Because trauma affects you physically and emotionally, it inevitably impacts your conscious and unconscious desire for closeness and connection. Traumatic events of both a sexual and nonsexual nature can have a devastating impact on a couple’s sexual intimacy. After rape, female victims often distrust and avoid intimate relationships and may struggle with difficulties in arousal or psychical response. (Mills and Turnbull, 2004). Avoidance of sexual activity, finding sex boring or burdensome, reduced desire and performance difficulties have been associated with war exposure and combat trauma ( Matsakis,1996). The grief from losing a child as well as traumatic life events like cancer, miscarriage, auto accidents and natural disasters impact intimate relating and sexual connection (De Silva, 2001).
Most partners don’t realize that it is common for one or both partners to experience a lack of desire, sexual performance problems or avoidance of intimacy after trauma. Feeling shame and blame, they often fear that the lack of responsiveness in themselves or their partner is an indication of lack of love or permanent dysfunction. They assume that they alone are struggling sexually so they avoid speaking about it – even to each other!
What Should Partners Know? It is important for partners to realize that what they are experiencing is a common sequel to a life threatening experience. The trauma symptoms of hyperarousal, intrusion, avoidance and numbing disrupt the psychological and physical safety and trust people need to be intimate.
It is difficult, for example, to feel sexual if you or your partner is frightened or hypervigilant to sound and touch. Partners suffering from nightmares and traumatic memories can be too exhausted to be sexual or too preoccupied to relax and connect. The numbing and constriction which keeps a person from feeling in the aftermath of a trauma can also keep them avoiding intimacy because it stirs up feelings – and all feelings have become unsafe.
How Does Knowing Help?Accepting all of these responses as understandable does not mean you must surrender to them. It means that you must put them in perspective and address them if you plan together to reclaim your intimacy.
“More than Friends”
Couples can use the language between them to make love or to make war. Sadly, verbal aggression can be a dangerous trigger to destructive exchanges or even physical violence. Effective communication techniques, on the other hand, help couples manage difficulties and anger in a way that is constructive and adds to relationship satisfaction.
When working with couples to develop more effective communication skills we always ask:
Do you speak in a way that makes your partner listen? Do you listen in a way that makes your partner speak?
If when he walks in she says, “You really don’t get it — I do everything in this house and you do nothing!” There is a very good chance that he will walk right past her into another room, flick on the remote and respond with a comparable put-down.
Essentially this couple would have enacted what is labeled by Christensen and Heavey (1990) as the demand/withdrawal sequence in which a complaint or demand made by a partner in a negative way predictably triggers the other partner’s withdrawal and defensiveness. His refusal to listen and in most cases his actual withdrawal is likely to escalate her negative feelings and “keep her speaking” but not in a positive way. Soon he will be telling her “She never lets up.” The pattern leaves them both feeling victimized and angry. The chances of mutual understanding or positive resolutions are very low.
Effective Couple Communication Techniques
Drawing upon couple communication ideas offered in two of my previous blogs, (Couples Psychological First Aid and Reconsidering the Anger in Your Relationship) we might suggest to her that she communicate her needs at a more appropriate time ( A partner’s first steps into the house are never a good time) and with an “I message” – “I’m not sure I can manage all the chores.” “I think I need some help.”
There is now an increased chance of his listening and even starting a conversation by asking what she means because he has not been put down. In fact, if he is able to use the “Active Listening” technique by putting himself in her shoes and trying …
On Oct 15, 2009, the front page story in the New York Times by Rod Nordland described Operation Proper Exit, a program which invited American servicemen wounded in the Iraq War back to Iraq to visit those very places where they suffered severe injury and loss as a way to help achieve psychological closure.
When we consider healing and recovery from trauma, revisiting ( literally,in this case) fosters the remembering and mourning necessary for integration of traumatic memories and unspeakable loss. Welcomed back by American Officers and the Iraqi Army Brigade Commander, these servicemen, one blinded and five amputees, had the benefit of others ‘bearing witness” to their sacrifice. The opportunity to feel respected for their service, to see changes in Iraq, to hear that the last unit replaced at that base had suffered no casualties gave meaning to their loss and trauma. The report of reduced fears and guilt “left behind” in Iraq as a result of such revisiting underscores the importance of this unique program.
