Complex trauma from childhood is an unseen force that wields tremendous power in many a marriage when it remains untreated. If you are married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma, you likely can relate to the constant pull that goes on beneath the surface of your marriage.
It is like a car that lacks alignment. No matter how much you turn the steering wheel to straighten the car, it keeps veering off the road. Like that vehicle, the struggle to center the marriage is real and seemingly constant. It is a struggle that absolutely complicates the normal stresses and strains which accompany a marital relationship.
It is true that the survival statistics for these kinds of marriages are not encouraging, but that does not mean marital success is not possible. And while the responsibility is not yours alone, there are some important foundational anchors that can be very meaningful if you want to help yourself, your spouse, and your family survive the tenuous waters. Here are seven of those foundational anchors.
1. Understand the Nature of Complex Childhood Trauma.
The first anchor is being able to understand the nature of the issue. If you do not have at least a cursory understanding of trauma, you will likely weary yourself mentally, emotionally, and even physically trying to out fires, establish rhythms, and solve problems. Trauma issues in marriage need more than good communication skills and weekly date nights to solve the problem - though communication skills and date nights are important, too! Trauma issues need, among other things, understanding.
So what should you understand about your spouse and the complex childhood trauma he or she has suffered? For one thing, know that traumatic childhood experiences are far from superficial. Traumatic childhood experiences go way beyond feelings and actually change the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. One of the complications of this is that the survivor’s brain is virtually always in a state of hypervigilance, constantly scanning the environment for threats. The overactive fight, flight or freeze mode lends itself to the body’s nervous system being easily activated. This is taxing to the mind and body of the survivor.
If you are the spouse of a trauma survivor it is important for you to note that your spouse may not appear to be hypervigilant, but there is tremendous hypervigilance going on internally. This has profound implications for your marital dynamic, and it explains why gaining emotional and relational traction may seem so difficult. Your spouse, due to the trauma, lives in survival mode. Building lasting marital intimacy in survival mode is quite a feat.
Understanding the nature of complex trauma and its physiological impact on the survivor helps you to put your spouse’s actions and reactions in an appropriate and constructive context. You are then better positioned to engage with him in helpful and meaningful ways.
2. Know That You Are Not The Problem
Even when survivors of complex childhood trauma are married to safe, sympathetic, emotionally healthy spouses, they guard themselves and remain hypervigilant toward their spouses. So it is important that you as the spouse remember this: While you might have problems, and while you might not always handle the problems correctly, and while you are most certainly not perfect, you are not the problem.
This knowledge is an important anchor because one of the survival mode mechanisms of trauma survivors is to blame the spouse. You are the closest one to the survivor, and, just based on proximity and the nature of marriage, you will activate the survivor’s triggers. The defensiveness in marriage that survivors can be prone to is what makes it tremendously difficult for them to be objective. The weight of this blame over time can be crushing to the spouse of the trauma survivor. Even avoidant trauma survivors, who by nature have an easy going and non confrontational way about them, can deploy an arsenal of blame when confronted. This is because they so easily feel criticized and threatened.
This dynamic of blame tends to be very confusing for spouses. They begin to wonder what they are doing wrong. They begin to doubt even the sound judgement and wisdom they possess. These spouses need to remember that the trauma brain is continuously scanning the environment for danger. What the non-trauma spouse says or does gets evaluated based on that scan, and their words and actions are misread by the trauma survivor as a personal attack. The trauma brain becomes trapped in a cycle of negative internal dialogue, and the sympathetic spouse is viewed as an enemy and a danger, rather than as an ally and intimate friend. As a result, the non-trauma spouse is treated defensively. What that defensiveness looks like varies from trauma survivor to trauma survivor.
Objectivity is one of your greatest allies when it comes to this issue. Objectivity will allow you to differentiate between when you are at fault and need to take action to right your wrong, and when your spouse is projecting a perceived fault onto you. This will help guard you from pervasive frustration and self doubt. This is good and important self care.
3. Recognize That Emotional Intimacy Will Likely Be A Struggle
Those who survive complex childhood trauma are often caught in a vicious cycle. They long for intimacy, but the very stresses that are a normal part of building a meaningful marital relationship trigger their defenses and their coping mechanisms. They typically end up in one of three modes - fight, flight, or freeze. Sadly, the very intimacy they crave, they sabotage or derail.
