When Trauma Affects Your Trust in Your Relationship

Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be a huge event or a more subtle pain that you try hard to overlook, though it still haunts you. Collective traumas are suffered by many. They include war, terrorism, an accident, or a catastrophic weather episode that results in death or other forms of mass loss and upheaval. Individual traumas are those that happen uniquely and specifically to you, such as threats, assaults, abuse, family strife, and physical or mental boundary violations. Individual traumas are often experienced silently and can feel like your own personal prison.

When you’re traumatized, there’s a driving internal force to feel safe and cared for, especially by your partner. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, this can become your central focus as you try to heal. You delve into if/then scenarios in an effort to soothe yourself and look for a way out of that uncomfortable place you are in.  If your partner can just reassure you, support you and help you deal with your pain, then you will feel protected, validated and able to heal. However, it’s essential to be aware that what you’re hoping to receive from the relationship may be unrealistic or disproportionate to what your partner can give.

Trauma is so overwhelming and creates such internal chaos that it distorts your ability to gauge what your partner can realistically offer. This may be in part because they have been traumatized too, whether or not either of you realize it. Not only does your trauma affect how you perceive the comfort you receive, but your partner’s trauma affects their ability to provide what you’re looking for as you seek out safety and security.

When you’ve endured collective or individual trauma, your trust in how things are supposed to be is drastically altered. In turn, your sense of safety and connection to yourself and others is negatively impacted.  You are bracing for the next impact, whether or not one will follow. Understandably, there’s a need within you to secure your foundation, and establish or reestablish a sense of stability in the world. Whether you’re in a new relationship or one that’s established, you may be looking to your partner to do the impossible: fill the void created by trauma.

Be aware that being traumatized is akin to being betrayed, and that you might carry feelings of vulnerability, exposure and pain. The last thing you want is for your relationship to create further feelings of betrayal and disappointment because you don’t feel understood or validated. Therefore, it’s crucial to remember that your partner comes from a different background, life experience, and has different communication patterns from you. They exist in a different body and have a different brain. The onus is on you to communicate with your partner and to describe as best you can what you’re feeling and why. Try to resist slipping into a thought process of expecting them to “just know” what you are feeling and experiencing.  While your pain may be all-consuming, and those thoughts in your head may be very loud, understand that these feelings belong to you. You might have to power through your own trauma just long enough to help your partner help you to feel better.

For example, patients often describe the things they wished their partner had said or done in certain situations. The disappointment and experience of being let down by them can be a huge disappointment in its own right; it is as if they feel the relationship history and connection should leave little room for error or misunderstanding. Feeling betrayed, misunderstood, and diminished all culminate in what you view as your partner’s insensitivity because your partner did not or could not handle your needs in a way that would better meet your longings. When patients talk about their disappointment, it’s often clear that the extent to which they feel disappointed is not about the partner’s failure to soothe, but about the trauma that preceded it. You don’t want them to feel your outward anger about what they did wrong – this just perpetuates a cycle of distrust.  Your partner is working hard in their own way to forge and maintain the connection.  It’s so profoundly important to recognize that your hope for what your partner can give likely far exceeds what they’re capable of giving. This is no one’s fault.

In approaching your partner to talk about your painful experiences, rather than continue to build a case for disappointment, frustration, and distrust, start a conversation by showing gratitude for what they have done, and acknowledging that it must be so hard for them at times to figure out what you need. Communicate your needs very clearly to them.

Knowledge is power and self-knowledge is the ultimate power.  Creating healthy dialogue around expectations will help you discern whether or not there is enough of an investment by both partners to work on and progress in the relationship. Keep in mind that it is more important to acknowledge your partner’s efforts.  Even when they don’t succeed, knowing they are trying to help you through your pain is the most validating contribution they can make to your recovery.

You Are Not Alone in Being Retraumatized by Trump

Recently, in session, a patient was sharing her fears about the direction the world seems to be heading. What are we going to do? We are stuck in this situation. No one is going to do anything to help us! She was fatalistic, felt alone and isolated. And while on the surface she was reflecting on her terror about the current political climate, on a deeper level she was also re-experiencing trauma from her early life.

