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When Negative Interactions Trigger Past Traumas

There are four consistent truths about intimate partner conflicts.

There are four consistent truths about intimate partner conflicts. In the forty-plus years I’ve been a psychologist and marriage counselor, I totally believe in their veracity. The first is that repeated, unresolved conflicts dangerously weaken the sacred bond that keeps an intimate relationship intact.

The second is that the harsh words spoken during these dramatic disputes will inevitably escalate in intensity and meanness, and eventually result in impenetrable emotional armoring.

The third is that most people do not realize they are risking unsalvageable damage when they continue to interact that way.

The fourth is the inherent and indisputable fact that intimate partners have the emotional power to unearth buried trauma in one another when conflicts trigger them.

It is important to remember that ugly words, in and of, themselves are only one part of these destructive emotional attacks. Combined with threatening voice intonations, body language, facial expressions, and intensity, they too often become the verbal weapons of relationship war. When used to win, to dominate, to undermine, to invalidate, or to erase, they will eventually overrule any quality interactions that may happen in between the negative interactions. No matter how much care or love is expressed in the intervals between these destructive behaviors, the darkness of animosity will eventually prevail.

Every intimate relationship triggers the reliving of parent/child experiences and can activate buried wounds. As a result, what may penetrate deeply into the psyche of one person may not have the same effect on another. What one partner intends by stance, sound, facial contortion, or even rhythm may result in a level of unintended damage. Unless that partner knows how that hurtful expression will be experienced by the other, he or she may intend to throw a small dart that transforms through a trauma filter into an emotional hole the size of a bowling ball.

Meanness begets meanness. Criticism accompanied by hostility and unconscious hurling of damaging words will uncover previously learned levels of retaliation from the other side. As those negative spirals intensify, both partners might soon feel as if they are fighting ghosts from their pasts, without even realizing that the people they are now hurting are not those responsible for the early traumas.

In successful loving relationships, both people know where their partner’s wounds lie and do their best to avoid triggering them, especially during conflicts. Unless they have underlying or unconscious intentions to destroy the other, they must actively memorize and honor those early wounds so that they never trigger them, no matter how heated any dispute may become. The basic trust between intimate partners depends on keeping that agreement sacred.

To ensure that devoted couples do not re-wound each other in these sacred heartbreaks, it is crucial for both to accomplish two tasks. The first is to individually understand where and how the original traumas originated, who caused them, and what reactions the partners formed to survive them at that time. The second is to openly and honestly share those findings with a partner who will reverently listen and remember.

Task Number One: Finding Your Own Demons

Make a list of the people who caused you the most trauma when you were a child. Try to recall each scenario, what that person meant to you, what happened between you, and how old you were when you experienced the trauma. Search for the most accurately descriptive words that could help your partner visualize and feel the experience as you experienced it.

Here are some examples:

Physical posture: Looming, aggressive, dangerous, threatening, bullying, or intimidating.

Attitude: Contemptuous, spiteful, snarky, snide, irreverent, sarcastic, or scornful.

Facial Expression: Angry, frustrated, disbelieving, disgusted, suspicious, or disappointed.

Proximity: Invading your personal space from a distance, coming back and forth, or cornering.

Touch: Rough, controlling, entrapping, painful, or blocking.

Voice Intonation: Whiny, deep-throated, screaming, yelling, menacing, or seductive.

Rhythm: Fast-paced, intense, slow and quiet, or alternating between barrage and periods of silence.

Task Number Two: Sharing What You’ve Learned With Your Partner

When you have created these compelling visuals, share with your partner what you have recalled, including the words or phrases that accompanied those behaviors. It is crucial that you are as clear as you can be and include as much detail as you can. Your partner’s job is to memorize those traumatic situations along with the power they have to trigger you back into those painful experiences.

Here is an example of just one scenario:

“I was 5 years old. My great uncle came to visit. He was a large and impatient man who seemed to growl when he spoke. My parents left him with me one afternoon. He became angry when I wouldn’t take a nap and started yelling at me. I was on the floor and I thought he was a giant. He seemed disgusted and I thought he was going to kill me. He grabbed me by my arm and forced me onto my bed and told me not to cry or get up or he would “give me something to cry about.” I was shaking. He kept walking out and then walking back in making sure I hadn’t moved, reminding me that he could do whatever he wanted to keep me there. He also told me that if I told my parents, he would tell them it was my fault and that I was exaggerating. I never shared what happened with my parents.”

The woman who is describing this scenario, as an adult, is immediately cowed when her partner stands above her when he is mad, grabs her arm in any way to control her physical movement during a conflict, gets immediately disgusted when she doesn’t do what he wants her to, threatens to invalidate anything negative she might say to others about him, or repeatedly leaves the room and comes back to begin the argument again.

When you and your partner care enough about each other to honor these potential trigger experiences as sacred, you will build the kind of trust between you that creates true intimacy and establish an unbreakable bond that very few partners ever achieve.

You can then learn to process future conflicts without risking the chance of re-harming each other in those crucially vulnerable ways. This interconnection can allow you to establish new responses when your partner is potentially in jeopardy and to respond in a healing way. That new scenario can not only create a corrective emotional experience for the traumatized partner but can significantly increase trust in future interactions.

When those positive interactions become secondary and automatic reciprocal responses, intimate partners often magically cease to rehash previous meaningless and unresolvable disputes that were once driven by the triggers of past trauma. Their new conflicts, devoid of those painful symbolic interactions, will now have the capability of successful resolution.