Couple Trauma

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I do a lot of couple therapy in my practice, and I’m always cognizant of the traumatic nature of strained couple relationships. If the word “traumatic” seems a bit strong, I beg to differ. In her book, The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy; 3rd edition (2004), Dr. Susan Johnson observes: “Distressed partners…tend to adopt stances of fight, flight, or freeze that characterize responses to traumatic stress.” (p. 32) I realize that words like “fight” and “flight” conjure up images of prey and predator. But, consider what happens to a distressed person’s nervous system when their partner says or does something that’s perceived as threatening. The sender’s word and/or behavior triggers the receiving person’s “thalamus” (the brain’s receiving station for incoming sensations) which in turn (a millisecond later) signals that person’s “amygdala” (the brain’s center for fear and aggression [fight or flight], which in turn (a millisecond later) prompts a knee-jerk reaction of blame and/or withdrawal; the two basic dance steps of relationship injury, according to Dr. Johnson. These two dance steps then take the form of three dance patterns: blame-blame, blame-withdraw, and withdraw-withdraw (the very same “fight” or “flight” responses to traumatic stress).

Ready for an interesting twist? In Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers; 3rd edition (2004)–see last blog post–he cites the research of UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor who suggests an additional trauma response by women: “tend and befriend.”  Sapolsky writes:

“Taylor argues convincingly that the physiology of the stress-response can be quite different in females, built around the fact that in most species, females are typically less aggressive than males, and that having dependent young often precludes the option of flight….Taylor suggests that rather than the female stress-response being about fight-or-flight, it’s about ‘tend and befriend’ – taking care of her young and seeking social affiliation….Taylor also emphasizes a hormonal mechanism that helps contribute to the ‘tend and befriend’ stress-response. While the sympathetic nervous system, glucocorticoids, and the other hormones…are about preparing the body for major physical demands, the hormone ‘oxytocin’ seems more related to the ‘tend and befriend’ themes….And the fact that oxytocin is secreted during stress in females supports the idea that responding to stress may not just consist of (fight or flight), but may also involve feeling a pull toward sociality.” (p. 33)

All of which brings me to the advice of another relationship specialist, John Gottman (Why Marriages Succeed or Fail; 1994). If limited to one general piece of advice to both men and women, Dr. Gottman’s advice to men would be: “Embrace Her Anger.” His advice to women would be: “Confront Him Gently” (pp. 159-161). Could it be that her anger (“Fight”) is really her prime way of moving closer to her partner, thereby calming her nervous system (“tend and befriend”) – however confusing or ludicrous that may seem to men? And, could it be that “confronting him gently” is really the best way to keep him from calming his nervous system by shutting down or running away (“Flight”)?

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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