Developmental Trauma and Marital Conflict

The Crisis of Developmental Trauma

There is no fact of human existence that resonates so profoundly and pervasively through time as Developmental Trauma (aka Complex Trauma). Developmental Trauma is a pattern of chronic, prolonged childhood abuse and neglect.

In the USA alone, over 3 million children are reported to child services for suspicion of abuse and neglect every year. And of those 3 million suspected cases, 1 million are confirmed.

A million candles burning for the help that never came…

Leonard Cohen

The overwhelming source of most childhood trauma are the very people who should be protectors and nurturers… parents.

Parents are directly responsible for an astonishing 80% of childhood abuse and neglect.

Research has now confirmed that despite our collective discomfort in discussing it, childhood trauma is extremely common. The challenges of Developmental Trauma and marital conflict are frequent themes in our intensive couple retreats.

Developmental Trauma has a deep impact on the adult who is yet to be, and a future capacity for pair bonding and parenting. I think of Developmental Trauma as a sort of spiritual black plague; infecting generation after generation. It drags us down, suffocates our capacity for intimacy, and dims our light.

developmental trauma

One of the most important studies into childhood trauma was the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, conducted about 20 years ago by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control. It was a massive study, with over 17,000 participants answering a series of questions concerning adverse childhood experiences (ACE). The results were shocking and sobering:

  1. 11% reported a climate of ongoing emotional abuse.
  2. Over 30% experienced physical abuse.
  3. almost 20% reported sexual abuse.
  4. Over 23% described the pain of navigating through parental alcohol abuse.
  5. Over 12% saw their mother being battered.
  6. Almost 19% reported exposure to parental mental illness.
  7. And almost 5% described parental drug abuse.

Are you a sufferer of Developmental Trauma? Here are the 10 ACE questions.

Prior to your 18th birthday:

  1.  [  ]   Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
  2.  [  ]   Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
  3.  [  ]   Did an adult or person at least five years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? Or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
  4.  [  ]   Did you often or very often feel that … no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
  5. m[  ] Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or were your parents too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
  6.  [  ] Was a biological parent ever lost to you through divorce abandonment or other reason?
  7.  [  ]   Was your mother or stepmother:
    Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or ever repeatedly hit or threatened with a gun or knife?
  8.  [  ]   Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
  9.  [  ]   Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
  1.  [  ]   Did a household member go to prison?

How Many Aces were in the Parental Hand that You were Dealt?

How did you do on the ACE questionnaire? How many “aces” have you noticed in your own life…or in your partner?

Science tells us that adverse childhood experiences actually change the structure and function of our brains and nervous systems. Developmental Trauma catches us in a profound emotional trap. We hunger for intimacy, but we are poorly equipped to navigate the everyday stresses that arise from our being in a relationship with an intimate partner.

Limiting Beliefs that Stem from Developmental Trauma

Here are eight common self-limiting beliefs common to sufferers of Developmental Trauma.

Are any operating in your life today?

These thoughts could be more like a sort of background noise, undermining our capacity for experiencing pleasure and enthusiasm for life. They may also tend to be more acutely experienced during times of stress and overwhelm.

  1.  [  ]   I am not safe. People I live with are dangerous.
  2.  [  ]   If I am alone. It’s better that way.
  3.  [  ]   I am worthless. A fraud.
  4.  [  ]   I am broken. And can never be fixed.
  5.  [  ]   I can only rely on myself. People always let you down.
  6.  [  ]   I am a bad person.
  7.  [  ]   I am powerless. Nobody cares what I think.
  8.  [  ]   I can never change.

People with Developmental Trauma are perpetually vigilant and on high alert.  Research shows that their brain has a reduced capacity to experience enthusiasm and pleasure because it can never properly regulate its fight/flight/freeze response.

developmental trauma

Further Health Consequences of Developmental Trauma

Developmental Trauma has been clinically correlated with depression, anxiety disorders, attachment disorders, self-destructive and impulsive behaviors, suicide attempts, future domestic violence, obesity, sexual promiscuity and compulsivity, and even cigarette smoking.