When you are married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma, it is key that you learn how to not take their rejection personally. It really is them, not you. Again, this does not mean that you have no weaknesses or areas in need of growth. But even if you are emotionally healthy and safe, trauma can significantly complicate your spouse’s ability to bond with you in deep and meaningful ways. Their fight, flight, or freeze mechanism is so easily triggered that they are in survival mode even when there is no real danger or threat. Unfortunately, not only does this mean that marital intimacy is very elusive, but it means that you likely experience a great deal of emotional rejection and abandonment, even if that is not your spouse’s intention. And your spouse is likely very unaware that he is isolating you.
Note that your spouse may live in an emotionally anorexic state, starved of true connection. This is because many survivors of childhood trauma find some reprieve in aloneness, and even reach points where they are prepared to totally disengage from those who love them most. This is why trauma survivors find it easy to hold on to fantasies. A fantasy is the facade of being in a relationship without having to navigate through genuine connection. This is a lonely and disconnected way to live.
Your spouse’s emotional distance is not because you are unlovable or undesirable. His or her emotional distance is a product of trauma.
4. Empathize with His Inner World
If you are married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma, understanding his or her inner world is one of the keys to cultivating a meaningful marriage. I have heard trauma survivors describe their inner worlds as “a constant noise” they live with. The noise has a lot to do with the hyper vigilance we touched on. Sadly, these survivors are used to the noise, and they own it as normal. Because the trauma impacted them at such an early age they do not know anything other than the noise. It is their normal. But this noise profoundly affects how they perceive, interpret, and experience life. The “noise” can also go up in volume depending on if a situation is particularly overwhelming.
Think of it like this. You are walking down the side walk in a neighborhood where snakes have recently been spotted. Everywhere you step you are cautious, and you frequently glance behind you to ensure that nothing is slithering along at your heels. Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you think you see something curled up in the grass. At that moment, without any conscious effort on your part, an alarm is fired in your brain and a physiological sequence of events is activated. Hormones are released. Your heart rate speeds up. Your blood flow engages with a new priority, which is to help your arms and legs fight or flee. And your brain quickly determines which one to do, fight or flee. This all happens in a split second. Then you realize it’s a false alarm. What you are seeing is just a garden hose. You breathe a sigh of relief, but now you’ve been spooked. You hasten your steps to get out of that neighborhood. Finally, once you are out of harms way, your heart rate begins to return to normal, your blood flow returns to supporting your vital organs, and you are no longer in fight or flight mode. All is well.
Now, imagine living in that hypervigilant or “spooked” mode constantly. Imagine not being able to find an exit from the neighborhood. That would be an exhausting way to live. But that is how many survivors of childhood trauma live everyday. In childhood they lived with threat and danger. Not only did the trauma convince them that they are perpetually unsafe (there is always a snake at their heels), but it ravaged their neurobiological development. Now the alarms are constantly going off and there is little reprieve. The ability to regulate thinking, feeling, and physical sensations is profoundly fractured, and the ability to have appropriate and fitting internal responses to adult stresses is severely compromised. Their brains have difficulty properly regulating the flight, fight, or freeze response. As a result, it is difficult for them to fully experience enthusiasm and absorb good experiences, though on the outside they may look like they are living a well adjusted life.
It is not hard to empathize when you understand these inner realities with which childhood trauma survivors live. Meeting your spouse with kindness and compassion is a loving way to respond to their hypervigilance. You may be the first safe family member with whom your spouse has ever lived. This is a tremendous opportunity for you to build toward intimacy.
5. Connect the Dots
Complex childhood trauma often, though not always, has its roots and origins buried amid the parents, caregivers and/or authority figures of the trauma survivor's childhood life. As unbelievable as it may seem, some trauma survivors find it very difficult to view those adult figures as having harmed them. Instead, survivors may blame themselves. They may also blame the non-abusive parent. And incredibly, many of them blame their spouses. Some trauma survivors are not even aware of their trauma, even though they live with the effects. Furthermore, it is common for them to not see how the poor and dysfunctional relational examples they may have been exposed to in childhood have distorted the way they perceive and engage in relationships.
