Trauma is a Trickster in Your Marriage
In your marriage, have you ever wondered why?!? – why the overblown emotional reactions?
One day, fifteen years into our marriage, we reached the tipping point. My husband, Carey, and I had endured years of conflict, now layered with ever-growing bitterness and contempt.
On this particular day in early summer, I breezed out of the hospital where I worked and into the front seat of Carey’s Mazda. I looked forward to catching a lunch with him, just the two of us. The last of the cold bite in the air had been replaced with tropical warmth. It felt good as I breathed it in.
The lightness of my mood didn’t last.
As soon as I closed the car door, Carey muttered something about how I had kept him waiting. My attempt to explain my tardiness didn’t help. He criticized again. And in rushed the flood of frustration and resentment I had held back since our most recent unresolved argument.
Keeping our lunch date suddenly seemed futile. Anyway, now I wasn’t hungry. Thick and suffocating silence hung between us. My hope for a better connection this time disappeared.
We Were Stuck in a Rut
This day’s argument followed the same old pattern. I got upset over something Carey said and shut down. Carey responded by trying, progressively more insistently, to provoke a response from me. The more he tried, the more upset I became. The angrier I felt, the more I withdrew into my silent and zoned-out world. And then at some point, I would break the silence and explode into either anger or tears.
It was as though this pattern had worn a rut so deep, neither of us could steer us out of it. We were stuck.
This day I gave up holding them back. Once again, more tears. Head tilted toward the passenger window, I watched as drops patterned the sleeve of my navy suit. I looked at my hands clenched in my lap. Gripped with despair, I pulled at my wedding ring and forced it off my finger.
“There,” I said, throwing the ring on the floor at Carey’s feet. “You have it. I don’t want it anymore.”
Inside, I was a tangled mess of conflicting thoughts and emotions, desperate for our marriage to be anything other than what it was. I didn’t want to be divorced, but I couldn’t endure another hour of what our relationship had become. Unwanted anger, bitterness, and resentment filled me, but I didn’t know how to get rid of those feelings. I hated being hateful. And I melted into one more self-pitying episode of “I just can’t do this anymore.”
It became clear to both of us that something needed to change.
“Me and God”
“Me and you – we’ve got this.” I would say that was my heart posture before God when I first started out on my spiritual journey as an adult. I believed that God had something good to add to my life. I said “yes” to God’s wisdom and the teachings of Jesus.
God would add something good and beautiful to my life.
But several years into my marriage and my journey with God, when I started to feel this despair that seemed to rise up from the core of me, what was that? That didn’t fit with my “me and God” approach. It felt deeply rooted, and walking with God didn’t mystically whisk it away.
Ever had that feeling that your negative emotions come from a deep source that doesn’t seem to make any sense?
I came to realize over the years of our marriage struggles that there was deep-seated pain I had buried away. It wasn’t until several years after we said “yes” to each other that the clues to the inward effects of trauma began to be revealed.
Here’s what seemed to be true: I had all these negative feelings of anger, frustration and sadness, and who else was close by but Carey? My instinctive reaction was that Carey must be to blame.
Trauma is a trickster.
Carey may have slipped up at a level of 2 or 3 out of 10, but my response was a 7 or a 9. You see, the effects of trauma are deeply buried. My defense mechanisms which I’ll say more about below, are second nature. They are so familiar that they seem to be completely normal. According to me.
And that’s how blinding the impact of trauma can be. The problem with the, ‘Hey God, come along with me’ approach to spiritual life is that me along with my blind spots are still in the lead. Thoroughly ingrained in my personality are the behaviours that helped me survive, but those same behaviours impede intimate connection with other humans AND with God.
I lived blissfully unaware of my personality survival tactics.
Until I got married.
“Only you – God”
Finally, Carey and I reached the point where we both felt deeply hurt, fed up and stuck. One night after a particularly acrimonious argument, we even wondered, “Is this what the end looks like?”
At that point, one truth crystallized for me. I needed a new approach to our relationship, or we would be done.
Around that time, this captured my attention: “God opposes the proud, but shows favour to the humble.”
No question I wanted God’s favour over opposition. Was pride underneath some of my behaviour? As I realized this in the desperation of our marriage, I turned my focus on humility.
