Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Handling Traumatic Memories in Your Relationship


The scene of the accident, the image the IED exploding in Iraq, the feeling of being surrounded by rising water, the wave of dizziness on hearing the diagnosis….Traumatic memories in the form of intrusive images, nightmares and flashbacks are part of the re-experiencing of trauma. Most people have some re-experiencing soon after a traumatic event. For some, intrusive memories abate over time. Others experience such memories months and even years later. For some the flashbacks are so extreme that for moments an awareness of the present is lost as the horror of the past is re-experienced. Traumatic memories are the mind and body’s imprint of an event that is so stressful and threatening to physical and psychological well being that there is no place to put it.

How Are Traumatic Memories Different From Ordinary Memories

Ordinary memory for something that has happened to us is narrative and explicit. It is remembered and told as a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end. If someone asked you about your last vacation, you would recall it and tell it as part of the ongoing story of your life.

Traumatic memories are different. Encoded under flight/flight conditions in those centers of the brain dealing with sensations and emotion, traumatic memories are highly charged intrusive visual images, feelings, and sensations triggered by reminders of the traumatic event. These memories are choppy, disorganized and non-sequential with little change over time.

For example:

After the accident that injured him and his wife, Barry would often flash on the image of the dog that had run onto that road causing him to swerve.

For one firefighter, just crossing the bridge into Manhattan brought with it the choking taste of dust from the desperate digging at ground zero after 9/11.

How Can We Handle Traumatic Memories?
Ultimately, a person who has experienced trauma needs to be able to tell the story of the trauma without reliving it. To do this, the person needs to repeat the fragmented story of trauma in a safe place with a safe person so that he/she can integrate the traumatic memories i.e. fill in the missing pieces, gather the images, identify the sensations and put them into a form that becomes part of the story of their life. Trauma expert, Judith Herman (1997) tells us,

“ The action of telling the story in the safety of a protected relationship can actually produce a change in the abnormal processing of the traumatic memory.”

Can Partners Help Each Other Transform Traumatic Memories?

Research continues to recognize that when people have a physical bond, they have a greater capacity to affect each other’s emotional states (Schore, 2003).While that translates to most partners’ ability to calm or critique each other with a glance, we have seen that with understanding and some guidelines, partners may be able to use their relationship as a safe place to contain and transform the imprints of trauma.

Is this easy? No Is it possible? Yes

Can it be a valuable asset to Professional Help? Certainly

From Problems to Possibilities
To Talk or Not to Talk

For most couples the question of how much or whether to talk about a traumatic event is a complicated one. Often one or both partners are afraid of sharing, afraid of re-traumatizing the other, afraid of saying the wrong thing. As a result they often choose avoidance as a solution. They not only avoid speaking about the memories they have, and the triggers of those memories but each other as well. Faced with this one partner said “Being left out is worse than anything I could hear!”Couples found that one way to begin was to start by sharing the concerns they had about discussing the trauma itself.

For example:

“I’m worried that if I talk about it I will be upset for the rest of the night.” “I feel bad enough for both of us I don’t want to upset you.”

Agreeing that you have both been through a lot and it is hard to talk about it is an invaluable first step. It is permission to share whatever you choose without expectations

Same Trauma, Different Memories

One of the difficulties of a couple’s facing the same trauma is that there is often the expectation that they will have the same memories and react to things in a similar way. The reality is that what a person encodes in the moment of trauma is a function of many things – different memories are not indications of disagreement, veracity or failed validation.

For example:

The fact that Mary could only remember the lights of the other cars and Barry continued to flash on the image of the dog on the road the night of their accident makes emotional sense- they are different people. Rather than correcting or disagreeing, their capacity to share and listen to each other’s version can serve integration and recovery – it moves the images into a mutual version of what happened.

Same Trauma, Different Triggers

In a similar vein what is a trigger for one partner may have a different emotional impact on the other.

For example:

When Keith and Deirdre at her suggestion moved into their new home a year after the death of their two year old son, Deidre became furious when she saw Keith hanging a picture of their son in the living room. Keith tried to explain that he needed to bring the David with them- to remember the joy they had with their baby. Deidre insisted that constantly looking at the picture would keep her in a state of grief and pain with no respite. While upsetting, their discussion of the differences not only gave them a plan for David to temporarily keep the picture in his study where he could see it all the time and Deidre could see it if she choose, but offered an opportunity to share some of the memories they had been privately holding. Deidre’s memories were the intrusive images of her child hooked up to tubes in the hospital, images that felt at times overwhelming. Keith’s were of the positive memories of David. Sharing with Keith, Deidre started putting words to the traumatic images. In this case as with many couples, Keith was not re-traumatized by Deidre’s images – he was relieved that they were finally talking about the traumatic loss.