Trauma’s Impact on Relationships: Finding New Skills to Talk Through Relationship Pain

Say something I'm giving up on you

What’s your relationship coping skill? Find out why it’s so important to say something!

Say something, I’m giving up on you
I’ll be the one, if you want me to
Anywhere, I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you

Lyrics from “Say Something” by A Great Big World

So often in relationships, when the going gets tough, partners turn away from each other instead of toward each other for support. But within the painful experience of feeling hurt and alone lies the opportunity to heal by sharing it and having that emotion held safely and compassionately. Because of old ways of handling pain in relationships, one partner may not be able to hear the other one saying: “I want you to connect with me.”

But in learning to say something, we can move towards a balanced and healthy place in relationships. The path to more openness starts with understanding two kinds of coping patterns at work in relationships. By understanding your partner’s response to relationship distress — and your own way of coping —you can understand the relationship better. Together you can start to create a more tolerant and caring approach when emotions get triggered.

Two kinds of coping mechanisms in relationships

Psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson developed a method to guide healing for distressed couples: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). She found two roles often emerge when couples repeatedly argue — there are pursuers and withdrawers. Similarly, psychologist Dr. Stan Tatkin, in his model, The Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT) describes these forces in his model, as islands and waves. All of us naturally tend to adopt one more than the other.

  1. Pursuers/Waves: Pursuers tend to become more reactive and impulsive during an argument. They are generally more hyper-aroused and anxious. They crave an answer or some control over the situation, so they pursue that answer thinking it will help. Pursuing answers is their coping skill.
  2. Withdrawers/Islands: Withdrawers tend to become quiet and disconnect during an argument. They retreat, not wanting to engage in the argument. They are more hypo-aroused. They freeze, maybe thinking withdrawing will help. Stepping back is their coping skill.

Coping skills and trauma history

I believe that a lot of trauma survivors become pursuers or withdrawers based on their trauma history and attachment style. Our preference for coping with pain in relationships usually forms early in life as a way to manage anxiety, stay safe or be heard or seen. If we can look for reasons why our partner’s coping mechanism makes sense, it can bring more compassion and light to the situation. Coping skills come from a legitimate place:

  • Perhaps pursuers pursue because they didn’t feel visible or wanted. They tried to get someone’s attention. Or they grew up in a family where the loudest person got heard. They may pursue in order to manage their anxiety.
  • Perhaps the withdrawer grew up in a situation where it was safer or more favorable to be quiet, or where they wanted to be invisible. Similarly, they may withdraw in order to manage their anxiety.

It’s not you or me. It’s how we interact.

Sue Johnson calls the interaction between the pursuer and withdrawer “the cycle.” I call it “the dance.” Couples can gain a lot by seeing “the dance” as the issue, instead of placing blame on each other. If they can take steps to look at the roles and coping skills they fall back on, they can create enough space to change the way they interact. The shift in perspective is so powerful!

Say something

We aren’t stuck in our default coping styles. Rather, we can expand our windows of tolerance of emotions. We can change the ways in which we regulate our own feelings, and come towards a more moderate healthy approach, where we learn how to tolerate our own anxieties. Simply naming these coping styles helps couples expand their window of tolerance and bring understanding and compassion each other.

  • “I see you’re pursuing/withdrawing—I wonder what feeling is triggered here.”
  • “I’m pursuing/withdrawing because…”

When you get triggered into your familiar coping role, try to bring awareness to the situation. Don’t just pursue. Don’t just withdraw. Take a step forward toward change and say something about what you need or how you feel. Tell your partner what your underlying emotion is. Say something deeper about your inner world. Say something real. Say something that matters:

  • I’m not really angry about you not taking the garbage out. I’m scared because I feel like our relationship isn’t important enough!
  • I’m getting quiet because I feel like my efforts aren’t good enough, and it makes me feel like you don’t love me, and that scares me—all I want is to be loved by you!

Couples need to know their partner is present on the journey with them. Every time you say something, you will open that window of tolerance a little and come more towards more balanced communication and each other. With awareness of your coping styles, and openness about what’s happening behind them, your relationship can become more fulfilling and authentic for both of you.

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