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How Childhood Trauma Impacts a Marriage

You are probably reading this because something that happened a long time ago to your partner is having an impact on your relationship now. Perhaps your partner gave this to you to help you understand more about what they are going through and hopefully to ease the pain and confusion that both of you may be feeling.

You may be baffled by some of your partner's reactions to things that seem unimportant to you. Intimacy may have become a problem area in your relationship. Your partner may have started to behave very differently; to cry a lot, to be terrified or consumed with rage. You may ask, 'How come something that happened so long ago is now such a big deal?'

The answer to these questions is not always easy to understand, but in many cases, it follows an event which has been stressful or life changing. The death of a loved one is often a prompt, as can be starting a new relationship or ending a toxic one.

For many couples struggling with difficulties in their relationship, the here and now conflicts monopolize their attention. It is not always obvious that at the core of the problems is abuse and that it may have occurred decades earlier. It may seem paradoxical, but one of the most recurring dynamics is the fact that victims have often experienced a period of being attracted to those that continue abusive behavior, despite their conscious desire to have a good partner; and if they do find an emotionally healthy loving partner, it may trigger intense feelings of the past, and they might try to sabotage a good relationship. Often at the heart of this dynamic is a victim's sense of being unworthy of love; coupled with the fact that betrayal from the abuser has significantly damaged trust that any relationship will work.

You owe it to yourself and to your partner to be honest about how you feel. You may not want to hurt your partner. You may be afraid that being honest about your thoughts and feelings will end the relationship. It could also be the case that you have problems around trust, being vulnerable and/or communicating honestly and clearly. You may need to consider getting some counseling or other support for yourself.

It is also essential that you know where responsibility to support and care is concerned, it is not one way. As the partner not directly abused, you may feel that you must bear all things. Not true! It is important for you to respond honestly and as normally as possible to your partner. Protect your own boundaries. You have responsibilities towards your partner but not for them.

Each of you will need to respect your own and your partner's limitations as you both learn to communicate, trust and support each other in your roles as a couple. The good news is that if you do choose to go through healing together, it can be a deeply rewarding and enriching experience for you both.

Healing from childhood abuse requires honesty, courage and commitment from survivors and from those supporting them. Your partner did not choose to be abused and probably did not expect to suffer its long-term effects. Your partner, like most victims, usually escaped from the abusive environment and for a time the freedom, distractions and momentum of life carried them forward. These distractions might have led them into more damaging relationships. For a long time, they may not have realized that the growing emotional and behavioral problems they experienced are linked to their history. On average, it is between 25 to 30 years after incidents of child abuse that victims disclose.

Every survivor is unique with a unique experience of their abuse history, so all we can do here is cover some of the most common steps.

You may have already found that more emotional chaos and less control is experienced as healing work commences. It may seem that your partner is coping less well yet these are the ways that most survivors respond in the early stages. The buried trauma and related feelings are rising to the surface and instead of engaging his or her defenses to stuff the bad memories; your partner is allowing this distress to live and the pain suffered by their inner child to at last be heard. It is important to accept this. As your partner continues with their work, they will learn where these feelings come from, to whom they are truly directed at and where they belong.

The more you understand about abuse and your partner's own story the more you may be able to help. You may be able to offer comfort to the abused child within your partner who is still in great pain or terrified. Just to hold or hug gently for a few minutes might be all that is needed. There may also be times when you can give your partner a mild reminder that, "that was then, the pain is still here and now ~ but this is a very different time".

You may find that the unpleasant feelings, including hatred and anger are projected onto those that inflicted abuse or remind your partner of past abuse. Show that you love and care for your partner and that what happened to him or her in the past will never change that.