It’s estimated that 70% of people afflicted with Developmental Trauma have, at one time or another, endured ongoing struggles with alcoholism, drug abuse, or sexual compulsivity. The need to self-medicate with mood altering substances or experiences is sometimes their single greatest presenting problem. Appropriate self-care can be impaired to varying degrees, or utterly non-existent.

But wait..unfortunately there is more. If you were dealt a lousy parental hand, you also are more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, liver disease, stroke, skeletal fractures, emotional dysregulation, aggressive behavior, chronic headaches, gastro-intestinal disorders, self-loathing, and chronic feelings of being “broken” or “crazy.”

Developmental Trauma wrecks havoc with ordinary human neurobiological development. It fragments the capacity to integrate thinking, feeling, and physical sensations. The capacity to have an adaptive response to adult stresses is seriously compromised.

People with Developmental Trauma soak up the vast majority of ongoing social services. They make up almost our entire criminal justice population.

And, paradoxically, sufferers of Developmental Trauma may also reach the pinnacles of success and achievement.

developmental trauma

developmental trauma

Developmental Trauma and Marital Conflict

What’s most confusing is even when they’re with a sympathetic spouse, the trauma brain is constantly scanning the environment for danger. It often misinterprets things that a partner says or does, as a personal attack. It becomes locked in a perpetually negative feedback loop. The spouse is perceived as just another source of potential danger, not a source of comfort or support.

I recently spoke to one of our clients about his Developmental TraumaLike many CTI clients, he is very successful and accomplished. He married a beautiful woman only a few years ago, but now he is contemplating divorce for no apparent reason.

I am happiest when I am alone,” he said.

His brain was confusing an unconscious sense of safety, (which allows his nervous system to relax…) with authentic happiness.

This is a sad and emotionally impoverished condition common to those afflicted by childhood trauma.

People afflicted with Developmental Trauma struggle with a relentless cascade of problems that are cognitive, emotional, and physical. This overwhelming toxic soup may stress some marriages to the breaking point. Without science-based couples therapy, otherwise resilient marriages may buckle and bend under the accumulated weight of chronic misunderstandings, miscommunication, and frustrated aspirations.

The tragedy is that many fail to connect the dots. They blame themselves, or their partners. They don’t see the failure of their parents to provide a safe and nurturing environment.  They don’t attribute their poor parental examples of how to be a connected intimate partner, as the “ground zero” of their struggles and pain.

Healing begins when the sufferer begins to learn how dependent they are on their childhood “blueprints” and negative self-talk.  To heal, they must tell (but not fall in love with) their story and connect the dots. They heal by questioning their automatic assumptions and recognizing how their brains are keeping them stuck in a Groundhog Day of perpetual torment and diminished interpersonal expectations.

Healing from Developmental Trauma is a Relational Task.

People with Developmental Trauma may want to be alone, but this is exactly how they remain stuck. And may even get worse.

They must build emotional muscle with their partner, learn to ask for what they want, and to soothe the voices in their heads.

The most important factor for healing Developmental Trauma is to find a safe therapeutic space where trauma can be processed without collapsing into the old maladaptive narratives and storylines. Individual therapy and couples therapy are often used concurrently to:

  • gently question rigid automatic responses,
  • develop new understandings and connections,
  • master uncomfortable physical sensations, and
  • explore the negative beliefs and self-talk that restrict and confine emotional responses.

Intensive couples retreats are an effective way to explore marital issues that are complicated by Developmental Trauma. Chaos and rigidity are the hallmarks of a brain with unresolved Developmental Trauma. This is often hard to safely address in short weekly sessions.

A brain that is healing from childhood trauma is successfully integrating the inventory of adverse childhood experiences.  With good therapy, a new, richer “thicker” more complex story emerges. The brain becomes more supple, flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable.

Developmental Trauma is a relational wound.

And only a therapeutic approach which emphasizes intimate relationship can promote healing and recovery.

The ability to be attuned and resonate with an intimate other can also be employed in shifting the stance toward yourself, and the baggage of your personal history.

It frees you up to establish healthy boundaries, create a new story and enjoy new possibilities.

Learn how to manage Developmental Trauma.

Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw, use option 2.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.

Leave a Comment: