What Helps You Deal With Stress?

Can you turn to your partner when you are feeling sad, anxious, or bad? Your answer matters.

Hint: He or She Probably Sleeps Next to You Each Night

When you feel safe with your partner or spouse in your marriage or love relationship, your ability to cope with challenging situations is significantly strengthened. Despite many dangers in the world, with the support of the man or woman you love, your sense of security can be solid. John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, described how necessary it is for humans to have a connection that provides a “safe haven” and a “secure base” to explore and learn about the world. Even when facing extreme stressors and traumatic situations, having the support of your loved one helps you to weather the storms. Without that security from a loved one, you may feel isolated and alone, leaving you more vulnerable to threats in the world. Confidence in yourself can decline, and your connections with other people may be hindered.

How Do You Manage Your Feelings?

What are the patterns you’ve established to connect with the people you love most in your life? How do you manage your feelings, and how do you respond to your partner or spouse when he or she has intense emotions? Attachment theory identifies specific patterns we have that either strengthen or weaken our closest relationships, and how we experience the ups and downs in life. If you don’t have a close person to turn to in times of stress, you’re much more likely to suppress your emotions and feel isolated. As a child, if your caregiver easily got overwhelmed by his or her own emotions, most likely you’ll do the same in your adult romantic relationships. Both of these patterns leave you more vulnerable to the harms of trauma that can occur in life.

What Are Relationship Traumas?

Traumas may include physical separation, alienation and loss of key connections in your life. They may also include a singular trauma that can occur in war, or through physical or sexual abuse. Survivors of childhood sexual, physical, or severe emotional abuse are often identified as having borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms. The prognosis of BPD can be significantly influenced by a love relationship’s security, or lack thereof.

A safe connection in our romantic lives protects us, while an insecure connection leaves us open to the painful after-effects of trauma. Even worse, if your trauma was caused by a caregiver you counted on to help you survive in the past, your symptoms in the present may be intensified and can hinder your ability to connect in your adult romantic relationships in three key areas:

  1. Creating and growing secure connections
  2. Managing your own emotions when faced with situations associated with your trauma
  3. Responding effectively to your partner or spouse when he or she needs your support

Want to Succeed in Your Love Relationship? Key Points to Remember

  1. Connection is a motivating force that drives us to seek and maintain contact with key people in our lives. We are all emotionally dependent on key caregivers in our lives. The key question: is your dependency on your loved one secure or insecure?
  2. A secure connection with a caregiver helps you feel more confident in yourself. Rather than being enmeshed, a secure connection means being integrated—appreciating both your connection and the differences within your relationship.
  3. Contact with key caregivers helps you survive the challenges in your life. You feel strengthened to face stressors in your life when you know your partner or spouse has your back.
  4. A secure connection provides a “secure base” to explore your world and adapt to different situations. You feel confident to face risks, to learn, and continually navigate the world around you.
  5. Being available to your partner and responding when you need each other builds security. Emotional engagement with each other is vital to sustain a love relationship. Any response, even anger, feels better to your central nervous system than no response.
  6. Uncertainty in your love relationship activates your connection needs. You seek closeness to the one you love when you are threatened, and are most in need of your partner's response in those key moments. You need proximity with your partner to help you manage your emotions, especially during times of vulnerability.
  7. Distress when separated from your partner or spouse is predictable. If your partner isn’t responding to you when you need him or her, you’ll likely protest this void by getting angry, clinging to him or her, or getting depressed and withdrawing. A natural response to loosing a connection with your loved one is to get depressed.
  8. Patterns of connection in a love relationship are limited, and can be identified. When your needs for connection aren’t being met, you’ll either protest through anger or detach and withdraw from your loved one. Your built-in attachment circuit in your central nervous system gets set off when you feel a lack of connection, driving your response to aggressively reconnect, or to suppress your need and focus on tasks instead of the connection. The two patterns can easily become habits. A secure connection involves a partner calming distress when separation occurs, and then reaching out for reassuring contact when your partner returns. An anxious connection occurs when you experience extreme distress when you separate from your partner, and lash out upon his or her return. A partner’s attempts to soothe you often don’t make a difference. If you tend to withdraw when your connection needs arise, most likely you experience physiological distress but show little emotion when you separate or reunite from your partner. Instead, you focus on behaviors or activities. Both anger and withdrawing are self-maintaining patterns attempting to manage emotions. The patterns often reinforce each other.
  9. How you connect with your loved one shapes how you view yourself and close relationships. Strategies to connect show how you deal with emotions, both your own and the emotions of your partner. When you have a secure connection with your partner, you're more likely to feel worthy of his or her love and care, and to feel good about yourself. A secure connection is related to feeling secure about yourself: you believe significant others will respond to you when you need them, and you feel that your partner is dependable and trustworthy. This model of connection becomes a healthy schema, a core belief you have that biases how you see yourself, relationships, and the world.
  10. When you feel isolated and experience loss of a connection, your attachment circuit experiences trauma. We know why deprivation, loss, rejection, and abandonment by your partner have such intense effects on you. This loss impacts every area of your life, and makes dealing with overall stress in your life more difficult. If you’re in a relationship with a partner you feel you can’t count on, you probably use words to describe your relationship that are framed in life or death terms.
  • If you’re a survivor of past violations of connection from key caregivers in your life, you most likely have even more intense fears involving symptoms of depression and hyper-vigilance with separations. For instance, with a history of childhood sexual abuse, trusting your adult partner to be a source of safety and comfort can feel impossible, and how you react when your attachment circuit gets activated to your partner may actually make it less likely that you’ll get a response that you need to feel better.

In a Marriage or Love Relationship, Patterns Can Change

Patterns of connection are not set in stone—they can be flexible and change when repeatedly  exposed to responses that are healing. A survivor of trauma from the past may have a hard time reaching out for a partner’s help during a flashback, but when his or her partner manages to respond with care, new ways of engaging can emerge in the relationship. This is not an easy experience, and requires managing intense emotions, but it is possible, and most importantly, can lead to dramatic changes.

How you reach for each other, and how you respond to each other are skills--they can change, with practice.

How you reach for each other, and how you respond to each other are skills--they can change, with practice.

How you relate to each other in your marriage or love relationship is not pathological, but stems from adaptive strategies to get your needs met. For instance, numbing yourself to minimize your needs for connection can help if you’re faced with a volatile and abusive partner, protecting you from the pain of rejection. This numbing strategy can help maintain the proximity of a less-than responsive caregiver. Over time, when these patterns become rigid and constricting, they pull for strong responses from your partner that reinforce your initial fears that you can't count on him or her for emotional support. Conversely, when a partner responds in a way that doesn’t fit your negative expectation, your brain has a hard time making sense of his or her positive responses, and often doesn't trust them. Repeated exposure to positive responses is necessary for the brain to change the expectation of your partner's response.

Marriage and Couples Counseling in NYC: It's How You Love That Counts

In your marriage or love relationship in NYC, if you've been stuck in negative patterns that don't get better, have you found ways to break through these impasses? The Loving at Your Best Plan offers top-rated methods to help break through even the most challenging couples dynamics. Combining schema therapy with emotionally focused couple therapy, Gottman Method Couple Therapy, and Mindsight provides couples hope to not only live happier together, but to heal individual wounds and injuries that may have been with you throughout your life.

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References: Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds by Susan M. Johnson; Schema Therapy: A Practitioner's Guide by Jeffrey E. Young, Janet S. Klosko and Marjorie E. Weishar