Monthly Archives: November 2012

Childhood Trauma Impacts Relationships

Not many people escape childhood unscathed from some type of injury or trauma. Though trauma is often recognized as physical, mental, or sexual abuse, many people are also traumatized by unmet childhood attachment needs. We need to rely on our parents to feel important, cared about, heard, seen, protected, and to truly know that are hurts and fears matter to them. Unfortunately, for many people these basic needs are not met which leaves them with deep attachment fears around not being able to trust rely or depend on other people or that they are not really lovable, worthy or deserving of another person’s love. It is these fears that drive a lot of conflict between couples and cause all the problems within relationships.

Attachment fears can be quickly triggered in a person with trauma related to unmet childhood attachment needs. Seemingly little mistakes such as being late, forgetting to complete a task, driving errors, or when their partner is busy, triggers attachment fears in the traumatized person. They say things to themselves like, “I must not mean anything to him/her at all,” or “I can’t rely on or count on him/her,” “I am not important to him/her,” “I am alone in the world, or “He/She is going to let me down over and over”, “Why did I think that I deserved any better?” They feel a deep sadness and a lot of fear and anxiety and usually go after their partner in desperation. They yell, they plead, they control their partner trying desperately to get their needs met. This often comes in the form of criticizing, questioning, demanding, and blaming. They may repeat themselves over and over desperately needing their partner to understand.

The anger, criticism, and blame have a negative effect on the other partner. They feel worn down and they start to think “I am failing here…,” “Maybe I can’t make her/him happy,” “Maybe they are right maybe I am inadequate, useless and worthless.” It usually affects their self-esteem as they start to believe it to be true and even put themselves down. They start to feel a deep hurt and fear inside that “maybe they aren’t good enough for their partner and eventually their partner will realize it and give up on them.” Though they are feeling this deep fear and sadness they don’t turn to their partner and share their feelings and their need to feel safe, loved and accepted (even if they make mistakes), instead they usually withdraw and try and deal with their feelings by distracting themselves or getting really busy. Unfortunately, the more they withdraw and move away, the more the traumatized partner feels afraid that their attachment needs will not be met and they get angrier and angrier, around they go stuck in a negative pattern.

This is how many couples feel when they enter our office for the first time. They are stuck in this negative dance and feeling hopeless and afraid that things will not work out. We help them to understand that the problem is not the angry partner or the partner who withdraws and makes mistakes, but the negative pattern that they are getting into when they are trying to communicate and deal with their attachment fears and needs.

Both partners learn how to tune into what they are feeling and directly express their attachment needs instead of angry blaming or dismissive withdrawing. The more withdrawn partner learns how to tune into his or her fear about feeling rejected, and their sadness about feeling disconnected and unsafe and turn to their partner with their feelings and needs instead of withdrawing. This in turn lessens the fear in the other partner and they feel important and valuable to their partner.

Then the traumatized partner very slowly learns how to being to tune into her/his feelings and make sense of how they are connected to their attachment fears and needs.

Often the traumatized partner’s feelings can seem overwhelming and all jumbled up. We help them to slow down and learn how to understand and differentiate different fears and feelings so that they can make sense of them. From this place they can be more clear and direct in expressing vulnerable feelings and needs.

For example a woman who usually criticizes or blames her partner for seemly little things may learn how to tune into her feelings and say, “I am feeling very afraid right now, I feel myself shaking inside, my mind is racing and telling that I don’t matter to you at all, that maybe you really don’t care about me. I need you to hold me and reassure me that you do care and that I really matter to you.” In turn their partner learns how to really be there for them emotionally reaching back and saying, “I hear you, I understand that your scared, want to reassure you that you are my world, you matter very much to me.”  This creates a corrective emotional experience in the body where the woman can relax and rest in knowing her worst fears are not true, that her partner does care about her and cares about her feelings.

Creating this safe haven and soft emotional place to land can heal trauma. For many trauma survivors their biggest fear is that they will not be able to really count on or trust someone again. By directly learning how to bring their fears to their partner and getting the reassurance that the need they effectively learn how to manage their trauma and their emotions in a healthy way and function in relationship. The more that they are able to reach out for their partner and really feel like someone is there for them they begin to heal in that they begin to believe that they can trust other people to really be there for them and come to believe that they are worth it.

Robin Menard MSW RCC RSW
Marriage and Couple Specialist
A Path of Heart Counselling Services

This information is based on the theory of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson

The Power of Early Attachments on Men

The power of early attachments on men is once again proven by a Longitudinal research study called the Grant Study from Harvard University that began in 1938.  It is a longitudinal study of over 200 male graduates of Harvard compared to a cohort group of non-delinquent men who grew up in inner-city disadvantaged areas of Boston.

Focused on success in life, the study initially looked at qualities such as did the man have a  masculine body type (indicative of the thinking of psychology of that era).  But as Brooks points out, over time, the power of relationships became clearer as researchers interviewed these men over the years and applied other psychological measurements to gather data.  As Brooks notes, “The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.”  Body type, birth order, and political affiliation were useless as predictors of overall success and physical well-being over more than 9 decades of the study.

As George Valliant, the study director, said in a recent summary of the research, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” Brooks notes that it was not that all these men had perfect, trouble free childhoods.  He quotes Valliant, “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.”  The Grant Study indicates that the capacity for emotional intimacy, especially when combined with the ability to organize and exercise self-discipline in studies, career and elsewhere, is a powerful elixir.  This matches the research on our need for close connection with not only our parents and family, but also with our adult love partners as in marriage.  It supports the finding of attachment theory that it is through safe, secure relationships that autonomy occurs and success emerges.

What is most exciting to me about this research that supports what I and my fellow Emotionally Focused Therapy colleagues know is that we can develop our capacity for intimate relationships later in life.  David Brooks in his column shares stories of men who learned to become less emotionally inhibited and to become more intimately connected and open.  He goes on to note, “The men of the Grant Study frequently became more emotionally attuned as they aged, more adept at recognizing and expressing emotion. Part of the explanation is biological. People, especially men, become more aware of their emotions as they get older.”  What exciting news, we can develop emotional attunement.  Each of us can learn to pay more attention to our own emotions as well as those of our loved ones.  What a hopeful, empowering and intriguing finding!

Brooks also notes that, “Part of this is probably historical. Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.”  Good news, our culture is evolving. Emotional vulnerability is more acceptable to men slowly, but steadily over time. The science of emotions and attachment theory support this cultural shift.  I see this in my practice as younger couples, gay or straight, come in wanting emotional intimacy. It as if growing up in these times, they received a relational message. These younger couples more often have learned that closeness is to be expected rather than being an exception to a rule.

What does this mean for the average person?  Perhaps it simply means that if you find yourself in a relationship lacking that sense of openness, sharing, and emotional connection, do not give up hope.  If you yourself have not paid much attention to your own and other’s emotions or you found feelings to be uncomfortable, awkward or threatening, that is o.k.  There are resources, like the excellent book for couples, Hold Me Tight, by Dr. Sue Johnson, that provides seven conversations to help you and your partner connect.  If that is not enough, there is a growing number of ICEEFT Certified Emotionally Focused Therapists in Canada and the US and therapists working towards that certification ready to assist you.  They are dedicated to helping couples and family members gain the emotional intimacy that The Grant Study demonstrates is key to well-being for all of us.

The information in this blog was borrowed from by Jim Thomas, LMFT, EFT Supervisor.