From a couple’s perspective , there is probably no group that offers them as much support as family and no group that at times creates as much stress!
There is ample evidence that one of the most important resources people need in the aftermath of trauma is connection to family and familiar networks of support (Boscarino, J.A., Adams, R. & Figley, C., 2005). If you have ever spent time in the waiting area of an ICU unit or the emergency waiting area of a hospital you understand the way that families rally to be there for each other in times of crisis.
If you have ever crowded into a maternity ward to view a new baby, saved chairs at the Nursery School recital, or flown miles for a sister’s wedding, or a brother’s return from Iraq, then you also know how families come together to support and celebrate each other in times of joy.
Where does the stress come in? Why? Can it be avoided?
A couple’s relationship with the families they share is far more complicated than it looks the day of their wedding – actually it is usually pretty complicated even on that day! Whether a couple has been together 25 years or 2 years, whether or not they have children, there are two other families consciously or unconsciously involved with the family they have created together.
From a family systems perspective (PDF) we are talking about the overlap of three distinct family systems and given the number of reconstituted and blended families, there may even be more systems and dynamics in the picture.
Family as a System
Consider that every family as a system has a defined boundary ( which may be tightly closed or easily opened) predictable patterns, expectations, assigned roles, explicit and implicit rules, codes of behavior, religious beliefs, educational levels, recipes of choice, ethnic roots, rituals and social-economic status.
When a person meets a partner and bonds with them, they choose to open their family system boundary and include another and at the same time to step away from their system to enter a new one. Buoyed by love, desire, differences, similarities, future dreams, …
Given the Tiger Woods situation, there is really no place to go where you don’t hear some version of “She knew, he knew, he knew she knew….” It would seem that whether people are identifying, judging, condemning or condoning, people are interested- maybe even made anxious- by the presence of secrets and lies in relationships. What’s wrong with secrets? Does everyone lie to their partner? How does it happen?
Most marriages and sustaining relationships are characterized by a quality of trust, caring, emotional and physical sharing that is reserved for the partner. Yes, people have treasured friends, family and buddies with whom they share a great deal, but the physical intimacy, the status of confidante, the one with whom they share in a certain “ insider way” is their partner.
Dictionary .com defines a secret as something done, made or conducted without the knowledge of others. Something kept from the knowledge of another person. When that person is your spouse or partner – it is important to wonder why.
Secrets after Trauma
Sometimes the secrets that become a wall in a relationship are the sequel to trauma. Whether the result of combat stress, rape, critical incidents for uniformed service members, or childhood abuse, keeping the secret locks one partner in with pain and keeps one partner out. Often associated with feelings of being damaged, guilty, undesirable, burdensome or contaminating, a partner avoids contact and intimacy with the other to hide the secret. The result is a feeling of disconnection and loss by both. As one spouse complained, “There is nothing I could hear that would make me feel worse than the feeling of being left out.”
Separate vs. Secret
One definite way to destroy a relationship and dilute passion and intimacy is to demand constant connection, disclosure and no space away from your partner. Strong couples are usually are made up of independent people who are comfortable being dependent on each other but retain a clear sense of self and identity. In the book Healing Together, we make the point that psychological separation – the capacity to be alone and to understand the partner’s capacity to be alone …
Most relationships do not remain static. Whether intended or not the lives of partners and the life they share inevitably change. Sometimes changes are desired and mutual; sometimes one partner wants to change the other; sometimes a partner’s negative behavior causes changes; and sometimes traumatic events change life as they knew it.
Creating and Handling Change What, how and why a couple creates and handles change is a complicated and important part of the story they share. No one arrives with their partner to a new safe place – no matter what happens – without reflection, communication, adjustment, transition and reconnection.
Here Are Some Thoughts To Guide That Process:
Same Partner – With Changes
If you ask people what they think would improve their relationship – they often have a clear formulation of what their partner could or should do to make things better. Most people really don’t want a new partner. What they want is their own partner –WITH CHANGES!
Changing Your Partner
Apparently the view across the table often seems clearer and in need of more adjustment than the view of self: Why can’t he see the mess and be neater? Why doesn’t she make plans with other couples so you have more of a social life? Why can’t she make more money? Why can’t he be more affectionate?
Is the change that you want in your partner one that he/she knows about, cares about or would benefit from? As G. K. Chesterton says “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”
If the change is clearly more important and relevant to you, you may want to re-define it as a change you want not as change in your partner – less mess, more socializing, more money, more affection. We know that no relationship can stay in the same place with the same patterns if even one partner takes a new and different step. We also know that you have far more control over changing self than changing someone else.
For example, You may describe the situation that you want to change to your partner and instead of asking him/her to change suggest what …
The scene of the accident, the image the IED exploding in Iraq, the feeling of being surrounded by rising water, the wave of dizziness on hearing the diagnosis….Traumatic memories in the form of intrusive images, nightmares and flashbacks are part of the re-experiencing of trauma. Most people have some re-experiencing soon after a traumatic event. For some, intrusive memories abate over time. Others experience such memories months and even years later. For some the flashbacks are so extreme that for moments an awareness of the present is lost as the horror of the past is re-experienced. Traumatic memories are the mind and body’s imprint of an event that is so stressful and threatening to physical and psychological well being that there is no place to put it.
Ordinary memory for something that has happened to us is narrative and explicit. It is remembered and told as a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end. If someone asked you about your last vacation, you would recall it and tell it as part of the ongoing story of your life.
Traumatic memories are different. Encoded under flight/flight conditions in those centers of the brain dealing with sensations and emotion, traumatic memories are highly charged intrusive visual images, feelings, and sensations triggered by reminders of the traumatic event. These memories are choppy, disorganized and non-sequential with little change over time.
After the accident that injured him and his wife, Barry would often flash on the image of the dog that had run onto that road causing him to swerve.
For one firefighter, just crossing the bridge into Manhattan brought with it the choking taste of dust from the desperate digging at ground zero after 9/11.
How Can We Handle Traumatic Memories?
Ultimately, a person who has experienced trauma needs to be able to tell the story of the trauma without reliving it. To do this, the person needs to repeat the fragmented story of trauma in a safe place with a safe person so that he/she can integrate the traumatic memories i.e. fill in the missing pieces, gather the images, identify the sensations and …