For couples this program highlights the importance and value of partners understanding the importance “bearing witness” as a way to afford healing. In the case of the military partner, firefighter, police, the ill spouse, the other partner who has not faced the trauma often feels dismissed, minimized or not necessary to this process.
It is valuable to consider that when people have shared an unspeakable experience of horror and loss, there is what Lindy (1986) calls a trauma membrane that unites them. For military, firefighters, police, the band of brothers that gives them cohesion and courage is an essential component to their resiliency as well as their healing. It is seen in the “welcomed return” of the servicemen in Operation Proper Exit, the fact that after 9/11 firefighters stayed searching “the pile” at ground zero for months and the reason cops will drive across state lines to pay homage to a fallen officer.
Understanding your partner’s need to connect with others who can provide a certain type of support is a crucial aspect of healing together. It does not have to detract from the unique …
Many couples are both perplexed and stressed by the anger that erupts between them in the aftermath of trauma. Working with small groups of men and women after they had experienced a trauma, we often heard comments like: “Is anyone else angry?” “We never fought this much before.” “He’s nice to outsiders but angry with me and the kids.”
Some admitted fear of and avoidance of anger- of walking on eggshells. “I don’t want to rock the boat.” “It’s better that I just keep my mouth closed.” Most worried that anger could destroy their relationship.
Can Anger Destroy A Relationship?
The basic answer is NO. Anger is a human feeling and in itself is not damaging. According to attachment theory one characteristic of a secure attachment, be it between a mother and child or a couple, is the “safety to protest” without the repercussion of extreme anger or destruction of the relationship. Essentially if it is not safe for a couple to fight – it is not safe. Compliance, self-silencing, hidden resentments to keep the peace are not solutions. Research that studied the argument styles of 4,000 men and women in Framingham, Mass., revealed that self-silencing for women and battles of control for men created as serious a heart risk factor as smoking or high cholesterol. Being angry is not damaging – it is what you do with it, how you communicate it and what it does to you and your partner that can be destructive.
How Do We Keep Anger From Becoming Destructive?
Reconsider the Meaning of Anger
An invaluable step for any partner is to reconsider the meaning of their own anger and that of their partner – at a calm, non-stressful time. Understanding the causes of anger when you are in a state to think about it actually fosters perspective and alters response in the heated moments.
It is important to recognize, for example, that anger is a common and complex reaction to trauma which can be tripped by many sources and can reflect different things. Anger can be experienced as a physical state - a component of the fight/flight reaction to danger …
An article written by Shelley Gable, Gian Gonzaga and Amy Strachman in 2006 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asks the question “Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right?” This is actually a very good question for couples to consider no matter what is happening in their lives.
Most couples recognize the need to step up and respond with interest and concern for their partner in the face of negative or traumatic events. Too many couples, however, overlook the power of the positives in enhancing and restoring relationship resiliency and health.
In my work with couples, I always explore a couple’s use of the positives. At some point I ask: “Do you compliment each other?” “Do you let each other know about the positive things that happen in your daily lives?”
The answers I get suggest that couples may not even realize the true value of sharing the positives and affirming each other:
“You mean you’re still supposed to do that when you are married as long as we are?”
“She knows I’m proud of her.”
“He knows I appreciate him.”
“We probably think about it, but don’t actually say it.”
“If we are going to a wedding or something, he’ll tell me I look nice.”
“She tells me when she doesn’t like what I’m wearing.”
“I just don’t think he notices.”
“I didn’t grow up with people doing that in my family.”
“We both always praise the children.”
The sharing of positive events with a partner who receives it in a positive way is termed by Christopher Langston (1994) capitalization. He suggests that the sharing actually capitalizes on the event and results in a positive experience independent of the actual event. For example, when she tells him that she has been selected to run the golf league, his excitement for her becomes another positive event that they share.
As Gable, Gonzaga and Strachman (2006) report, research has shown that when close relationship (romantic) partners regularly respond to the disclosure of positive events in an active, supportive manner, both partners experience positive emotions. The relationship resources of commitment, satisfaction, intimacy and love are enhanced.
Because couples share an emotional and physical bond, they are important reference points and …