a big impact on your marriage, often without you even knowing.
How big of a deal is trauma?
I wanted to examine this because I see it at play in a lot of marriages and I am hoping that by reading this you will be able to self-evaluate your circumstances to see if this is relevant or helpful.
Trauma has different definitions and can be caused by many different things. Experiences such as childhood illness or hospitalization, near death encounters or experiences where death is witnessed, accidents, extremes like genocide and war, rape or torture are all examples of situations where trauma may result. Basically any deeply distressing or disturbing experience can result in trauma. Often you’ll see this where a person’s ability to cope is simply overwhelmed and you end up feeling powerless.
What’s interesting about trauma is the rule of nine. If you have events on a scale where zero is not a big deal and nine is witnessing something really terrible, the rule of nine is about how there are different figures you can multiply together to get to nine. If you experience one incident at a nine level of intensity you can have trauma as a result. Or you could also get it from having three incidents at a three-level; none of the incidents on their own would be big enough, but they add up together to a traumatic experience. Or even nine events that are a one level of intensity, where you have repeated exposure to something “small” that’s not big enough by itself, but by repeated exposure, it works up a trauma response.
So trauma ends up being the emotional response you carry to a very negative event or series of events. Trauma is a normal reaction to painful or difficult experiences but it can impact your ability to cope with normal life. And it can also have a major effect on your marriage.
How Trauma Impacts Marriage
A study from 2000[i] looked at 96 couples where at least one spouse reported a history of childhood abuse. Of course, that would be a likely source of trauma. These couples exhibit some particular attributes. So we’ll look at what these are and then why they appear, and then examine how we can help heal this.
This study made a few observations. First, if one or both spouse reported a history of physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood the couple was more likely to experience lower relationship satisfaction and higher individual stress symptoms than couples where neither spouse reported an abuse history. This is why we are dealing with the subject of trauma: it can impact marriages for sure!
They also noted that couples with a history of childhood abuse scored lower on cohesion than non-abuse couples. Cohesion is about the closeness of the couple- the emotional bonds they share. So there is more distance experienced in marriages where childhood abuse has been part of one or both spouse’s history.
It is common for individuals who have experienced abuse to report that they experience emotional distance and isolation. So yes, this definitely has the potential to touch marriages. If you’re reading this and it feels familiar, just stay with me though: we have good news for you later on.
Why Does Trauma Affect Marriage?
We’ve talked about attachment before — the science of love or the love bond that exists between two spouses. Trauma impacts attachment and, related to that, one’s ability to be emotionally engaged.
Let’s talk about some examples of what this looks like based on the work of Johnson and Williams-Keller[ii]. By the way, this is Sue Johnson who has really pioneered EFCT— the approach to couples’ therapy that I use with my clients. These are some of the ways they identified which a history of trauma can play out in marriages:
Disengagement and withdrawal: if you think about the severity of situations that prompt a trauma response it makes sense that you need a secure base to come back to. Somewhere safe and protective. However, trauma is often prompted by violations from the very people we should be safe with. For example child abuse by a parent. So it becomes easy to see how trauma “destroys the trust and security that are the main building blocks for such attachments”. If the very people you would turn to for comfort are responsible for such emotional pain then it’s no wonder you become hesitant to form such strong bonds in the future.
Now: the person desperately needs to feel safe but feels unable to trust human connection. So in your marriage today you have a spouse with this formative belief that closeness is not safe. Therefore they can either be quite disengaged or can vacillate between feeling anxious and needy vs. distant and disengaged.
Where most couples see a connection with each other as a source of safety and comfort, trauma-impacted spouses can’t help but see the same thing as a source of danger. And yet: they too need emotional engagement. And emotional engagement is a key feature of a strong and satisfying marriage. But emotional engagement leads to vulnerability. Survivors of trauma feel the need to avoid vulnerability to protect from harm. See the cycle? Trauma survivors both need and are afraid of vulnerability. Therefore, “relationship activities that have the potential to soothe and calm other distressed couples, such as confiding and lovemaking, become at minimum a source of threat and at worst a source of re-traumatization in the partnerships of trauma victims”.
