Emotional Land Mines

When childhood trauma interrupts relationship intimacy

Posted Nov 03, 2013

Maria was fully into their love-making when Eric spoke: “You have such beautiful, soft skin, baby.” Almost instantly, she felt sick to her stomach and could not speak or stop shaking. Holding back rage and pain, she could not bear to stay in the bed with him one moment longer.  When Eric tried to stop her from leaving, she could only reply that she was "so, so sorry," but had to go and would call him later. He knew something terrible had happened but he did not know what it was.

Eric had unknowingly walked onto an emotional land mine. Maria had been sexually assaulted from ages four to ten by her mother’s brother. His most often-used phrase when he was molesting her had been exactly the same as Eric’s. She had suppressed the horrific memories until Eric inadvertently repeated the phrase, and an involuntary flood of terror came over her. She had to run.

Trauma sits within us all, sometimes remembered and sometimes buried in our unconscious. Children dissociate, mentally escaping from that which they cannot neither bear nor stop from happening. Their ability to repress those experiences helps them survive. They may even over-compensate by rationalizing that their forced participation was somehow heroic, to find some noble reason for their violated status. Those submerged heartbreaks and their concomitant defenses drive them toward safety and away from re-experiencing those memories.

Many times, especially in new relationships, people do not want to divulge, or even remember earlier agonizing experiences. They would just rather leave those memories behind and hope they will not resurface. Unfortunately, without the full understanding of how they are driven by unconscious choices and behaviors, they will often choose intimate partners as symbolic replicas of those past tormentors. Consequently, earlier traumas are likely to be re-experienced at some level in the new relationship.

The unexpected re-experiencing of an earlier traumatic event is an emotional land mine. It can be visual, olfactory, mental, psychological, kinesthetic, or aural. It can be a part or all of a total experience and triggered by unexpected interactions, deeply buried. Spoken words or physical experiences can bring them on, often without any rational connection. They are most likely to occur in close, intimate relationships.

I once worked for several months with a group of peer therapists intent on together furthering our knowledge and expertise. We met each month for a five-hour session where we shared vital current research, helped each other with cases, and opened up our own internal worlds for exploration and scrutiny.

The oldest member, Grace, was a kind woman who took her profession very seriously. She was one of eleven children, second from the youngest. She’d been a talkative child, unable to curb her enthusiasm and desire to connect. Her siblings would make fun of her and tell her she had nothing to offer and to keep her mouth shut. When she would continually try to be included, she would be told, “You will never understand what we’re talking about because you’re too young and can’t understand.” Grace had never told us about her childhood sorrow. Had we known, the heart-breaking episode would never have happened.

At one o’clock in the morning, close to the end of one of our particularly exhausting sessions, our newest member, Sara, was trying desperately to find words to describe her own traumatic childhood. She was sharing with us how her depressed mother had been crying about her drunken, abusive husband. Her mother regularly used Sara as her only prized confidante, but invalidated any offers of help Sara tried valiantly to offer. Sara spent her childhood as an impotent collaborator until her mother took her life when Sara was sixteen.   

After we all listened caringly to Sara for a long while, Grace moved in close to her, knelt before her, and began intensely offering her multiple ways she could now heal herself from her childhood trauma of feeling powerless and responsible. Grace seemed as if in a fervor to fix Sara’s problems, and did not notice that Sara had become silent and unresponsive.

As Sara became more unavailable, Grace intensified her efforts to help. Finally unable to deal with the situation anymore, Sara turned to Grace in irritated rage and blurted out, “You will never understand what I’m saying, and I’d appreciate it if you’d stop trying to be so important and let the rest of the group help me. You’ll never understand.”

Two emotional mines about to go off from overlapping traumas: Grace was, once again, dismissed as having nothing worthwhile to say. Sara was overwhelmed with Grace’s need to fix her. We all could feel the impending recurrence of a tragedy about to happen again. And it did.

Grace began to decompensate. She fell onto the floor screaming out her pain. She couldn’t catch her breath, stop sobbing, or speak rationally. We all gathered around her as she fell more deeply into her primitive heartache. We held her and rocked her as the years fell away and she cried out the thousands of tears she had suppressed.

It took us four hours to bring her back to the present and to help her heal from what had just happened. We called her husband and he came for her. Thank goodness, he was a lovely man, schooled in interpersonal interactions and available to help. She rested in his arms that night and was later able to come back to the group and process what had happened with us.

Some traumas are prolonged and deeply damaging. In general, the hardest to heal from are when the perpetrators were initially trusted, they repeated the traumatic events, they threatened the victims were they to reveal what had happened, and they prevented anyone from knowing or helping.

Other traumas may only be a one-time experience but still cut to the core of a person’s self-image. An extreme traumatic experience, even in later life, can bring on symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and effect a person deeply in subsequent relationships.

The most noticeable warning signs of an impending traumatic memory appear in bodily reactions. The most common physical reactions are irrational anxiety, numbness, a need to run, feeling immobilized by entrapment, or wanting to scream or attack in rage. The way the body reacts can help a traumatized person get in touch with the underlying cause when conscious memories have been suppressed.

To overcome the effects of trauma, those who have experienced it must recognize how those anguishing situations have affected them, the depth of the damage, and the triggers that can bring their symptoms on again. In an intimate relationship, either or both partners are more likely to accidentally trigger highly emotional reactions in each other. Most people who care deeply about those they love would never wish to hurt them that way. Many dramatically painful situations can happen when one person’s traumatic triggers set off an emotional mine in the other.

Emotional land mines can be unexpected and dramatic deal-breakers in an intimate relationship if they inadvertently emerge and are not ultimately understood. If the individual partners are aware of those potential upheavals, they can help each other avoid or even help to heal them.  

When emotional mines go off, the results can end up deeply beneficial or, if left unrecognized, fester until they are unearthed at another time. Maria and Eric worked through her sorrows. He became the ally in healing she had always needed. Grace found her worth in the group and healed her childhood wounds with her new sense of importance. It is crucially important that those with trauma make certain they find relationships where they can heal.