It is said that we are products of our upbringing. Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood demonstrate that is true.
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 and symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood impact marriage.
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…
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 child abuse and neglect. And once married, the most important emotionally to this person is now the spouse.
Research has now confirmed that despite our collective discomfort in discussing it, childhood trauma is widespread. The symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood are equally widespread but poorly understood by the general pubic or the spouse. These are frequent themes in our intensive couple retreats.
Developmental Trauma has a deep impact on the adult who is yet to be, and 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.
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:
Are you a sufferer of Developmental Trauma? Here are the 10 ACE questions.
Total up the number of checks.
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 change the structure and function of our brains and nervous systems. Developmental Trauma catches us in a deep 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. The symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood are sometimes subtle, far-reaching, and disguised as something else…alcohol or drug abuse, sexual disinterest or compulsivity (sometimes switching one to the other), unproductive fights, emotional flashbacks and a deep feeling of emptiness. They may be overwhelmed by panic attacks for no apparent reason, or uncooperative without explanation.
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.
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 correctly regulate its fight/flight/freeze response.
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, sexual anorexia, 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 low sexual desire 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, gastrointestinal disorders, self-loathing, and persistent 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 ability to have an adaptive response to adult stresses is severely 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.
What’s most confusing is even when they’re with a sympathetic spouse, the trauma brain is continuously scanning the environment for danger. It often misinterprets things that a partner says or does, as a personal attack. They hear and take offense to what hasn’t been said, they defend to protect themselves without cause, and they can simply leave, either physically or emotionally. Emotions shift dramatically from emotional numbness to overwhelming anger, panic, or confusion.
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. The trauma survivor believes they are actually “crazy” and tries to hide their symptoms. Sex dies between them as emotional intimacy fades.
I recently spoke to one of our clients about his Developmental Trauma. Like many Couples Therapy Inc. 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 unions 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 cling to) 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.
Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood are healed when the developmental trauma is healed.
And yet, the prospects of having to go back to a frightening time and to tell the story of their childhoods is usually avoided.
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 wounded exile in their minds.
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:
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 proper 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 the symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood are relational challenges.
And only a therapeutic approach which emphasizes an 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.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.