When we hear the term trauma, we often think of it largely and imagine worldwide occurrences such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and terrorist acts. However, trauma can also be more subtle, individualized, and affect us in smaller (yet no less disruptive) ways.
There are three types of trauma:
With regard to human interaction, the way we approach our closest relationships can be a result of accumulated regular challenges (known as "small t" traumas) in our formative years. How we survived and dealt with these challenges sets the groundwork for how we relate to those around us later in life.
During the romantic attraction phase of a relationship, all of our senses are heightened. Every aspect of life spanning from our innermost thoughts to our outermost experience is imbued with a wonderful easeful glow.
Our minds inspire such vitality while also encouraging us to select a partner who will help us re-experience past pleasure and pain and whose connection with us will provide growth opportunities. It speaks to the fascinating skillset of our unconscious mind that we aim toward this healing potential even when distracted by euphoria.
In Imago Therapy, we believe we select partners based on our unconscious templates of what love looks like, called our "Imago." In other words, we are scanning the landscape for a match that will allow us to grow, but that growth will require some effort and pain.
Why specifically pain? Think for a moment about physical pain. It alerts us to pay attention to its source. If we ignore it, it may initially fade only to return with a vengeance. If we don't take care of it, pain increases and can impair how we function in many areas of our lives.
How Does Trauma Show up in Relationships?
Relationship pain usually stems from how a current relational dynamic brings out a prior memory and associated trauma. This means that the following can bring us back:
The slightest emotional memory
A tone of voice
A facial expression
A turn of phrase
Almost any charged part of our present interaction can bring us back immediately to pain from early life originating with our caregivers.
Pain communicates with us (if we can listen) and signals areas of our self-concept and adaptation skills that need support and healing. A conscious relationship encourages partners to be attuned to what in-the-moment behaviors spark a sense of danger in their partner and learn to handle that with care.
Many couples, before developing Imago attunement skills, continually evoke and re-evoke trauma within their relationship. As a result, the relationship itself can feel confusingly turbulent or, on the opposite end, lifeless.
"How can I be in a committed relationship but always feel the need to protect myself?" we may wonder. The answer is below awareness. We react the only way we learned how by either retreating, fighting, or becoming emotionally numb - these are our fight, flight, and freeze responses that our body remembers.
Until we begin to examine the source of the feeling of danger we are experiencing and the need to protect ourselves, these distancing patterns will repeat. Ultimately, we are left to feel alone and unloved in even our closest relationships.
Is it Possible to Heal From Trauma?
There is hope, and helping partners develop empathic understanding and build relationship skills of connection is the start. This can be done through a series of exercises called Imago Dialogues.
Each step of the dialogue process has a healing aspect of creating new ways of relating, so past pain is acknowledged, addressed, handled with care, and the healing process can begin in the relationship. The relationship itself becomes a living and breathing repair and growth experience. As an Imago clinician, it is very powerful to witness and encourage this growth transformation.
Sadly, unless there is physical evidence of trauma (as in bodily injuries), most of us cannot begin to understand what lurks below the surface for our loved ones, especially emotionally. Reactive and defensive behaviors are learned and become habitual ways of relating because earlier in life, they ensured survival.
It's essential for couples working through trauma to have a place that is safe and structured to learn and develop containment boundaries. In other words, remaining mindful and aware of what triggers traumatic memories in yourself and your partner. Within this safe and predictable space, partners can be vulnerable while embracing the crucial relationship skills of active listening, validation, and empathic understanding.
Traumatic triggering can be reduced when partners open their hearts to one another. Once you've developed these new skills together, you'll create inroads to a compassionate connection with healing pathways to a much kinder and loving partnership.
Using the Imago Dialogue Can Help in Healing.
If you are struggling with trauma in your relationship, we are here to help. Check out our Imago Relationships Workshops and Therapy today! We also have Online Couples Therapy and Online Couples Workshops right now!
This blog post was written by Aviva Chansky Guttmann, LMSW, CIRT, an Advanced Imago Clinician and Safe Conversations Facilitator practicing in the Mid Hudson Valley, in New York.
Her background includes several areas of practice including medical social work, energy psychology, sex therapy, and EFT ( Emotional Freedom Technique-tapping).
Aviva facilitates and launched the Red Hook Holistic Practitioners‘ Support and Connection Group and an Empath Support Group. She offers educational workshops about Imago and Safe Conversations to community groups and teaches safe dialoguing techniques in adult continuing education settings. Check out her website today!