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

You Weren’t There

There is often the feeling on the part of combat veterans, firefighters and police that what they have witnessed is too horrific for anyone to hear about – much less their partner. Adding to their code of silence, their fear of contaminating those they love keeps them locked in images which they cannot integrate or recover from.

As discussed in our blog “A Military Program Offers a Message for Couples” there is no question of the value and feeling of validation that comes from processing traumatic experiences with others who have shared the experience. At the same time, secrets can compromise connection. What remains important is a way to share with a partner. As one partner said “ He says I can’t really understand how it was over there, but I just want to listen to feel close to him and what he has faced.”

It is often a surprise that a partner who has not had the same experience often has a resilience for “ containing and listening” that might not be possible if they had both suffered the same experiences.( It is for this very reason that after a disaster, consultants who have not been through the disaster themselves are often called upon to support those who directly endured the impact.)

Consider two possibilities:

Assume the Best and Test the Waters. Some partners in this situation find that if they assume that their partner wants to know and they test the waters by sharing general thoughts and reactions- they take a step to increased sharing.

For example, “Sometimes at night I get frightened and think I’ll never forget what I saw there.” To listen, to stay close without giving an answer or a solution, is not easy but it is containment- it is a first step.

Recognize the Memories on the Other Side. It is often hard for those who have faced the cumulative horrors of war or even illness to consider the associated traumatic memories of their partner. It is always a gift to ask “What was it like for you?” This question gives permission for the partner who has not physically faced the trauma to acknowledge and integrate memories. It is often a surprise to know that the partner at home is haunted by the image of where they were when the call came of your injury or that the partner who was not ill is still tripped by the sound of a siren or the smell of a hospital.

The Body Keeps Score

In his famous work on traumatic memories, Bessel van der Kolk (1994) reminds us that “The Body Keeps Score”. Essentially he is referring to the fact that because traumatic memory is registered and stored in the emotional sensory centers of the brain as images, feelings and sensations rather than in the language areas of the brain, the use of mind and body strategies will help in the integration of traumatic memories.
As a couple the more mastery and control you have over your body states – be it through yoga, jogging, gym sessions, walking, etc. the more you change the body memories of trauma. Modeling this, inviting your partner, finding opportunities to feel differently together is part of the process.

For example:

Even in small steps, if you come to associate heightened heart rate and rapid breathing with a great work out or the excitement of sexual connection you may begin to disengage the feelings of hyperarousal from the fight/flight feelings of trauma. Your feelings will have new associations.

A Backdrop of Non Trauma Related Stimuli.

The best way to integrate the imprints of trauma is against a backdrop of non-trauma related stimuli. There is a tendency once your mind and body has been assaulted by trauma to be on the “look out” for it. While a natural survival instinct, your hypervigilance for danger, illness and loss will make you unaware of the counterpoints of safety, health, and connection.

An effective way of integrating traumatic memories is to balance them with an awareness of positive ones in the past, present or future. This does not mean disqualifying a partner’s fear of being sick again. It means listening, acknowledging the fear as understandable and then going to the movies, booking the vacation, ordering the pizza- using the imprint of the positive moment in life to counter the moment of trauma in the past. Our blog “Why Couples Need to Practice the Positives” offers more ideas for this balance together.

Handling traumatic memories means finding a place for them in the story of your life.

If you are in a relationship then you share trauma and the impact of its memories.

Your relationship can be a safe place to transform these memories and expand the story that you will go on to tell together.

For Further Reading:

Herman, J. (1997) J. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books
Shore, A. N. (2003) Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self. New York: W. W. Norton.

van der Kolk, B., (1994) The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology f Posttraumatic Stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Vol. 1., Issue 5, pp 253-265