I eventually grew to pray, “Only you, God. I can’t keep holding onto my ways and adding you in for good measure. Being humble means giving up my ways. Only your ways will lead me out of the mess I’m bringing to our marriage.”
Once I accepted there were some problems with my ways, God began to reveal how my childhood responses to the hurts of my past were driving my overblown emotional reactions. My natural instincts weren’t all good. Some of them were self-sabotaging, not only in our marriage but in other areas of my life as well.
There were some self-defeating lies buried where I couldn’t see them. When I was young, hurt and vulnerable, there were conclusions that helped me make sense of my circumstances, that I had assumed were true. I acted as if they were true for many of my adult years. These self-limiting lies included, “I’m better off alone” and “my voice doesn’t matter” and “I’m not worthy of anyone’s time and attention”.
The time I spent in prayer, reading and meditating on God’s word, listening to Spirit-inspired messages, reading wise authors, seeking advice from counsellors and mentors and exploring inner healing were all portions of the path that exposed these hidden wounds and distorted, unspoken beliefs.
It didn’t stop there. I had adopted some habits born out of baggage that needed to go. Habits like,
- Self -defensiveness:
Based on the false belief that If I don’t defend myself, no one will, it was hard for me to hear complaints or correction from Carey. The truth is, I can listen to feedback that I might experience as hurtful without being defensive. Not being defensive has taught me so much. Jesus is the only defender I need.
Based on the misconception that planning to do something is doing something, I wasn’t making as much progress in my life as I could have been. I’m planning and intending to do this – therefore, I’m doing it. Perhaps like you, I had a hard time getting out of my own head. I confused talking with acting. Jesus equips you and I to break through our fears and put love into action.
The hidden lie that “I’m better off alone” led me naturally into avoiding authentic friendship and becoming socially isolated. I’m the only one I can rely on – I will make it on my own is an anti-God approach to life. God intrinsically is three-in-one, and we’re created in his image. Jesus carried out his ministry in the company of close friends. There are key learnings about life, yourself and God that you will only acquire through someone else. The truth is, I need to rely on God and others to be fully alive.
You and I live in a broken world. You and I have human impulses to blame, and the deceptions around and within are many. Jesus warned we have an unseen enemy whose only role on earth is to destroy beautiful life. The human tendencies you have, as naturally as they developed during your times of pain or sorrow, may be holding you back in your marriage and your life.
Maybe your own self-limiting lies and habits are creating chaos?
It doesn’t need to stay that way. In his unhurried and beautiful way, Jesus will show you what lurks beneath the surface when you ask. Pray, “See if there is any offensive way in me…” Ask Jesus to expose it to you. Jesus will bring you insight and will show you the better way, if you ask. When you lean in with humility and expectancy, and pray, “Come, Holy Spirit”, you will have your own ‘aha’ moments. Remember God’s design to include trusted other people in your search. You will see those untruths for what they are, so you can discard them. You will grow. You’ll be cooperating with what Jesus came to give you – fullness of life and more love, more joy, more peace.
Healing from the impacts of trauma does a world of good in a marriage.
You see, Carey and I struggled to take the first baby steps toward inner healing during the rough times. We had to fight against our emotions and decide to put our counsellor’s advice into action. We stumbled, we fell, and we had to pick ourselves up and try again. Over and over again. But we weren’t alone, and Jesus did indeed hold us together when we ourselves felt broken.
From Throwaway to Priceless
Carey eventually bought me a new wedding ring. It didn’t cost us a fortune and it isn’t flashy, but it fits me perfectly, and I see it as priceless. It’s a symbol of our better version of us, the one that feels fully alive.
Replacing the old ring with a new one doesn’t fully represent our path, though. It might come closer if we’d taken the old ring (which I eventually picked up off the car floor, by the way), melted it down, and fashioned it into a new one. Then the messy transition from old to new would be part of the picture.
There were times when the reforming of “us” felt as though we were going through the fire and, somehow, making it out the other side. That messy transition from the throwaway version of our marriage to the priceless one may just be the most vital part of the story. We traversed a determined and at times painful journey that led us to the marriage that does measure up to our wedding-day dreams.
I’m ever grateful I didn’t leave.
 1 Peter 5:5, New International Version (NIV)
 Romans 8: 33- 34, NIV
 1 John 3:18, NIV
 Romans 12:5, NIV
 Psalm 139: 24
 Ecclesiastes 4:12, NIV