(*Names were changed.)
Traumatic events are typically unexpected, and uncontrollable. If in the past a person experienced a traumatizing event – even if it’s been long forgotten – the brain will remind them of that time, should something similar take place. Memories to traumatic occurrences lie dormant in the recesses of subconscious memories.
In a domestic crisis experienced by a married couple, one or both spouses may become overwhelmed and vulnerable. If memories of a former traumatic event are triggered by the new crisis, a feeling of helplessness and of being unsafe will resurface – especially if this happens early on in their marriage.
As a result they will perceive the environment and marriage they are presently in as unsafe and in danger. The brain has an “Emotional Radar System” called Fight or Flight. Should a person feel unsafe or in danger the brain will send messages to the body to “get out of the house now!” Or, it may cause them to fight; back yell or scream – do what ever has to be done – to alert the person that they are in danger!
Many couples in crisis will always feel this way and will have problems trusting each other. Anything they say or do will trigger a Fight or Flight exchange, as they perceive their marriage as a re-traumatization of the past. The “Emotional Radar System” we call the “unconscious” will process the information, and the past and present will become indistinguishable.
I recall a case where a newly married couple – both in their second marriage – was having problems. Between all the pain and blame, they wanted to know what was happening to them. They were frightened that once again they were going to get divorced, and for the most part they were correct. Unless this couple could move through the crisis stages of T.E.A.S. – a program that will provide insights on Traumatization, Exploration, Awareness and Safety, they would, in all likelihood end up divorced.
As we moved to the exploration stage, the husband, Michael* recalled an event he had long forgotten. He had been about nine and his father gave him a note to deliver to his teacher. Feeling good and proud of himself, Michael handed the note to his teacher. His teacher (for some unexplained reason) took off his belt (a behavior unheard of today) and gave him a beating that he would never forget – or so it seemed. At that moment he felt helpless, and started to cry; he could neither Fight nor Flight. As the years the passed, even though Michael was traumatized by the event he did “forget.”
In time he grew up, and got married. It wasn’t long into the marriage when trust issues started to emerge and he began to fight with his wife Ellen, * a person he loved very much. Michael ‘s “Emotional Radar System” reminded him: “Hey! You trusted your father, a person you loved so much, and look what happened. Have you forgotten what it felt like to feel helpless and out of control? How can you trust someone that loves you? Ellen loves you – can’t you see you’re in danger!”
Michael’s brain had processed loving someone and being loved by that person (his father), with being hurt and rendered helpless. He transferred those thoughts and feelings into his relationship with his beloved Ellen. The unconscious brain shouts, “People who love you cannot be trusted not to hurt you and you should start a ‘Fight or Flight’ exchange ASAP. Do what ever you have to do to get back in control. Do something – yell, scream Fight or Flight – run for it. Hey wait one minute! I have a better idea – keep telling yourself you’re just not compatible, and just get divorced!’”
Michael and Ellen tried to convince me they were not compatible when, in reality, they were. They had been wounded in childhood and to needed to heal. However, they did not know how or where to start. Their Emotional Radar Systems did not have this information stored in their memory banks. There was only the “Fight or Flight” response, as Michael stated in the Awareness stage: “The lack of trust is all I have left in order for me to feel in control; I am afraid to give it up.”
But they did give it up, with a lot of hard work on their part. They had to give up the process of anger, hurt, and fear in order to avoid the triggers that had continued to re-traumatize them. As their unconscious minds began to heal, so did their conscious marriage. Baruch Hashem, as the conscious mind became less defensive, the trauma subsided. As a result, they were able to move in to a Safety Stage, and trust each other so that they can learn the communication skills in building Shalom Bayit.
Moishe Herskowitz MS., LCSW, developed the T.E.A.M. (Torah Education & Awareness for a better Marriage) approach based on 20 successful years of counseling couples – helping them to communicate effectively and fully appreciate each other. As a licensed clinical social worker and renowned family therapist, he developed this breakthrough seminar to guide new couples through easy-to-accomplish steps towards a happy, healthy marriage. Moishe Herskowitz holds a certificate from the Brooklyn Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis in couples and marriage therapy. He is an active member of the New York Counseling Association for marriage and family counseling. T.E.A.M. is endorsed by many prominent rabbanim. To discuss topics from an article, or ask questions, contact CPCMoishe@aol.com or 718-435-7388. Log on to CPCTEAM.org to download past articles and for more information about the T.E.A.M. approach.