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  • Heather B MacIntosh PhD

If it's in the past, why doesn't it stay there?

The comment I hear the most in an early session of therapy with a childhood trauma survivor is--"that's all in the past, I shouldn't have to still be dealing with that". It is frustrating, confusing, and upsetting for a survivor of childhood trauma to feel as though it doesn't matter what they do, they just can't get the past to stay in the past. Working with survivors in couple therapy adds to the complexity of how the past comes alive and continues to plague the couple in the present. That's one of the "complex" things about what we call complex trauma. For many survivors, they have done a lot of work on the memories of trauma, the impacts of trauma on how the relate to others, and how they experience their emotions, but still find that the past continues to haunt them when they try to engage in their most important relationship, the relationship with their partner.

In couples where trauma isn't playing a big role, they often find themselves in a self perpetuating cycle where they struggle to be with one another in ways that are meeting both of their needs for safety, security and intimacy. This might look something like one partner seeking the other out for closeness and the other partner feeling overwhelmed, fearful or insecure about their ability to provide what their partner needs and then withdrawing. When the partner withdraws, this can make the first partner feel even more frantic for connection and around and around they go. Couple therapists have really great ways of working with couples on these kinds of cycles and patterns in relationships but often these approaches fall apart when working with childhood trauma survivors with complex trauma. For trauma survivors, those cycles are more complex. For trauma survivors, not only are they dealing with what's happening right now, in the present, they are also dealing with what happened then, in the past. So, for instance, a couple might be stuck in a cycle like the one described above but, in addition to that, the trauma of the past wakes up and climbs on into the cycle and, voila, the survivor and their partner are now living the past in the present. This can be even more complicated when both partners have a history of trauma. One way the past can live in the present is sort of concrete--my dad yelled a lot and verbally abused me and my siblings and now I've married a man who yells a lot and calls me names. This is a mapping of the past onto the present and can wake up all of the fears and memories of the past as well as invoke real fear and feelings of betrayal and loss in the present. Another way the past can live in the present is more abstract, something like something happening in the present that maps onto the feelings, sights, smells, tastes, touches, the sensations and emotions attached to the traumas, and before the survivor can even become aware of this, they are swept away by the past. This can be confusing, frustrating and shameful, especially when a survivor and their partner have been working hard in therapy and have figured out the conscious, cognitive part of understanding their cycle. This is why survivors need to have the opportunity to work with a couple therapist who really understands trauma and can work with them slowly, and carefully and help the couple learn how to be together in ways that are healing rather than frustrating, shameful and overwhelming. This is one aspect of the work described in my new book, Developmental Couple Therapy for Complex Trauma: a Manual for Therapists a book I wrote based on many years of research into understanding why trauma survivors have such a challenging time in relationships and why couple therapy can be such a challenge and so frequently be unhelpful and, sometimes, even harmful.


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