Dealing with Deep Trauma in a Relationship
“Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence
is in every small contracting and expanding.
The two as beautifully balanced and
coordinated as birdwings.”
“For many wounded individuals, their body has become the enemy. The experience of almost any sensation is interpreted as an unbidden harbinger of renewed terror and helplessness.”
-Peter Levine from In an Unspoken Voice
As Rumi suggests, there is a natural ebb and flow of contact and relationship between two living beings. We expand and open our hearts…and then we contract and close them, much like a gentle breath that comes in and then goes out. Physical, emotional and even deep spiritual contact comes and goes in a natural rhythmic flow and balance, moving slowly toward greater and greater wholeness and integration.
But with traumatized individuals, this natural flow is disrupted and is more like a hurricane—one moment things are quiet and/or numb and the next moment they are terrifying and rageful. Trying to be in an intimate relationship with another person who is working through one’s trauma—especially attachment trauma—and burning through one’s blockages is incredibly challenging.
At first, we think dealing with trauma in a relationship might be easy. We agree to just keep everything separate. We will show up in the relationship with our competent adult selves and save our incompetent, vulnerable and helpless selves for therapy and private moments. You can guess how well this might work.
What one may soon discover in one’s relationship is that if we want an authentic relationship where all of us show up, we will sooner or later have to share this wounded part of ourselves with our intimate other. Otherwise, it will be a “cardboard” relationship which looks good and stable on the outside but doesn’t hold up under pressure and will feel like something important is missing.
But, this means that our partner will have to endure the wild swings between our well adjusted self and our traumatic self—with its immobilization, terror and rage. Our partner will have to deal with our cave and the danger that comes with it—not just the kind, fun-loving self. Over time, though, a couple can learn to “enter the cave” together.
To do this, it’s important to start in small doses, setting aside time to go into the terrifying feelings and sensations with our partner present. While we can do this in therapy, we also have to learn to do this with others—both as a way to gain experience and as a way to be real in our relationship. Most often, part or all of a traumatic wound is relational and the healing has to be relational—with one’s self, one’s therapist and then with others. You can even feel when this part of you feels left out, though not always immediately.
You and your partner can learn, often through fits and starts, how to find your way in. In the beginning, you both might be able to touch in to it when a crisis hits. Something triggers the trauma or wound, like having a crisis with a therapist, friend, co-worker or family member, and you are then thrust back to the depths.
A skilled partner knows how to be with these triggered moments. They can find ways to sit close but not too close, to speak some but not too much, and to ask you to take small bites of the pain and then come back to present awareness of feeling in your body sitting on the couch (which is a good place to be). And, they can learn how to work “the razor’s edge” since it’s easy to make mistakes and continue to try again until you get it “just right”—to self-correct. Your partner can learn what is needed and what works for you to enter your cave. Choosing to include pain rather than only pleasure in a relationship is difficult, but it can be extremely rewarding and build true and authentic intimacy.
You might ask, “Why in the world would my partner do this?” In short, they often do it out of love—and a deep commitment to the process of evolution. They also gain wisdom through it all and are midwifes to transformational change.
And, they are also served by the process. Your partner may even realize that it helps them how to be giving without giving themselves away—how to be supportive of another while paying close attention to their own needs. They get to learn when it becomes unbalanced, when they feel resentment, when you become their project instead of her partner.
It can be hard at times for your partner to be with the unpredictable part of you.
But even with breaks in the relationship, you can keep coming back to each other. Both of you can learn how to get what you need without getting too much or too little. And, both of you can experience some incredibly deep places that make it worthwhile. Watching the process unfold can be inspiring and meaningful.
Peter Levine says the third step in transforming trauma, after establishing an environment of relative safety and then supporting the initial exploration and acceptance of sensation, is pendulation and containment—the innate, organismic rhythm of contraction and expansion, each time ending with a larger capacity. Once one can create relative safety and begin to explore sensations, one can get to the phase of tapping into and then coming out of these oceanic and terrifying sensations, even as a couple.
As Peter Levine says,
“It is, in other words, about getting unstuck by knowing (sensing from the inside), perhaps for the first time, that no matter how horrible one is feeling, those feelings can and will change.”
It sounds easier than it is to do. But over time as safety becomes established, your relationship will experience this pendulation, often in parallel with your own individual healing process. Your relationship can expand and contract through your feelings of relationship safety; you can expand and contract through your own exploration and acceptance of intense relational feelings, and finally, you can expand and contract through your ability to get unstuck by finding ways to come back when you leave each other. It helps when your partner is a good communicator and is willing to learn and explore.
What is probably hardest on your partner may be having to suffer through your own retreats when contact becomes too much and overwhelms your nervous system. It is not easy at first to sense the internal cues which are saying, “This is enough” or even “This is too much”—and most other people aren’t either—even trained therapists and body workers. One part of you can be fine with both physical contact and intimate, sensual contact and another part might only be able to take microscopic amounts.
And yet you can get better at it—and it becomes easier.
Trying to balance the two parts of yourself which need very different levels of intimacy can be incredibly hard on your relationship. But over time it can become a dance—a dance which slowly moves from dissociation towards greater integration and wholeness. And, this healing, this transformation, has to happen in relationship—it simply can’t be done alone in silent meditation. We often owe a debt of gratitude to our partners.
 In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, p. 79