While couples present with a myriad of issues and often believe their problem is lack of communication skills, my experience has been that underneath the surface of whatever issue is causing strife, is untreated trauma and attachment wounds.
What I do is have each party complete my full evaluation, all 15 pages, and then line up the results in a side-by-side analysis to help identify important and often missed leverage points for intervention. Among the most common findings are the identification of untreated trauma, as well as issues with attachment. Most clients are unaware that their attachment style, or the primary relational template for all relationships in life, is in place around two years of age. Like genetics, it is largely inherited from one’s parents or caregivers, and if insecure, is predictive of relational challenges throughout life.
As I engage with couples, what emerges is a relational story of two nervous systems dysregulating each other, largely unconsciously over long periods of time. I often ask in session about the last disagreement. One party begins by talking about the last fight while the other sits and stirs and waits patiently to jump in to tell their version. The contents of the fight are not important, but what it reveals about the reactions of each in response to the other.
“He came home late and never called,” she begins with a critical tone, followed by his immediate facial expression of disagreement. As the story unfolds, her voice intensifies as if to make herself heard, and he appears lost in his own world, mentally preparing his rebuttal to her onslaught of accusations. I know the fireworks are just getting started, so I step in and slow things down by asking them to each describe what they notice happening in their bodies. They want to continue the fight, but I am insistent on directing their attention to the feeling quality in their bodies, and more specifically, to what is below the anger. It’s not easy for either of them, they want to talk and not feel, and explain and not be present. But I gentle insist they stay with their bodies and eventually both acknowledge feeling anxious and fearful.
Fear is the core feeling of trauma and when couples can touch it, it opens a door to exploring how challenges in the relationship are very often about unfinished business from the past that bleeds into the present. At this point I spend time educating both about the nature of trauma. I talk about how responses to early life threats and danger lead our brains and bodies to act on autopilot to keep us safe by fighting, fleeing, or freezing in response. I then explain how these early responses become habituated in the nervous system to experiences beyond the original threats, resulting in the perpetuating of trauma throughout life. Early in treatment, I want couples to appreciate how their marital strife is not about a lack of communication skills, but instead fireworks caused by untreated trauma.
Within a few sessions couples become aware of their respective trauma responses in fights, and learn tools to help each other from continuing the painful patterns of the past in the present. Initially this is about catching the fight on the front end, recognizing it is fueled by demons from the past, and negotiating time apart to calm down. We then have a conversation about how each partner needs their own respective plan for addressing untreated trauma, usually leading to my recommendation for individual psychotherapy.
At this point we return to a conversation about attachment if I know it to be an issue in the relationship, because without a solid foundation of attachment, trauma therapy often fails. Before one begins to explore the past in the body, it’s critical to have the developmental capacities to return to a base of feeling safe, know how to self-regulate intense emotions, and stay present relationally while discussing challenging past experiences. The good news is we have an approach to help clients do these things successfully (see these videos by David Elliott and Dan Brown, authors of Attachment Disturbances in Adults).
Of course, not all relational strife is due to insecure attachment and trauma, so it’s important you get clear about the nature of your challenges before heading down the path of treatment. Sometimes you and your partner just need time away from the stressors of life to remember why you fell in love in the first place.