When you find that in the last few months you’re shakier, more irritable, more anxious, you feel less safe and you can’t figure out why, it may be that old traumatic experiences and memories are bubbling back up to the surface, triggered by how things have unfolded in the U.S. and in the world. The unapologetically authoritarian manner in which the man who occupies the Oval Office conducts himself is painfully similar to abusers, predators, sexual harassers, and seething misanthropes that so many people, females especially, have been forced to endure, or have likely been exposed to in one way or another in their lives. It is especially jarring because for many, the “President of the United States” is a symbol of bravery, intelligence, care and compassion. Instead, this President triggers memories of hurt, shame, fear, divisiveness, and distrust.

Politics aside, in this election the male won in large part by beating the woman down. She was brutalized yet always maintained her exterior decorum while he was and continues to be brazenly abusive. For many it is surreal and creates associations to being captive to their abuser(s) with nowhere to turn all over again.

When you’ve experienced trauma – physical, sexual, emotional or any other kind — or when you’ve had your self-experience negatively impacted by someone who overpowered, bullied or shamed you, it’s very hard to live through and live down. It takes a lot of effort and dedication to take your life and self esteem back from someone who subjected you to their sadism. It is like putting back together the pieces of your shattered sense of self, or trying to develop a sense of self in the first place. And now here you are, going along in your life, keeping the emotional and physiological experiences that come with trauma at bay… until that scary man began to infiltrate every pore in your body and neural pathways in your brain.

His style, his irrational inconsistency and inability to experience compassion or empathy are painfully familiar. He  reminds you of the painful past you have worked hard to escape.  When you’re retriggered, it’s like enduring the abuse all over again. In a traumatized state, you feel isolated – only you know how imprisoned, scared, alone, and shaken you feel.

Here is the good news: This time, you’re not alone. Rather, what  feels so eerily familiar is now not an individual trauma, but a collective one.

With that in mind, one of the most important ways to address the symptoms of trauma reemerging is to first and foremost recognize that many, many people are suffering in the same way you are. The best thing you can do is reach out to others and share that you feel triggered. What you will receive in return – unlike the isolation of your original trauma – is validation and comfort in finding that so many other people feel as you do.

At the same time, understand that your trauma is debilitating and immobilizing. You feel like you should be doing something but you feel helpless, in large part because you haven’t yet succeeded in removing yourself from the situation. There’s so much going on and so many ways people are attempting to regroup and fight back and find civility in their lives again, but you may be so traumatized that you can’t engage.

Though in the past you’ve turned to social media for connection, now it’s nothing but bad, scary news that most certainly triggers even people who haven’t been traumatized, putting you in a position of being re-traumatized over and over again. Finding out from one minute to the next how chaotic and inflammatory the world is does you no service whatsoever.

Your best bet is to try the same strategy you would use to get over a relationship: Stay away from provocative social media. Instead, work to extend yourself in a real, personal, physical way. When an opportunity presents to attend a vigil or go to a meeting or write a congressperson, try to take that step. Be helpful to others and have them be helpful to you.

First and foremost, find connection with other people. When you’re ready, do what you can to contribute in small steps. But try to stay away from the kinds of things that further intensify or over-stimulate your brain in way that can send you reeling back into the fear, pain, despair and helplessness you experienced in the first place.

Other people feel as you do and humans are safe-havens. Physical connection, emotional connection, and sharing your struggle with others will help you find strength and unity. It will help you calm down and remember that the only way anyone can get through any traumatic experience is to be a safe haven for each other. Take it one step at a time.

The Gut-Wrenching Aftermath of Breakup

When an epic relationship ends, one of the most tormenting aspects of the loss is that you can think you’re ok, that you’ve weathered the storm. Then, seemingly out of the blue, you plunge right back into confusion, disgust, and fear, all over again. Chances are, the more tumultuous the relationship was while you were in it, the more tumultuous your response in the aftermath of breakup will be.

Read more

Why Trauma Resurfaces Just as You’re Feeling Better

After a period of devastation, loss, despair–a traumatic experience–as time passes, you may begin to feel better, safer in your own skin. You may even sense that you have grown stronger as the distance between where you are now and the painful experiences you have lived through continues to widen. During times when you feel okay, you may actually be able to allow yourself to relax into certain situations. You might even start to feel that your self-confidence is growing.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, your brain carries you back to a time in your history that evokes great shame and feels painfully unresolved. The images that flash through your mind cause a visceral reaction. Inside, you now feel destabilized, which pollutes the positive experience you were just having.

