Jenny TeGrotenhuis, LMHC
August 15, 2019
Our past may have written the script, but we can write a new script for how we respond in the present.
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 an internal 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.
Read the full article HERE on gottman.com