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Is a Ghost from the Past Haunting Your Marriage or Love Relationship?

Ghosts from the past can be unwelcome intruders in your marriage or love relationship

Ghosts from the past can be unwelcome intruders in your marriage or love relationship

Are you or your partner or spouse experiencing symptoms in your marriage or love relationship that could be related to a history of trauma? A common dialogue between a couple where one partner has a history of trauma might go like this:

Chris: Don't you dare come up from behind me and grab me like that again! I can't stand that, and you did it anyway.

Pat: What? Are you serious? I just came up and gave you a love squeeze. Why are you freaking out so much? You're impossible. I don't want to be with someone who is so cold and frigid. Ice queen... that is who you are.

Trauma is like a ghost from the past, an unwelcome intruder that many times can be strongly affecting a relationship without either partner seeing it. With a keen awareness, you'll notice these ghots come up through specific symptoms that may include a partner or spouse re-living the past trauma without knowing the partner is going through a trance into the past, numbing and detaching after being exposed to the thing that reminds him or her of the trauma, avoiding situations that are somehow linked to the trauma (a common source of sexual problems in a marriage or love relationship), being hypervigilant around the cue of the trauma, and experiencing irritability when something is connecting with the trauma.

When a trauma survivor is able to turn to his or her partner or spouse and ask to be held and comforted during a flashback, rather that to detach or hurt himself or herself, a new trust and sense of hope can emerge for the survivor.

Traumas involving key caregivers are "violations of human connection" (Herman, 1992). More than anyone else, your partner or spouse has the ability to help you heal from past relationship traumas. A partner or spouse can have the most effective healing power over past traumas for the person who has experienced past relationship betrayals and abuse. Partners or spouses can become healers.

If you are in a safe and secure marriage or love relationship, your immune system is more likely to be functioning well, and your ability to cope during stressful life events is significantly increased. In a distressed marriage or love relationship, both partners in the couple likely experience more depression and anxiety symptoms. The sense of community usually decreases in a distressed relationship, so your body needs the help of your partner or spouse even more.

In a secure connection, you are able to face your fears and maintain a strength that helps you cope, regardless of the stress. If you feel isolated and alienated from the larger world, you are much more vulnerable to outside dangers.

When you or your partner or spouse have been subjected to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, your health may be impacted in each of those areas. Re-experiencing physical sensations can be effectively treated through exposure therapy, known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Relationship symptoms do not respond in the same way to CBT, but are much more likely to respond to relationship therapy when a partner or spouse can serve as a source of comfort and safety. It is a partner or spouse that lies next to the survivor of trauma in the middle of the night, a time when anxiety is often peaking, as memories are being processed in the mind. If a partner or spouse doesn't know how to respond in key moments when threat is perceived, he or she may become part of the problem instead of offering key elements of healing.

At the Loving at Your Best Plan, the therapist works to address the symptoms of the trauma, and much more. A focus is to help create a safe and secure emotional bond between the couple in the marriage or love relationship, a connection that promotes safety and calms danger and threat. A history of trauma intensifies the need for a safe connection, and trust is the basis for a secure relationship.

Relationships where one or both partners have trauma in their histories are more likely to have intense negative patterns of interacting with each other, and without an effective intervention, these patterns can kill the relationship. Therapists at the Loving at Your Best Plan integrate top-rated interventions for couples with difficult and challenging histories, especially trauma. These therapies include schema therapy, emotionally focused therapy, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and Gottman Method Couples Therapy.

Do you or the person that you love have a history that includes trauma on an emotional, physical, or sexual level? If so, have you found ways to effectively navigate the symptoms in your marriage or love relationship in NYC? Share your thoughts.

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Source: Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds by Sue Johnson, PhD.


The Loving at Your Best Plan: It's How You Love That Counts

The Loving at Your Best Plan: It's How You Love That Counts

How Your Brain Protects You and Can Hurt You in Your Marriage or Love Relationship


In your marriage or love relationship, your mind wants to protect you from the possibility of abandonment, hurt, or betrayal that you may have experienced from a prior significant relationship. However, your brain is much more likely to keep you alive if it overestimates the links or associations between what is going on in your present life and your past, even as a child. If your brain underestimates the connections with past injuries, you could die. One problem with this advanced survival machine called the brain is that overestimations can often backfire in your current marriage or love relationship, and your partner or spouse may be the unfortunate recipient of past sensitivities that either are not relevant or only minimally connected to the present with your partner or spouse.