Vicarious Traumatization: let’s complicate this a little more. Say you have survived trauma. Your spouse sees how deeply affected you are by different aspects of the trauma. And because it’s so personal because of your closeness, your spouse begins to experience personal distress on account of your trauma. They now start to wonder if the world is a safe place too, if something so terrible could happen to someone they love. Now they are starting to live out the same responses as you.
This is vicarious traumatization. The traumatic events did not happen to your spouse, but they start to experience the trauma. Now they begin to become disengaged and withdrawn, just like you… This gets pretty hard to sort out, right?
Distancing, Defense, and Distrust: take a look at this quote from the research: “Trauma victims’ marriages are, therefore, more likely to become distressed and, once distressed, tend to become stuck in particularly intense self-perpetuating cycles of distance, defense, and distrust. In addition, marital distress tends to evoke, maintain, and exacerbate trauma symptoms. A vicious cycle is then set in motion that is often totally debilitating both to the relationship and to individual partners’ ability to cope with the effects of the trauma[iii]”. The trauma causes you to be distant and distrustful of vulnerability, which creates distress in your marriage, leading to further trauma… leading to further distrust and distancing.
No Shame in Trauma
Now I want to pause for one moment to speak to spouses with trauma. After reading all of this you could be feeling pretty bad about yourself. One of the things my counseling clients tell me they appreciate about my approach is that I’m very honest with them. But I’m also very gentle. And you may have read what amounts to a pretty honest assessment of your marriage and your role. Listen carefully: don’t go to shame on this one. You didn’t create this situation. Whatever the source of your trauma, it’s not your fault. None of us are immune to trauma. Therapists who are very emotionally resilient and have done a lot of personal work are vulnerable to trauma and even vicarious traumatization.
This is not about you being fundamentally flawed or ruined or damaged goods. This is about how you’ve learned to cope as a survivor. However: you don’t have to remain in “survivor” mentality forever. You can take ownership of your journey towards healing. And the good news is that even though your marriage is where the impact of the trauma is most visible, your marriage can also be a place where healing can begin and then grow into wholeness.
Is Trauma Impacting Your Marriage?
And again I have a self-help tool that you can download. It is actually a treatment plan but you need to know that for this purpose it is a self-help tool and it does not replace counseling. However, if you want to work on this trauma issue inside your marriage it should be a huge help. This tool is available only to our supporters.
Marriage as a Place of Healing from Trauma
So I think it’s really cool that even though trauma can have a distressing impact on marriage, there can also be an inverse effect where marriage can have a healing impact back on the trauma. For me, this prompts worship towards God. I just think it’s so cool that he designed a relationship for us which could be a place of healing and recovery from the most extreme challenges life can throw at us.
There was a study in 2005 by Skogrand et al.[iv] who studied adults who survived and transcended a traumatic childhood and they looked specifically at the role their spouses played in the process of overcoming these childhood experiences. Half of the participants in the study believed their spouse was helpful in this process.
So the question is, how did they help?
Survivors stated that their spouses provided a “listening ear” and “someone to give support through difficult times.” This gave survivors “courage” and the “ability to emotionally move to a better place[v]”. Survivors who believed their spouse was helpful in the process of transcending “reported having a spouse who listens, loves unconditionally, is not judgmental, and is nurturing[vi]”.
The researchers underscored the idea that these adults all reported on this major theme of having a spouse who would listen to them and do so for as long as they needed to be talking through something.
So I think that’s a huge first takeaway. Hopefully, for those of our listeners who have a spouse who has gone through trauma, you’ll see that this is something quite achievable. All you need to do is listen—we talk about that in episode 15: Listen to Understand. If you want to really get serious with your communication skills, check out our communications course, Talk To Me 101.
Aside from listening: today’s bonus guide is definitely going to tell you what you need to do as a couple to work through trauma in a healing manner but I want to outline how that process works before we wrap up.
