Over the past 30 years as a couples therapist, I usually have met partners when they are suffering. Whether they have just been faced with a traumatic event or have struggled for years with chronic trauma and stress, they come because they are unable to find a way to be together without pain.
- So what was it about this guy that you liked?
- What was it about her that attracted you?
- What was she wearing the first time you saw her?
- How did he ask you out on that first date?
In most cases there is a sudden, visible shift, if only for a few minutes, in the look and body posture of the two as they remember and share that romantic memory. Given what has been unhappily going on in their lives, they are often pleasantly surprised and sometimes shocked by those few minutes of a positive description or memory of the other – “I can’t believe you remember that green dress!”
This is what we call state-dependent memory. State-dependent memories are registered in a highly charged, very emotional state like that of physical attraction. Their recall brings back the positive body memory and emotional state associated with the event when we experienced it. We might think of these as the positive imprints of connection that get lost in the face of the indelible imprints of trauma and its fallout.
Traumatic events “trap” people in time. They wall off the past and make the future seem impossible. Trauma always involves loss and for couples trauma often steals the “we” they once were. Recovery from trauma requires establishing safety, remembering and mourning and reconnection. While all of these components are crucial, there really is no rigid sequence to these stages. In fact, from that very first meeting, I am inviting couples to go back to empower themselves, so they can go forward. If a couple can find some strategies for feeling physically and psychologically safe together as they journey through recovery, it will fortify them.
An initial strategy for doing this is “Finding A Safe Couple Place,” an exercise in the book, Healing Together: A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma & Post-Traumatic Stress. In this strategy you are going to reclaim something that you had with your partner, specifically a safe and wonderful place. It belongs to you. It is part of the history you share.
Finding a Safe Couple Place
Try to remember a place that you associate with being happy, peaceful, and content with your partner. It might be a certain vacation, an apartment, a city, even a car. Once you have identified the place, just thinking ‘Bermuda,’ ‘the green Mustang,’ or ‘our place on Smith Street’ can bring you back to that feeling of safety.” Ask your partner if there is a place that he or she associates with your being together in a happy and contented way. Consider writing them down separately; if comfortable, share them.
Whether only one of you does this, both do it, your safe places match or there are two safe places, you have stepped into the past in a positive way and you have a strategy for taking a pause to help you through a difficult time. This may feel difficult for one or both of you because you feel so much is changed and lost. Consider this – When you reach behind the trauma to get a glimpse of who you were, you will get a glimpse of who you can be and more.
Listen in to Suzanne Phillips discuss Couples Coping After Traumatic Events on Psych Up Live