All of us have memories that we are not literally aware of, but that our brain does not forget. A part of our brain always remembers events: the hippocampus, a memory center in your right, emotional hemisphere where early memories are formed and associations are stored that you are not aware of. The other part of your brain where memory is stored connected with danger or threats is called the amygdala, located in your right hemisphere, and the emotional source of fear that ties in with your upper-intenstinal area (what many call “butterflies in your stomach”). Memory that is stored in your amygdala includes experiences you are aware of: when I was 4, I touched the stove and burnt myself, so I don’t want to touch a hot stove again.

How Your Brain Affects Your Marriage or Love Relationship

Your brain is an anticipation machine, constantly anticipating what is happening in your current marriage or love relationship based on your past relationships. However, these past associations may not apply to your current relationship, and this could get you into trouble without you even necessarily knowing why. 

Neurons that fire together wire together: new experiences can replace the old beliefs


The closer your emotional connection with your partner or spouse, the more likely you are to express openly your sensitivities and vulnerabilities that you are aware of from your past, which dramatically helps your partner or spouse manage your sensitivities and respond with antidotes to your past hurts or betrayals. Every time your partner or spouse gives you the response that you need, your brain learns a new pattern, and neuronal firing occurs in your mind that eventually creates a new neuronal cluster or schema that shapes how you perceive yourself, relationships, and the world. Schemas are highlighted by the creator of schema therapy, Jeffrey Young, in Reinventing Your Life. Every time you reach out and invite your partner or spouse to understand, soothe, comfort, reassure, and validate you, your mind connects these experiences and creates associations that lead to expectations for safety and security in your marriage or love relationship. 

How to Truly Live in the Present

Research clearly demonstrates that your early experiences are not nearly as important in shaping your life as how you’ve reflected and “made sense of” those experiences, how you understand your story, so that you’re choosing to put yourself in situations that reinforce healthy beliefs or schemas in your current life. For instance, instead of staying with a partner who is likely to abandon you because he or she is still married and living with his or her spouse, you commit to a partner who is available, able to commit, and lives in proximity to you, even though he or she isn’t perfect (an antidote to the abandonment schema).

If you and your partner or spouse do not have safety and security in your marriage or relationship, you’re much more likely to get stuck in a negative pattern that includes frustration and anger or detachment and withdrawal. The patterns involve negative coping strategies that were once adaptive when you were hurt long ago. However, the same strategies that were so effective can backfire, and reinforce the likelihood that you’ll receive the responses you’re most afraid of from your partner or spouse. These coping strategies are referred to as the “Demon Dialogues” in Hold Me Tight, by Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, in “Conversation 1.” The negative patterns usually create stronger neuron clusters in the mind that reinforce your worst schemas about yourself, relationships, and the world.

Share Your Experiences

Have you noticed a time when you became emotionally upset in your marriage or love relationship, but didn't know why your reaction was so strong? re there times when you feel your partner or spouse is having an intense reaction that doesn't seem to fit the situation he or she is in? Share your experiences and help our community learn from each other. If you find this marriage & couples counseling and therapy in NYC blog helpful, please share it with your partner or spouse, and your friends and family.

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Does Couples Counseling Work? A Key Tool


A key tool to help couples counseling work actually lies in how both a partner or spouse in a marriage or relationship tell the stories of who they are and what they've experienced in their lives. How do you understand what happens to you in your own life? Most likely, you tell stories to give meaning to the experiences that you have. When you’re sharing stories with your partner or spouse in your marriage or relationship, you can create a bond that both connects and builds a sense of belonging between the two of you. We don’t all tell stories in the same way, of course, and interestingly, how we tell our stories affects our ability to manage our emotions and to understand ourselves and our partner or spouse in our marriage or relationship. 

To identify the differences in how you tell your story in your marriage or relationship, you may want to look back at the key people in your life that helped you create the script of how you tell your story about your past, and about your life now. For instance, what do you remember about your childhood experiences, whether positive or negative? How do you describe those experiences now? Who is the person in your life who influenced you most as a child, especially before the age of 10?  That person, usually a mother or father, was your primary caregiver, and most likely helped to shape how you tell your story now: the story of your past, your present life, and the life you anticipate in the future. How you tell your story now defines how you see yourself, whether that is accurate or not.

What is that voice inside your head? One way to describe the voice is to call it your personal narrator, the voice that gives meaning to your experiences. When you use your personal narrator, you’re trying to make sense of your life, the experiences you have, related to how you define yourself, relationships, and the world. Your personal narrator does not always tell an accurate story of the events you've experienced: details may be foggy, and the meaning may be wrong. For instance, you may think that something was wrong with you because your mother was so busy focusing on her own career that she seldom spent time with you trying to understand you and to be there for you as an emotional support. An accurate narrator would be able to give meaning to the lack of caring and support by understanding the difficulties your mother had in your life, not because of you, but because of her own challenges. You deserved to have a caring and nurturing mother, and you deserve care and love in your life now.  If you work to deepen and clarify how you understand yourself, the key people in your life, and significant experiences you've had, your personal stories can expand and become much more meaningful. Instead of dwelling on your past, you can actually free yourself from experiences that may often feel like they imprison you, even if they occurred 2 or 3 decades ago.


