Traumatic experiences are part of everyone’s life. How can partners help?
During the four decades I’ve practiced relationship therapy, I’ve had the same questions asked of me many times.
“What makes a relationship last?”
“Why did he/she cheat on me?”
“How do I know what real love is?”
“Will I ever find the one?”
“Can we fix our relationship?”
“Why do my relationships fall apart?”
“I’m so unhappy. Why can’t I leave him/her?”
Yet, I have almost never heard the most important question of all: “Is it safe for me to share traumatic parts of my history with my partner, and know that he or she will comfort me if I am unable to control my responses?”
Traumatic experiences are part of everyone’s life, permanently attached to the age at which they happened. Too often we believe we have resolved or safely buried them so that they will not affect us in the present, but the truth is that those anguishing memories can re-emerge at any time if triggered.
We often hesitate to share them for fear of embarrassment or potential judgment. Past traumatic memories, whether conscious or unconscious, can emerge with all of the emotional anguish that originally accompanied them, solidly attached to the age at which they happened.
When a partner reexperiences an earlier trauma as if it were actually happening in the moment, they ache for a haven of safety and understanding in the present that they did not have when the trauma occurred. How their partner responds can deepen or damage their trust—and that partner may not even know why.
Certain phrases are more likely to accompany a traumatic regression:
“You never care about me?”
“Why can’t you ever think of me instead of you?”
“You always think you’re right.”
“You’ll never get it.”
“You always need to have the last word.”
These traumatic regressions are most likely to happen during times of insecurity, disappointment, or neediness. Arguments often set them off: A couple will begin a disagreement in real-time. Their voices are not raised, they aren’t blaming or needing to win, and they feel mature and reasonable. They are talking to each other, trying to find a solution to the disagreement.
But if one or both are triggered, the emotional environment changes. The regressing partner starts talking at the other instead of to him or her, as if that person was the person from the past who hurt them. The past becomes the present.
Sometimes, partners can set off age regressions in each other, and then neither is willing or able to soothe or help the other. Both need to be cradled, forgiven, beloved, and nurtured in ways they were not when those experiences happened, but there is no one available to meet those needs.
Following are two examples of what can happen when a traumatic age regression occurs.
Example 1: A couple is making love. They feel fully into each other and free to express their vulnerability and desires. One innocently says to the other, “Your skin is so soft and smells so sweet.” The other partner, sadly, has never shared that she was the victim of incest as a child and that her predator used that phrase. Suddenly she becomes cold and angry, yelling at her partner. “Don’t you ever say that to me again! You’re only talking about you and your needs. This has nothing to do with me. I’m getting out of here.”
Her partner feels unfairly accused and begins to defend themself. “What did I do wrong? I didn’t mean any harm. Why are you so angry? Get a grip, for goodness sake.”
But, of course, she can’t. She’s only four.
If the other partner realizes what is happening and can see the evident age regression, he or she can just listen, forgive, and care, without needing to defend or invalidate. When tears finally come and the regressing partner can come back to the present, he or she will feel deeply trusting, connected, and grateful. If, instead, that accused partner responds as if it is the present for the other, serious damage can happen to the relationship.
Example 2: One partner is waiting to be picked up at the airport. Traffic is terrible and the other partner did not think ahead to prepare for it and so they leave the other waiting for a half-hour. The weather turns cold. There are many texts back and forth and responses are getting more tense. When they finally connect, the waiting partner erupts into a tirade. “What the hell were you thinking? You were probably just talking to a friend or something and never thought about what I was going through. You obviously don’t even care if I feel like the lowest priority in your life.”
The other partner initially responds with remorse. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t check for accidents. I thought I had plenty of time. We’re here now. Can you just let it go?” But the partner is regressing rapidly to remembering how his mother was always late to pick him up from school when he was frightened, cold, and hungry. His partner is now seen as his uncaring, preoccupied mother.
His partner believes he is talking to an adult, but he's not anymore. And, the more he tries to establish rational interaction, the more severe the regression holds on.
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These traumatic age regressions are most susceptible to healing if the partners have shared those experiences ahead of time and can recognize an emerging trauma response, differentiate it from the present, and not take the attacks personally. But if those challenges seemingly come out of nowhere and the other partner has no idea why they're happening, he or she can unwittingly respond in such a way to make the trauma seem as if it is in the present, and that it's their fault.