Read more

Resilience Will Help Free You From Your Past

When you reflect on your history and how it has impacted you, you may appreciate the building blocks that contribute to your resilience. You may see the opportunities to engage in the fortunate and challenging experiences that helped to shape you in a way that helps you to feel solid in who you are, now. Then again, you may look back with such dismay and despair that your past feels like a boulder you’re forced to drag up a never-ending hill. You long to free yourself from your past because it doesn’t represent who you are now or who you want to be in the future.

Read more

Everyone Has a ‘Look Closer’

In the movie “American Beauty” we are compelled to look closer. As the movie progresses, we learn that what appears on the outside to be a normal, happy, well functioning family is crumbling on the inside. What is so remarkable about this movie is how exquisitely it communicates the complexities that lie beneath the surface of one’s inner world. Shame, pain, confusion, hope, fear are just some of the hidden, visceral feelings we experience and react to. The movie reflects an extreme contrast between outside and inside.

In real life, the distinction between yours and others’ inner and outer worlds can be far more subtle and less extreme. However, reminding yourself that everyone has their own “look closer”, just like you do, can help you feel less alone with what you perceive as your painfully flawed self.

Read more

10 Sources of Low Self-Esteem

Last week I wrote about the ways that low self-esteem manifests in women’s relationships. This week I will do a very brief overview of the infinite places from which low self-esteem can originate  – how your history and primary caregiver relationships shaped your opinion of yourself, how other important external variables contribute. Here is a brief inventory of sources of low self-esteem and how these feelings manifest:

Read more

10 Ways Low Self-Esteem Affects Women in Relationships

Nothing interferes with the ability to have an authentic, reciprocal relationship like low self-esteem. If you can’t believe you’re good enough, how can you believe a loving partner could choose you? Low self-esteem can make you test or sabotage relationships that have potential, or settle for relationships in which you’re treated in a way that matches your beliefs about yourself. That said, low self-esteem doesn’t always look the same way in relationships. The following are 10 of the many ways that low self-esteem can manifest in your romantic relationship.

Read more

Does Fear of the Unknown Keep You Trapped in Your Relationship?

If you’ve been miserable in your relationship for far too long, the logical thing to do is leave. But if there’s been trauma, betrayal, chaos in your life, you fear the unknown. Of course you do. Therefore, how can you leave an unhappy relationship when your distrust in the world compels you to stay put, regardless of of how unhappy you are in the relationship. And it seems like any alternative would be even worse.

Read more

‘Infinitely Polar Bear’ Delivers Rare, True Portrayal of Bipolar Disorder

Whenever I watch a movie or TV show where one or more of the characters is “afflicted” with mental illness, it is with both caution and cynicism. I brace myself for what often seems like an irresponsible representation of mental illness, as the characters typically don’t evoke or receive the sympathy or empathy they so readily deserve for being affected by a condition that drastically alters their quality of life. It is a difficult challenge to create characters with mental illness who are not only required to evoke strong, conflicting, confusing, disorganizing feelings from the audience, but, also have to express them, themselves. Creating and depicting a character with a specific mental illness adequately, accurately, and realistically is a profound challenge.

Consequently, I am not typically impressed with the way mental illnesses of all varieties have been portrayed. So often the manifestation of symptoms on screen are painfully distorted and misrepresented to support the plot, rather than to accurately represent the struggle that those afflicted actually endure. Thus it is an extremely difficult and nuanced undertaking to create a character that can clearly and successfully demonstrate the depth and magnitude of his distorted perceptions about himself, others, and the world, his odd, idiosyncratic behaviors in public and in private, and the mighty struggle to regulate his moods the way Mark Ruffalo did in the film, Infinitely Polar Bear, playing Cam Stuart, father of two young girls in a mixed race family in the suburbs of Boston.