Picture yourselfback in your childhood, before the age of 10, and think of an image when one of your key caregivers was telling you a story during and after a significant event. If the caregiver you are picturing had a secure connection to you, he or she helped you to connect both the details of the experience, the emotions you felt, and the meaning of the situation related to how you define yourself, relationships with others, and the world. The caregiver helps you develop meaning in your life. A key finding in research is that it is not what actually happened in your history that affects you nearly as much as how you give meaning to what happened in your life. Your narrator truly shapes how you see yourself, and how you relate to others in the world, including your partner or spouse in your marriage or relationship.

What are the best ways to make a marriage or relationship work?

In your early childhood, your brain is developing at its fastest pace, especially between 1 and 7 years of age, during puberty, and between 15 and 17 years of age. A foundation is laid by your caregivers to influence how you regulate your feelings and how you give meaning to your life. At the Loving at Your Best Plan, we refer to a healthy foundation from a caregiver as having three key actions, the 3-R’s: regulate, reflect, and respond. If you had a secure caregiver, he or she helped you to manage your emotional reactions by regulating yourself to calm and soothe yourself from the inside, and then helped you reflect on your experience to help you understand it. Reflecting is the term we use for  “making sense” of the event or experience. 

With a secure and healthy caregiver growing up as a child, you develop and grow until you're eventually able to manage your own feelings and reflect on the events in your life through your own voice, without the assistance of your caregiver. The caregiver "models" healthy patterns of adaption and flexibility the become ingrained in you. Ideally, all of us would have grown up with a secure caregiver providing these key lessons and experiences to us.

However, if your caregiver didn’t help you manage your feelings, or help you reflect on events in your life in an accurate way, most likely you experienced what children in an insecure connection feel--shame about the experienceinstead of understanding the context and the meaning of the situation and the key characters in the story.

Usually, when a caregiver retells a story to a child, she or he helps the child understand the experiences and helps the child feel comforted through empathic responses. Telling a story involves the narration of a series of events and experiences of characters in those events, just like a narrator retells a story in a novel. The narrator helps the reader understand the events and the experiences of key characters.

As adults, we usually tell our story with words. As a child, if your caregivers helped you understand what was happening to you in upsetting situations accurately, you were most likely able to calm down relatively quickly. You’d understand what happened to you, and you’d more likely be able to predict what may happen to you in the future.

Perhaps you have experiences as a child that you couldn’t understand or give meaning to. Without a caregiver providing a healthy narrative voice, it’s unlikely you could manage what you were feeling, or accurately understand what you were going through. As a child develops, he or she forms the capacity to create a personal narrative based on the voice of the key caregivers in childhood. In the end, how you as a child told your story reflects how you came to understand your world, and how you learned to manage your feelings. 

How to save a marriage or relationship, even if it is failing

The way you tell your life stories reveals the way you have come to understand the events of your life, in the past as well as the present. Even if you're struggling with what you think is a failing marriage or relationship, if you focus on how you can make the failing marriage or relationship better instead of whether or not you should stay in the relationship, you're much more likely to succeed in making improvements. How you tell the story of this process can have a significant impact.

As yourself the following questions about your current life, and see how your answers may influence how you see things in your marriage or relationship now: 

·      Do you describe your experiences from a distance, or do you emotionally relive your experiences as you retell your story? 

·      Do certain issues trigger intense feelings in you that stem from unresolved events or themes, even though they may have happened long ago? 

·      Do you remember many details about your early life? 

·      What feelings come up when you tell the story of your early experiences?

How would you answer the questions? How do you feel as you’re answering them? What do your answers mean to you? 

Your life story can give you clues about how your present world is shaped by your past. How you tell your story and how you emphasize different aspects can reveal the way you have come to understand your world, meaning your self-esteem, relationships, and the world as a whole.

Read more in Daniel Siegel'sexcellent book, Parenting from the Inside Out. Need more help? Call or fill out our contact form, and we'll help you get started today at the Loving at Your Best Plan. You may also visit our sister site for gay couples therapy. Share this page with a friend or family member by clicking the icons below. Let us know what you think as well by clicking the "comment" button. Read reviews of our therapists from unbiased, anonymous clients by clicking "Reviews."

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