Trauma is the experience of fear in the face of helplessness. ~ Peter Levine
Many couples report feeling traumatized, anxious, depressed and/or frustrated when conflict, unclear communication, financial stress, toxic family relations, work stress or other factors produce a rupture to a previously close bond.
The dismay and felt betrayal at misunderstandings and unexpected outbursts can be intense. In addition to being painful in themselves, these ruptures may trigger memories of neglect, abandonment or abuse often going back to early childhood when we were at our most vulnerable. Sometimes unresolved trauma from a past intimate adult relationship plays a role as well.
The challenge is always to develop and implement the skills to be allies in healing and recovering from past or current trauma as quickly and completely as possible. The recent changes in global circumstances due to lockdowns, sheltering in place, working in isolation or losing work altogether have raised the baseline of stress and reduced the window of tolerance for such ruptures. More than ever couples need the calming effect of a secure and reliable bond with their partner.
There are many trauma triggers and varied individual responses to trauma, all capable of causing intense suffering or re-traumatizing us just when we consider ourselves recovered and free of the past. The solutions and recovery process, however, are similar across these differences.
Generally, individuals have different levels of tolerance for conflict and emotional expression and different strategies for coping. One person tends to withdraw and another to pursue the withdrawing partner. Each person needs to replace her/his knee-jerk conditioned strategy with more effective ways of resolving conflict.
In my many years of dealing with my own rupture and repair dynamics and those of the couples who seek my services, here is a brief summary of what works when circumstances have not culminated in a choice to uncouple:
1. Always process the emotions you each experience before dealing with the content. This acceptance and validation of your own feelings and your partner’s leads to a return to the equilibrium that has been lost and thereby disrupting problem-solving. Such acceptance requires partners to listen from the heart as well as listening with ears. It also requires suspending the impulse to explain or counter-attack. This all takes time, patience, goodwill and many repetitions to put in place.
2. To implement this first practice there must be a loosening of the hold of thought. It also requires pausing before reacting. During the pause, attention needs to shift to observing and connecting to body sensations and emotions rather than allowing thought to seize control and distract us from observing and calming ourselves.
3. Slowing our breathing assists the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to shift so as to restore thinking that serves conflict resolution. I recommend placing the tongue on the roof of the mouth while counting to 5 when breathing in, dropping the tongue while counting to 7, breathing out. Place one hand on the forehead and one hand on the back of the neck. Then continue this breathing with one hand on the chest and one hand on the belly.
4. Listening to calming music can further the calming of the ANS.
5. Movement such as vigorously shaking hands and fingers, jumping up and down, dancing, jogging on the spot or jogging outdoors is also good preparation for the emotional processing that must precede effective conflict resolution. Yoga, T’ai Chi Chi Gong can all be beneficial when properly done.
6. Cupping hands over the eyes is very relaxing and counters the run/fight/freeze stress response further calming the ANS.
7. Vividly recalling moments of prior felt closeness, harmony and connectedness to a loved person can be good preparation for a return to focusing on solutions to whatever content we temporarily set aside in order to settle our agitated emotional state.
8. For those who are accustomed to seek prayer support and/or practice meditation, I suggest including this step to the routine of restoring emotional equilibrium.
9. Taking some time alone to write in a journal and then sharing the insights gained in an email, text or voice memo often paves the way for improved communication once it becomes appropriate to be back together and discussing content.
Having a facilitator as a translator, referee, educator is a bonus until all the above suggestions have been mastered. The felt safety produced by the presence of a neutral, trustworthy and skilled resource person allows each of us to strengthen our own inner wisdom that knows better than anyone else what we need, and what we must not allow, in order to experience meaningful connection and growth. This process may seem arduous at first but is worth the effort.
Research confirms that the increased intimacy and security provided by a harmonious relationship contributes to optimal health, longevity and living a life that feels worthwhile.
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