Rather, the movie, told primarily from the perspective of Cam’s older daughter (written by and based on director Maya Forbes’ own experiences as a child with her bipolar father), focuses on how her father interacts with the family and how the family responds to him. What makes this story particularly gritty and compelling is that it is written by a grownup about her childhood experiences with a father whom she clearly loves, admires, but also recognizes as being impaired. There is a beauty and purity to the writing. Since it is a daughter writing about a slice in the life of her family, there is a poignant quality created by blurry, childlike references to the history and magnitude of her father’s condition. While the audience is not given background on whether Cam’s bipolar disorder ran in the family, how, when and where the symptoms first manifested, when he was diagnosed, and what kind of treatment he had received up to the point when the movie begins, what we are treated to is an exquisitely nuanced, painstaking portrayal of what it’s like to be a loving, doting father held captive by his disorder.

Maya Forbes, the writer and director of the film comes from a mixed race family (her mother black, her father white), which brings with it it’s own unique challenges. While being a mixed race family in 1978 is of course, notable, and could be a movie in its own right, the topic is barely noted in the film. Neither is the fact that the children’s mother, by default, must become the sole breadwinner to keep the family afloat, and does so by getting into and electing to attend Columbia University’s Business School in New York, which means she has to leave her daughters solely in their father’s care for the duration of business school.

Instead, the film stays focused on Cam and the trials, tribulations, strengths and limitations that come from battling a disorder and staying intact enough to keep your children safe, with only himself to fall back on. The fact that their “differentness” as a family reaches far beyond Cam’s illness, reflects how beautifully intact this family remained, even through the trying times that accompany all the obstacles they faced along the way, especially Cam’s illness.

For those of us who were also imprinted by life in the late 70’s and early 80’s there is both comfort and familiarity in the authenticity and attention paid to the attitudes, trends, fashions, laws, social rules and expectations during that period in American history. For example, Cam’s incredible dexterity with a lit cigarette, his total lack of awareness and disregard for how much and where he smoked, is and was so very reflective of the role cigarettes played in the lives of so many during that era. One can also appreciate – because it is one of the wonderful, effective, believable tools Mr. Ruffalo employs to create this character – how much cigarettes were and continue to be tools to medicate, distract, and soothe people who struggle with mental health. The facility with which Cam handles his always-lit cigarette, even while picking up, and carrying around his two young daughters is worthy of mention because it reflects the breadth of care, understanding and appreciation that Mark Ruffalo had for the character he portrays in this movie.

Neither under- nor overdone, Infinitely Polar Bear offers an especially refreshing portrayal of bipolar disorder. In bipolar disorder, it can be difficult to know whether it is the disorder itself that is causing the out-of-control mood swings or whether the condition is triggered by external factors such as drugs, alcohol, or stressful situations and relationships in general, as it can be hard to disentangle a bipolar disorder from other mood or psychotic disorders, especially when illicit substances are involved.

Which came first? What is causing what? Is a person with bipolar disorder trying to self-medicate with substances, or is a person who abuses substances creating the symptoms of bipolar disorder? Even when substance abuse stops, withdrawal and the new difficulties of living in the world can manifest in ways that are very similar to bipolar disorder.

In Infinitely Polar Bear, Cam’s “spirals” tend to include alcohol but don’t seem to be initiated by it. Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal as a man with bipolar disorder is so informed, so convincing that there is no way that his condition can be understood as anything other than an authentic bipolar disorder, which in its own right makes it a valuable educational tool for families who are trying to make sense of the erratic behavior of loved ones, even today.

Another element of the movie that is true to clinical practice with bipolar disorder is that the condition seems to mellow over time, unless you perpetuate the condition by self-medicating with illicit drugs and alcohol. Like Cam’s character, with age, wisdom, and improved impulse control, the ability to manage and regulate moods, keep stressful situations in perspective improves. The more experience you acquire, the better your mastery. True to life, over the course of the movie, we see Cam, his wife and his children learning to cope better with the idiosyncrasies that come with his disorder.

One of the more hopeful, uplifting and authentic aspects of the film is that it highlights the power of motivation to maintain the safety and sanctity of his family in the face of great adversity. Cam is able to learn to cope because of how important being a reliable, involved father and husband are to him. The power and purity of his motivation, when channeled, becomes a major factor in maintaining a consistent way of thinking and behaving. Cam’s family are all aware, for better or worse, that his methods, his thinking, and his behaviors will “always” be idiosyncratic, but that most importantly, they trust him to keep them safe. Infinitely Polar Bear is the story of how love can provide the incentive to get better. Mark Ruffalo’s performance is gritty, believable and most certainly Oscar-Worthy.