While it may be virtually impossible for you to connect the historical dots of trauma in a way that your spouse can see and acknowledge them, being able to connect those dots for the sake of your own awareness is valuable. It will help you to understand and counter your spouse’s negative self talk and misdirected blame. It is important to note that countering his or her self talk and misdirected blame does not mean being combative or argumentative. But it does mean speaking truth to yourself. And it also means being willing to speak the truth to your spouse in a fitting manner when appropriate.
Survivors of complex childhood trauma are very beholden to their dysfunctional childhood blueprints. Your willingness to gently counter the lies and assumptions can shed needed light for them. It can help them to challenge their internal narratives and begin the process of discovering how to free their brains from the trauma imprint. But remember, this is not about strong arming your spouse. You cannot force him or her to connect the dots.
6. Weather the Storms (in an appropriate manner)
The reality of being married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma is that it will often feel like storms are constantly rolling in to shore. These storms can be costly, exhausting, and overwhelming. They can accost every area of your life in ways that are difficult to quantify.
Because survivors of complex childhood trauma can function with the appearance of normalcy in everyday life, especially if they are very talented, there can be such ambiguity in your experience. On one hand, your life can have the appearance of, or potential for, what others would call success. On the other hand, you are often simultaneously recovering from a storm, experiencing a storm, and watching new storm clouds gather. It can be a steady, unrelenting cascade. This makes it seemingly impossible to gain stability and traction in your life.
Feelings of discouragement are common here. It is disheartening to feel like your life takes two to ten steps back maritally, relationally, financially, and/or professionally every time you try to take one step forward. Much of what you gain, you perhaps feel like you lose. There is a high cost to living with the effects of unhealed complex trauma. If you have children, it is even more complicated. You are likely doing your best to create as normal a life as possible for them, while being regularly confronted with the reality that you cannot shield them from all of the implications of living a life that is affected by trauma.
If you decide to work toward your marriage surviving, there will be storms to weather. (Please note, if there is abuse, weathering the storms does not mean staying and enduring it. You need to seek professional help and intervention immediately for the safety of yourself and your children.) Weathering the storms will require tenacity, but please understand that it is not your responsibility to “fix” the trauma. Weathering the storms will also likely require the help of a knowledgeable trauma counselor who can help you identify what storms to weather and how to weather them. The journey is not in vain if you walk it constructively and with intentionality.
7. Pursue Health
While every marriage has to work through inevitable tensions and stresses, the toxicity that comes with trauma can saturate a marriage with a disastrous cocktail of chronic misunderstandings, alienated individuals, and hopeless hearts. But you can help to turn the tide and be an active participant in God’s redemptive work in your marriage. You can help to bring health and restoration to your family. Here are a few key ways to pursue health in a marriage plagued by complex childhood trauma.
There is no doubt about it, being married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma is not easy. But it is possible to anchor yourself in the midst of the tumultuous waters. Your life may feel like it constantly shifts, but you as a person can have a strong, resilient internal fortitude that can foster a measure of stability for your family.
You do not have to journey alone. For additional help, visit us here.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Dawn-Marie Pearson
6/10/2018 08:06:16 pm
How do i know if my potential spouse has not dealt with his childhood trauma??????
8/10/2018 07:39:43 pm
31/3/2020 06:41:37 am
This explains 31 years with a wife who I felt didn’t love me. We are now getting divorced. I found out only three years ago about her being molested by a high school boy living with her family for four years. the anger she has towards me has been difficult. Is there someone I can talk to? Maybe save my marriage? Or do I just let her go? email@example.com
16/10/2020 02:29:04 pm
What a wonderful article. I am currently in a situation where my husband is talking about separation. I feel like his feelings of unhappiness are rooted in childhood trauma (witnessing domestic violence as a child) are re- surfacing for him. It feels like his perception of our marriage is so different from mine. He says he is not feeling loved and that conflict is an issue, ( we have a very low conflict marriage). Does this happen very often in marriages where childhood trauma re- surfaces after many years? I have been trying to get him to access therapy for a year but he is so scared of doing this.
