The following is adapted from Marriage in the Middle, by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Traumatic experiences affect every aspect of life and all of our relationships— perhaps most notably our marriage.
It’s not a question of if you or your spouse have experienced trauma. It’s more a question of to what degree and have the two of you ever considered how past trauma might be affecting your marriage today.
Recognizing effects of trauma in marriage
My husband has vivid memories of his father’s explosive rage, which included spanking with a leather belt and embarrassing public outbursts. His father would express remorse after blowing up, but the outbursts persisted, often when least expected.
For the first ten years of our marriage, if anyone—including me—unexpectedly touched my husband from behind, he not only had a startle response but also would react with anger and then be overcome with shame.
It’s only in midlife that he has become aware that his out-of-proportion responses are deeply connected to the ways his father mistreated him and his siblings. We now understand how his father’s behavior was traumatizing and has affected our marriage and my husband’s parenting.
The aftereffects of trauma can present itself in a lot of different ways in marriage. Some common manifestations include:
- Nightmares or trouble sleeping
- Panic attacks
- Angry outbursts and/or a rapid escalation of emotions during arguments
- Severe depression
- Disinterest in sexual intimacy, or PTSD responses in the middle of sexual intimacy
- Disconnection and emotional withdrawal
What is trauma?
For us to discern how trauma might be affecting our marriage, we need to fully understand what it is. Trauma is an emotional or physical injury that has long-lasting consequences. The effects might be evident—such as a broken leg due to a car crash—or invisible to everyone except the survivor and their spouse.
We often associate trauma with violent crime or warfare, but many things can register as trauma, including:
- Being in a serious accident
- Witnessing a violent crime
- Losing a home in a natural disaster
- Having a child go through a medical emergency
- Getting divorced (or watching your parents divorce as a child)
- Being exposed to pornography at a young age
This list is by no mean exhaustive. Remember: trauma is is any emotional or physical injury that has long-lasting consequences.
How does trauma impact survivors?
So what happens to a person when they experience something traumatic?
There’s a ripple effect. On the physiological level, trauma affects two parts of our brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus, both of which are part of the limbic system. Trauma leads to either hyperarousal (i.e., always on high alert) or hypoarousal (i.e., shut down).
After a traumatic event, the prefrontal cortex (the rational brain) tries to make sense of what happened. Because trauma doesn’t make sense, the prefrontal cortex ends up being in conflict with the limbic system. When stressed or threatened, even if it’s a minor or insignificant threat, the limbic system can override the prefrontal cortex, causing trauma victims to respond in ways that may be completely irrational or totally out of character.
After a traumatic event has ended, the body continues to secrete stress hormones keeping victims ready to respond to the next threat. If unaddressed, this can result in health issues such as depression, cardio-vascular disease, and autoimmune diseases. Trauma is not simply psychological; our bodies continue to react until we have processed the trauma and feel some sense of safety.
How might trauma be impacting your marriage?
The ways that trauma continues to affect us depend on many variables:
- Our personalities
- When it happened (trauma is more severe and more long-lasting when it happens early in life)
- Whether or not we have a trauma history (was this the first or the tenth trauma we’ve endured?)
- How those closest to us responded (was it ignored or appropriately addressed?)
For the trauma survivor, any type of threat—real or imagined—can cause traumatic memories to surface. Relational conflict can sometimes trigger PTSD-like responses. The very nature of conflict often causes us to feel threatened. If an argument gets too heated or goes on for an extended period, some trauma survivors may overreact, quickly raising their voices or even resorting to physical violence. Others may freeze or withdraw.
The term dissociation refers to a person’s ability to split-off from traumatic experiences, only to be overpowered during uncontrollable flashbacks or in response to unexpected or seemingly random triggers.
Some individuals who face unresolved, complex trauma (such as childhood abuse) can live in a constant state of dissociation: physically present but emotionally absent. This makes it difficult to create and sustain a satisfying, intimate relationship.
Jesus’ body broken to heal the broken
For both those who have survived trauma—and for those married to survivors of trauma—Jesus offers healing.
Throughout Scripture, we see that God cares about making us whole. In fact, the Bible reveals God’s desire to partner with us in addressing all manner of wounds. Whether the man at the pool (John 5:1) who had been crippled for thirty-eight years, the unnamed woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:1), or the daemonic boy (Matt. 17:14-18), Jesus’ love for humanity motivated him to reach out and offer healing.
Jesus didn’t just offer to heal the broken—he offered up his own body to be broken so that he might bind our wounds. Consider Isaiah 53:
“He was despised and rejected by men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
He was crushed for our iniquities;
Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
And with his wounds we are healed.”
A means of His grace to you
For many, the healing Jesus offers won’t be instantaneous—but rather an ongoing process that reveals to us and those around us how much we need Him.
In this context, marriage can be a means of Jesus’ healing grace to survivors. Marriage can provide the kind of safety and trust that trauma survivors need to begin healing. A safe, trustworthy relationship where the survivor can re-establish autonomy and a sense of self-control is an essential component in recovery.
Another means of Jesus’ healing grace is prayer. Praying for each other will help spouses connect when processing through trauma. This is particularly true if we can frame prayer as building relationship—with each other and with God—rather than the pursuit of a result.
Seeing a professional therapist (especially one who specializes in this type of work) is often an essential component of healing. Because of how and where traumatic memories are stored in the brain, it can be difficult to access and talk about traumatic events. This is why certain types of body-oriented therapy, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can be more successful than traditional talk therapy for some individuals.
Traumatic experiences should never be ignored or dismissed. One does not so much “get over” trauma as much as one integrates the experiences into their current life.
Wounds will gradually begin to heal as we process trauma together and in the presence of God. For trauma survivors and their spouses, Jesus calls out, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Have you heard of the The 31-Day Pursuit Challenge?
Every marriage begins with passion, purpose, and pursuit, but few stay that way. That’s why we wrote Husband in Pursuit and Wife in Pursuit Together, they make what we’re calling the 31-Day Pursuit Challenge. Couples are encouraged take the challenge together. We’re already starting to hear stories of transformed marriages! Are you up for the challenge?