Johnson & Williams-Keller[vii], the marriage researchers whose recovery process we describe in the bonus self-help tool for our patrons, talk about three things that happen when marriage is used as a healing agent.
First, they note that marriage can help survivors of trauma “regulate negative affect and manage symptoms”.
Now, this is typical language for this area of study, but regulation of affect just means “how am I able to independently and constructively manage my emotions?” Remember when you think of trauma there’s a struggle with reactive mood states (strong shifts in mood based on what’s happening around you: the rollercoaster of emotions), and there can be a LOT of anxiety and there are also flashbacks to contend with. These things kind of ambush the person who is impacted by trauma and can take their emotions in all sorts of directions without any warning. Well, the ability to manage negative emotions and symptoms means not only gaining some relief from all of that but also putting you back into the driver’s seat of your emotions.
When they researched this, they noted one example where “if a trauma survivor can turn to her spouse for support at the beginning of a flashback, she may be less likely to dissociate or engage in self-injurious behavior[viii]”. As in you’re taking these symptoms to a healthy place for constructive coping and help rather than resorting to destructive methods. Instead of downing some vodka to calm your nerves, you’re turning to your spouse for support. Reminding yourself that you’re safe, that you can cope, that you aren’t crazy.
That’s how your marriage relationship is helping you constructively manage your emotions.
A new way of seeing relationships
Secondly, marriage can “provide a corrective emotional experience”. Again, recall that survivors of trauma can grow up seeing their closest relationships as always having the potential for danger. Through the security of a safe and comforting marriage, “partners can learn that not all close relationships have to involve betrayal and can, in fact, be a source of comfort and “secure base[ix]”.
As your experience of having close relationships begins to change, so does your attitude towards opening up and being vulnerable. Healthy marriage begins to undermine and erode the fundamental beliefs created by trauma and to replace those beliefs with more adaptive, wholesome perspectives on significant others and even life in general. Which is awesome!
Strengthening the bond
Finally, you can imagine that doing this work together and processing past traumatic experiences in the context of marital therapy can also create a “powerful bond between partners”. If viewed in the right way your traumatic experiences can actually be used as a powerful tool for bringing you and your spouse closer together.
Again, allow me to quote the researchers here: “In the safety of marital therapy, the reprocessing of traumatic experiences can build a powerful bond between partners. For example, when responded to with empathy, the process of sharing not just the facts of the trauma but the emotional experience of grief or shame tends to create emotional engagement and to forge a strong bond between partners. This bond can then become a protective factor against retraumatization or further traumatic impact on the relationship[x]”.
There you go. I love being married and I love being married to Verlynda. But all on its own I also love marriage as it has been given to us by God. It just shows his wisdom—it’s like he has built a self-help system into the fabric of our beings as creatures who relate. It’s like a self-healing system: just like when you fall and get a scrape your blood has a clotting system and your skin cells are wired to heal over with time, it’s the same with our emotional experiences too.
Marriage demonstrates God’s love for us in a very real and practical way by helping us regulate our emotions and enabling us to re-learn how to be vulnerable with someone while strengthening our bond in the process. That’s why we need to cultivate good marriages and inside those marriages cultivate an environment of safety and commitment. In doing so we can create resiliency against the impact of sin on our lives.
References[i] Briana S. Nelson and Karen S. Wampler, ‘Systemic Effects of Trauma in Clinic Couples: An Exploratory Study of Secondary Trauma Resulting from Childhood Abuse’, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 26.2 (2000), 171–84. [ii] Susan M. Johnson and Lyn Williams-Keeler, ‘Creating Healing Relationships for Couples Dealing with Trauma: The Use of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy’, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 24.1 (1998), 25–40. [iii] Johnson and Williams-Keeler. [iv] Linda Skogrand and others, ‘Traumatic Childhood and Marriage’, Marriage & Family Review, 37.3 (2005), 5–26. [v] Skogrand and others. [vi] Skogrand and others. [vii] Johnson and Williams-Keeler. [viii] Johnson and Williams-Keeler. [ix] Johnson and Williams-Keeler. [x] Johnson and Williams-Keeler.