29/7/2021 08:40:50 am
Ruby, I’m so sorry to only now be seeing your comment. I pray you are getting the help you need to not only survive, but thrive.
25/2/2021 08:28:59 am
I have been reading books trying to understand what my wife is going through. Made big sacrifices recently in my personal life to make sure my full attention could be in the home and nothing seemed to help. Nothing my parents ever taught me has prepared me for this. I would say it actually did the opposite considering I had very harsh rigid parents. I have reshaped my world to make sure I care for her as needed and I really need to read this today. I have been taking a lot of the comments coming from her very personally and this is by far the best information I have read on the topic. Thank you so much.
29/7/2021 08:38:06 am
I’m so glad it helped, Damion!
7/7/2021 10:40:29 pm
Wow. I learned after our first was born that my wife went through some very traumatic things in her childhood. This article really helped. I have focused on getting her the help that she needs. And trying to be supportive. But it is a very lonely road for me. Weathering storms, what i feel are sometimes mean verbal attacks. Both of my parents are deceased. I am very reluctant to confide in friends regarding any of this because it feels like I would be betraying my wife. Thank you for writing this.
29/7/2021 08:36:56 am
DJ, you’re welcome.
Thank you for publishing this article. It is a much needed resource. I have been married to a trauma survivor for 8 years and it feels validating to be understood. Everything you wrote resonates with me and is so true. The feelings of a constant "storm", lack of emotional intimacy, feelings of pure exhaustion and weariness in the core of your soul are real. I daily draw strength from Jesus who was also "storm tossed"... John 12 -Message Version.
21/3/2022 12:05:30 am
What if both mates experienced Child Trauma? Is there any hope?
26/4/2022 05:23:42 pm
I also wondered about this. Where do you start? Is it just an endless game of triggers triggering triggers? And what about when you throw narcissism into the mix? And pastoral ministry ....
23/3/2022 09:23:59 pm
I have been married to a trauma survivor for 17 years & we began dating 19 years ago. This article describes what I have experienced as though the author has lived in our home & watched our lives. Counseling & therapy has helped, but the storms still come. It’s heartbreaking on so many levels & often feels so lonely & isolating. Reading this has made my world seem not so isolated.
31/8/2022 02:13:35 pm
Ginny I had the same response after finding this post. Was this lady sitting on my couch watching the goings on? How did she know about the abuse I endure, anger, resentment, hated? powerful stuff. I’d love to connect with you to find out how you cope
17/4/2022 06:06:21 pm
I have been married for 32years and in the last few years my wife has had two breakdowns. I knew her mother left her traumatised (divorced 3 times) my wife had to carry her emotional baggage and be the main support for the whole family at a young age. I now see that her behaviour is linked to this. We are separated at the moment, but in the same house. I just know that she needs space and hope this will help. She has a good doctor that Is helping her through this and menopause, and she is seeing a trauma councillor. I love her so much and pray for healing. Thanks for the article it has given me an encouraging perspective on this. Which keeps me calm, as I do get desperate and lonely.
I'm a 68 year old man who went through a divorce than ended my almost 31 year marriage in 2011. I was a very attentive husband and father who regrettably turned to someone outside of my marriage after 28 or 29 years, the last 20 or so of which I was unable to emotionally connect with my wife and honestly, I felt that she just didn't love me.
31/8/2022 02:16:17 pm
I’m in it now for 20+ years and I’ve suffered my daughters have, extended family too. I am about ready to throw in the towel because husband refuses to recognize he’s the problem, the torture physically and mentally he endured is the problem. he won’t get help
11/8/2022 09:57:00 pm
This is my life 30 years of marriage to find out my husband has been hooking up with same sex randos from over 100 social sites that cater to the depravity. He tells me it stems from molestation while a preteen in a 3rd world country. I figure it is more, and worse than I have found so far. I am not sure I want to walk this road with him
31/8/2022 02:21:42 pm
I feel so validated. I’ve been an extraordinary wife to my husband for 20+ years and have known for at least 18 of those years about the severity of his childhood trauma. I’ve known how it’s manifested itself in him and the impact in our lives but it’s really coming to a head now and he refuses to acknowledge it or seek help. This article just confirms what I’ve long known. It’s the where do I go from here that I’m struggling with now. Stay and tie the punching bag (emotionally not physically) or cut my losses and try to find some joy, peace and serenity with the life I have left.
