At NCCT, we are dedicated to the leading research, techniques, and methodologies in couples therapy. To that end, we regularly seek out the expertise of colleagues with specializations in complementary fields, such as private practitioner Stephen J. Bradley, LICSW, LMHC, who offers insight on unique relationship dynamics through a trauma-informed lens.
Stephen has postgraduate training in Narrative Therapy from the Family Institute of Cambridge and is trained in the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics through the Child Trauma Academy in Texas. Presently, he is certified Phase II/TTT in that model and has partnered with NCCT from 2014-2018 as a Couples Therapist.
Earlier this month, we reached out to Stephen to gain a deeper understanding of childhood trauma and its impact on romantic relationships, a topic Stephen has extensive experience in from his 25 years of treating adults, children and families. He is especially passionate about working with children and families who have experienced trauma.
Our goal in this interview was to identify the unique role trauma plays in romantic relationships and to offer tools to support couples struggling with its legacy. As expected, Stephen provided a wealth of information on the subject. Below are the key takeaways, organized in a Q&A format.
1. Stephen, what exactly is ‘trauma’? How would you definite it, and how can we recognize the role it plays in our relationships?
Trauma comes in many different forms and can move across generations. Many families we work with have experienced direct physical, mental or emotional trauma. Or, they have witnessed varied types of trauma, such as physical conflict, domestic violence, external stressors and also systematic oppression based on gender, race or sexual orientation.
From birth through age 3, we are just forming our relational templates — what we use to guide our interactions with others — in the context of a caregiver relationship. These templates are where the trauma piece most often comes into play. If a person experiences trauma in the history of their attachment relationships, it can have a significant impact on their future relationships, particularly with their romantic partners.
As we make that emotional bond with a romantic partner, the attachment we form will activate our initial relational templates. If we experience traumatic events in the course of those early relationships, we are more vulnerable to having those early traumas “activated.” At its most intense, this can sometimes result in experiencing connection with a loved one as “threatening” emotionally, rather than comforting.
2. From your experience, what is the most important lesson that both couples and parents can learn regarding trauma?
So much of the work we do in couples therapy involves the part of our brain that is most relational. Generally, we can think of the brain as having “older and newer” parts which have developed evolutionarily.
The older parts of our brain include the brainstem, which regulates basic functions like breathing and our heart rate, and the cerebellum, which is where our stress response system lives. The newer parts include the limbic system, the source of our relational and connection abilities and the cortex, the most abstract, complex thinking part of our brain.
Ironically, the parts of our brain that are most relational are structurally close to the part of our brain that controls our stress response system. What is the reason for this? The most prominent threat to human beings is other human beings.
If I were to ask the average person to think of a time when they were in an argument and the next day thought to themselves, "I can't believe I said that; I can’t believe I lost my cool,” almost everyone would be able to name at least one instance when this occurred. Why? When our stress response system is activated, the first parts of our brain to shut down are the newer parts of our brain, the cortex and the limbic system. Our ability to think clearly and connect is hindered. When those go, we are more likely to come from a place of fight or flight.
According to Dr. Perry, the Founder of The Child Trauma Academy in Texas, we actually become "dumber" the more upset we get. In other words, we lose our ability to be our best, most caring and effective selves with our partners. For people with a history of childhood trauma, a strong fight/flight/freeze response can result.
Also, people who have experienced interpersonal trauma, abuse or neglect as children are more likely to have a sensitized nervous system. They are more likely to get upset and can take longer to cool down. This can leave people who’ve experienced trauma feeling a deep sense of shame – thinking they are “bad” or “wrong” somehow.
However, this is neither true nor is it a helpful way to think about traumatic experiences. In fact, Oprah and Bruce Perry , did a segment on 60 Minutes on Treating Childhood Trauma.
One key takeaway was a shift away from the ‘what is wrong with you’ mindset towards the ‘what happened to you’ line of thinking.
We work with couples to help them recognize when their stress response is being activated, but we are also careful not to blame them. We help them see that it is understandable and natural for them to have that response given what they've experienced.
3. What does it mean to regulate ourselves or to avoid ‘dysregulation’? And how can we bring ourselves, and our partners, back into a more calm state?
Most of us have a good idea of the kinds of activities that help us feel calmer, less stressed. We remind people to do more of those things, such as spending time in nature, dancing, doing yoga, walking their dog, listening to music or exercising. These are all self-regulating activities that reduce the chance of our stress response system being activated. They help us to be more functional, attentive partners.
Then there is co-regulation, which interestingly occurs first between a parent and an infant. As infants just coming into the world, we don't know how to self-regulate and depend on the adults around us to do that for us. Coregulation can involve anything from a massage or back rub to a deep conversation where there is meaningful listening.
4. Do people who have experienced childhood trauma struggle with closeness? Is there a limit to the amount of connection survivors of trauma can accept from their partners?
Yes, in some ways, having childhood trauma in your past can create obstacles to intimacy in a partnership. In other words, the level to which one feels comfortable with their partner can be negatively impacted by their past experiences.
Imagine a stranger comes up to you who you have never met and engages in a lengthy conversation with their nose just an inch from your face. That would probably activate your inner alarm system, right?
Most people in this situation would agree this feels “too intimate” and may leave us feeling confused, defensive or upset. For children who have experienced trauma, however, it doesn’t take a stranger to activate their inner alarm bells. It can be someone they know well, such as a teacher approaching them in class.
When partners come together, this can become a real conundrum. It can become stressful for people who have experienced abuse or neglect. So, we help them apply the brakes and ask questions like, "What happens to you when your partner looks you in your eye? What happens to your body? Do you feel connected, distant, stressed, anxious?"
We work to reduce their stress levels and increase their levels of connection. We also recommended activities that are side-by-side, rather than face-to-face, such as going for a walk or cooking a meal together. Just taking the time to smell the spices and feel the textures of the vegetables can be effective. It's basic, uncomplicated stuff that we are well-wired to do anyway. But these are things that tend to go missing.
5. Is it ever too late to address the effects of childhood trauma?
No, it's never too late to treat childhood trauma. However, the impact of the treatment will vary depending on the level of intensity needed, the timing and type of treatment that is provided.
There are a number of evidence-informed models for addressing trauma, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. We are also seeing a lot of great work being done with body-oriented approaches, such as Somatic Experiencing, mindfulness-based approaches to therapy and therapeutic yoga.
6. What can parents do to reduce the amount of trauma their children experience?
One thing we know for certain is that kids whose parents engage in conflict in front of them, particularly with no repair, have much higher levels of stress, especially if we're talking about birth parents. They will feel like two parts of themselves are at war with each other. They feel everything physiologically.
The first, and most important, thing to do is to take any dysregulated conflict out of the purview of kids. This can be especially difficult during the early years of parenting when we see the greatest number of separations happen.
It's understandably, a very stressful time for the relationship, and there’s a lack of time for each other. We spend so much time tuning into the infant's needs that we forget we as adults need attention too, along with the sense of connection and meaning that comes from coregulation.
To learn more about dysregulation, coregulation or how to overcome any obstacles to intimacy in your relationship, visit us online at https://www.northamptoncouplestherapy.com/. We offer private, intensive 2-Day and 3-Day couples retreats, marriage retreats and weekly couples therapy sessions. We also have new extended hours and team members to meet a growing demand for expert, research-based couples therapy in the New England area and across the US.
To learn more about Stephen and his practice, you can find him online at http://www.stephenjbradley.com/.