When traumas collide

This winter, Tom and I have done a lot of very deliberate work on changing our relationship. We both came to this marriage with a lot of history and with triggers – some of which we knew about, and some we didn’t. 

Usually when people talk about triggering, it goes like this: There is a person with a trauma history who encounters something that evokes that trauma. They are then thrown back into that history, like a soldier thrown back into the trenches by the sound of an explosion. Once you’re back in the trenches, everything you experience seems to be part of that scenario, and the original terror takes over.

When the trauma involves relationships, and when both of you have triggers, it’s entirely possible for both parties to set each other off. One person’s trauma response can become the other person’s trigger. Historical coping mechanisms can also be a big issue in all of this. If you have one person with a freeze response to panic, and one person whose emotional abuse history includes being totally ignored as punishment, that can be a messy combination.

It’s taken us a long time to get to the point of being able to talk about what happens when historical experiences collide like this. When it happens, we’re effectively functioning in two totally separate realities, not making sense to each other, unable to help each other and often adding to each other’s distress. It’s been messy at times. It’s taken work to get to the point of being able to pick it open and make changes.

One thing we’ve found that helps is to flag up problems as fast as possible. Tom tends to freeze around panic, and that intersects with what his ADHD brain does when he’s not coping. However, if he can tell me that he’s having processing issues, I don’t then take it personally, and we’re better able to work things through. 

I tend to make things worse because, thanks to my history, I act from the expectation that basic needs won’t be met and that in asking for small things I will be asking for too much. This creates the impression that the help I need would be impossibly difficult to achieve – an easy thing to persuade someone of if they’re used to being put under pressure to deliver impossible things. This means I don’t get the help, reinforcing my feeling that I don’t deserve to have my basic needs met and thus making me less able to ask for help. It’s really easy to get stuck in vicious circles like this.

I’ve learned to push back against my panic to ask clearly for what I need. Often it’s things like needing to be talked to so that I’m not simply trapped inside my own head with my escalating panic. You can see how well that works with Tom’s tendency to freeze when panicking…

Mental health problems aren’t solitary, personal issues. We didn’t get into this on our own. Much of where we are both struggling has everything to do with what happens around other people and in the context of relationships. Healing as a single-person project has never really worked. However, working together to support each other, deal with difficulties and find strategies for coping, is proving really effective.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “When traumas collide

  • potiapitchford

    From an external perspective there is a wonderfully amazing amount of love between you two and it sounds like you are both making really good steps on further improving how communicate your love to, and for, each other. Hugs offered to you both.

  • nirajshah2003

    We definitely need to work together to support one another. Thanks for sharing!

  • neptunesdolphins

    We went through couples therapy for several years, and then family therapy as children were involved. We are still married after 40 some years. So it is worthwhile to do what you are doing. It deepens the love and understanding of the relationship and people in it.

  • karenenneagram

    Thank you. For your open sharing, and for your passion about the value and meaning of what you and Tom are exploring, confronting and growing together.

    As you said in your earlier post, and again here, love on its own is not enough; and when love translates to action, to enquiry and understanding, then you have the chance of something magnificent emerging in the space between you.

    For me the vital key is the listening, the deep curiosity (which I think comes of love, in relationship). My default when I feel threatened is to attack verbally. 13 years into our relationship I stopped myself long enough to ask Simon what he was feeling one day when he looked like (in my view) he wanted to kill me. He said he was terrified of me. Wow! Attack a terrified person? No. I remember the joy of the first time I really and truly listened to him during an argument, got myself and my projections out of the way to see and understand him and not the picture in my head. Liberating! Love, without agenda or need, suddenly appeared.

    And 42 years on it’s deeper than ever and so so different. Sometimes it’s so hard to do. The rewards are beyond price. Thanks again Nimue for your words of hope and courage.

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