20/9/2022 01:02:05 pm
Nancy, boy do I hear you. It will be 20 years for us in May. The resonance of his trauma really came out after having two children. I had no idea it could get worse. My nerves are fried from being the emotional punching bag. But, yes, what next? I loathe the idea of our children having divorce parents. I also loathe them seeing me being blamed, condescended, insulted, and dismissed. Just wanted to let you know you are not alone in this difficult situation. We are obviously caring, loyal women and it's difficult to not live up to those standards. But it sure can wear a gal pretty thin. Strength and hope to you.
22/9/2022 08:10:02 pm
My wife of 36 years and 11 dating resulted in a long term affair by her the last seven years. aI’m thinking her childhood has a lot to do with it. Mother left a note and left when she was 7. Father physically and emotionally abused her until she moved out at 15 only to be sexually assaulted. I feel guilty of being so hurt from her infidelity but have no idea what this beautiful women has been through in her life
22/9/2022 10:36:46 pm
It’s horrendous what people do to one another. What parents do to their children. That still is no excuse for how you’ve been treated or the hurt that’s been done to your family. The problem is the victim’s unwillingness to seek help. I do believe that leaving is the only answer to find peace and serenity. Unfortunately it’s not always that easy.
8/1/2023 06:55:26 am
My husband of 16 years is a survivor of complex childhood trauma. The best advice I could give to someone in this situation is to try to find a therapist qualified and experiences in trauma for your spouse. There’s lots of literature on the patient but little about the spouse. Little research or analysis of what it feels like to have your whole life dominated by unpredictable difficult situations. The short and long term impacts on having hatred projected on to you. The impact on children watching it. The relentlessness of it. Over time it has changed in that my spouse has more language to describe and acknowledge what he does, but it has done little to alter the frequency or intensity of his tantrums. My mother calls it “the cross I have to bear” in life. His psychiatrist says he is more likely to make positive changes to his behaviour if he stays in the family. He would have legal access to my 2 lovely boys if we split, and is likely to get worse or at best stay the same. I can’t have them experience worse. I only want them to experience better. So I continue to try to survive in this but it is extremely hard. I have stage 4 cancer which is a walk in the park compared to this. There is no science no reason no rationale behind it.
9/1/2023 02:19:06 pm
Anne, I'm sending you light and strength as you deal with your cancer.
11/1/2023 04:01:53 pm
Would it help if I sent this article to my wife who has these symptoms, or would it make things worse. I feel like if she recognized it for what it is, she could do some self realization and maybe adjust to how she handles it.
11/1/2023 07:23:46 pm
My therapist asked me if I thought that my wife and I have a trauma bond. Our childhood trauma experiences are very similar. My mom turned me into her substitute spouse after she divorced and went beyond emotional incest plus continued even after she got married again. My wife tolls me that she was her mother's substitute spouse emotionally, but I wonder if not more for various reasons.
12/1/2023 02:33:55 am
John, it sounds like both you and your spouse have had challenging childhoods. I’m very sorry that you both had these experiences. It sounds like you are already on a journey to try to heal from your past. Have you looked into CoDA? I am lucky that I had a good childhood and very fortunate that this has given me a strong sense of my self but my partner had a more challenging time. He has found learning that he is not alone, and the acknowledgment or validation of his childhood experiences helpful in his recovery.
1/3/2023 11:33:23 am
8/3/2023 11:12:06 am
This is me. With God's help I'm doing EVERYTHING I know to do but I still hurt the people I love. I'm in therapy, praying, fasting and really digging deep. Being honest with self, the good the bad and the ugly. I don't know how to get/be better. I'm sooooooo tired. I want God to hear my ea and deliver me from all this crap. My husband is so wounded and I'm trying to be what he needs but even in that it's never enough. HELP
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Dr. Dawn-Marie shares a refreshing blend of professional insights and personal stories in this encouraging blog.