You married your sweetheart believing everything would work out fine. Oh, you may not have had stardust in your eyes, but I suspect you never thought you were marrying your mate and their past.
Yes, it’s true. Falling in love is the easy part. The first stages of courtship are equally blissful. Then comes the real work and some significant hurdles.
Past Wounds Can Impact Our Present
Consider Danielle, a thirty year old woman, firm in her style and “no nonsense” approach. She is quite accomplished in her job as a CPA, and brings that style into her marriage.
Her husband of five years, DJ, is also accomplished as a software engineer, but is much more laid back. He tends to avoid conflict whereas Danielle wants things settled now!
As challenging as their two different styles are to navigate, that is not their greatest problem. They have been able to talk about those different styles and work out something that works for both of them. The problem is deeper and more challenging to resolve. Listen to DJ tell their story.
“There are certain things that I say that bring out the critical attitude in Danielle. I know that anytime I say anything negative about how the house is kept she flies into a rage. It’s not even that critical, but she is so touchy and let’s me have it. I never know when something I say is going to flip her lid. It’s crazy.”
When I talked to Danielle about this she was initially quite defensive, but admitted that she feels very “raw” about her appearance, the way she keeps the home and any criticism in general. She shared how she “could never measure up” as a child, and DJ’s comments made her remember those feelings.
Danielle wasn’t the only one triggered in the marriage. DJ had his own unresolved issues from childhood that were activated by Danielle. Here’s what she had to say.
“Whenever I say anything that hurts his feelings he retreats. I can see him visually shut down. He’s like a turtle with a thick shell around him. I’m never quite sure what it is that sends him running, but I know when it happens. It’s really confusing. I ask him if he’ll share with me and he says he doesn’t know. I know it has to do with his childhood, but he won’t talk about it.”
Gaining an Awareness
Danielle and DJ are a typical couple, being two people trying to navigate the usual struggles of relating to each other, but also with the baggage of unresolved wounds from their past. Because their wounds are hidden in the shadows of their marriage, they trigger each other and their wounds are activated largely outside of their awareness.
Fortunately, there is help for couples like DJ and Danielle. They don’t need to go through life tripping each other’s triggers, reacting to unknown events and withdrawing from each other. They don’t have continue to overreact to small slights and can heal old wounds so that they are dealing in the ‘here and now’ with problems.
Let’s consider what they can do.
Practical Steps for Healing
First, become more aware of the words and behavior of your mate that trigger old wounds. We cannot change what we cannot own or do not see. We must notice troubling patterns in our marriage and talk about them. Be honest with your mate about the words said and behaviors done that raise uncomfortable feelings. Awareness is a key to growth.
Second, pay attention to overreactions as a symptom of trauma from our past. Old wounds do not simply heal with time. In fact, ‘a feeling denied is intensified.’ Old wounds, with accompanying old feelings, are likely to be very primitive and not attached to our present day thinking. Subsequently, we may not even be able to talk about or explain why an action on the part of our mate upsets us, but we know that it does.
Third, get expert help. A good psychotherapist, trained in understanding trauma and unresolved wounds, can help you identify old wounds that you carry around in your body. An innovative approach, such as Lifespan Integration, helps you learn about how you carry old pain and are thus overly sensitized to current problems. In therapy you can resolve old wounds with expert help in a relatively short period of time.
Fourth, work together in couples counseling. Having worked individually in counseling to resolve old wounds, you are now much more capable (integrated) of being available to your mate when they have problems in the marriage. You can talk to them about where and how they hurt you from a mature and emotionally stable place. You are more capable of being fully present, attending and attuning to their needs.
Finally, agree to move carefully and caringly into the future. Having taken responsibility for old wounds and resolved them, you can now enjoy each other more fully. You are able to live out I Corinthians 13, that challenges us to protect each other as an act of love. We guard against stepping on our mate’s ‘raw spots’ and they do the same for us.
In summary, we all come to marriage wounded—and we unintentionally wound each other in marriage. We are all fragile in different ways, and that is okay. Danielle and DJ, through expert counsel and hard work, were able to heal and enjoy each other, even helping each other heal. They learned more about each other and respected the hard work each did to bring a healthier sense of self to their marriage.
If you would like to learn more about healthy relating, and specifically Lifespan Integration, please contact us here or call us at 206.219.0145.