When children are abused, they lose their sense of worth. Sometimes even their sense of self is lost as they disconnect from feelings that are painful. In many cases the abuse had remained a dreadful secret. The secrecy and sense of shame further isolated the child from family and friends. If the child did disclose, the abuser and usually other people, will have blamed the child or insisted that the child was a liar or foolish. Whether or not these things are said out loud, the child's reality and sense of the world are badly distorted. As adults, most survivors feel and believe the abuse was their fault, even if common sense tells them otherwise. Deep inside most survivors feel there is something bad, wrong and/or dirty at their very core which made the abuse happen. It therefore follows, that survivors do not trust themselves or anyone else. Despite this damage, your partner trusts you enough for the two of you to have gotten this far. Your honest support can help to reverse the damage and restore their trust in life and their self.

As you learn more about childhood abuse and its long-term effects, many aspects of life with your partner may start to make sense. When children are abused they are humiliated and their real needs and feelings are ignored or belittled. An adult survivor who still represses their feelings may suffer from depression, nightmares, panic attacks or dissociation. They may be prone to substance abuse and may abstain from substances to get clear and take steps toward healing.

Much of the trauma of childhood abuse is stored in the person's body. Many survivors suffer from chronic pain and other health problems. Children who are being abused cannot afford to feel the full range of feelings in their bodies. Feelings which may include pain, outrage, confusion and hatred can be blocked as a form of survival. Even pleasant feelings, such as joy, peace and love together with physically pleasurable sensations and sexual arousal can be obstructed or distorted. In many cases the child and now the adult will go numb or dissociate from their body during events which trigger the abusive past. This learnt defense mechanism may become more noticeable during healing. When upset, threatened, or sexually aroused, even in minor ways, survivors may 'click out' and not recall conversations and experiences or dissociate from their bodies or become overwhelmed emotionally, like "they are back in it".

Remember that for your partner, even pleasant feelings such as contentment, joy and pleasure may be frighteningly new. This can be especially true during healing when fear and pain is close to the surface and not fully understood.

Abuse is a profound violation of power. It may involve acts of extreme violence and cruelty, or there may be no physical contact at all. It involves a betrayal of trust, a breaking of boundaries and destruction of the survivor's sense of self. At one extreme, it may be hard for you to see what was so awful about your partner's experience. If the survivor is an adult, you may not understand why they made choices in the past that re-victimized them. You might not even understand that indeed these where not "choices" as you understand cause and effect, but actually acts of extreme distress, survival and dissociation. You may find stories from their past so shocking that it is hard to believe or take in. It may take time for you to understand or fully accept your partner's experiences, but it is crucial that you believe them and their willingness to heal.

For your partner to tell you of the abuse and find that your love for them is not diminished can be deeply valued. It challenges their belief that the abuse made them unlovable and opens the way for a new level of intimacy. It is not necessary for you to know everything; you may feel overburdened. Find a balance that works. Most modern therapy no longer requires survivors to recall detail; doing so can re-traumatize the victim and hinder progress. The sense of shame and the fear of losing your love may be too great in the early stages; however, once the feelings of shame, blame and guilt have been resolved, it is common for survivors to be able to disclose what is necessary when and if appropriate.

If your partner was abused within their group of family and friends, you may find that relations with these people need to be very different now. Your partner may not want to see them or may want to confront individuals with what they did or didn't do. Many survivors feel even more anger towards those they feel failed to protect them than they do towards the abuser/s. Your role is to respect your partner's feelings and help in ways you can. An aspect of abuse is powerlessness and if you make decisions and take control it may amplify this dynamic. Confrontations can be a difficult but rewarding for your partner, but they must happen on their time.

Living with someone who is going through such profound explorations and changes may prompt you to look again at your own past. This can be a valuable experience for you. The temptation can be to see all problems as part of the survivor's issues, but that is unlikely. Everyone comes to relationships with some baggage from their past and although yours may not be to do with childhood abuse, it will be there nonetheless. Be as gentle with yourself as you are with your partner and view this time in your lives as a mutual journey. You too can learn to look deep, speak about your feelings, motives, hopes and fears.

Many survivors find ways to laugh as well as cry; you and your partner can too. Encourage your partner to laugh and to take breaks from it all. If that is not possible, find small pockets of pleasure for yourself. This can be a long process and you each need to raise your spirits whenever and however you can.


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