John yanked open the curtains at 10.30 am. Light flooded the bedroom as he placed their one year old baby on Susanne as she stumbled into wakefulness, bleary eyed and confused.
“He’s been asking for you,” said John, disappearing downstairs.
In his new role as ‘house-husband’, (after being made redundant) he had decided Susanne, recently returned (reluctantly) to full time work after 9 months at home, had had a long enough weekend lie in, the baby wanted her. The day was already destined not to end well. Susanne reported that she felt shocked into wakefulness, jarred by the sudden noise and light, confused by the instant demands of her little son and completely abandoned by John. Because of her complex developmental childhood trauma history (for which she receives regular therapy) all the alarm bells in her amygdala jangled simultaneously. The stage was set for Susanne to have what John calls, ‘one of her episodes’ which would lead to him walking away from the white hot heat of her anger to ‘defuse’ the situation, which of course it never does as Susanne ends up feeling even more misunderstood and abandoned and can take days to recover her equilibrium while John appears to return to homeostasis quite quickly. She needs resolution, he needs to shut it down to protect himself because not only is it “horrible to be on the receiving end but horrible to watch”.
This is just one of many examples of how this highly intelligent couple unwittingly triggers a trauma response setting them way off course for secure functioning.
There have been a few sessions where Susanne’s PTSD symptoms get spotlighted. Obviously this imbalance doesn’t feel right for Susanne and I wanted to ‘level the playing field’ but try as I might to ‘go after’ John’s triggers, cross check, cross question or even go straight down the middle, his defenses were ironclad. Literally. He participates in Iron Man competitions and has the sturdy barrel chest of those who train extensively. He has crew cut hair and a chiseled, handsome face with a frequent “don’t- mess-with-me” expression. He often leans back in his chair, sometimes hands behind his head, one leg crossed over the other. A man in charge. Susanne has a pretty, oval face with a soulful, sometimes bewildered expression about the eyes. She is French Canadian, he is Australian. English is her second language, she left her native land to live with John in Australia, where he has an ex wife and two young daughters aged 9 and 12.
During one session recently, in their second round of couples therapy,(having returned after several new traumas), Susanne talked about John’s ‘parental tone’, his “over managing” of her life, his confusing use of humour. She often feels criticized although he deflects this with “only joking”, causing her considerable confusion. I looked more closely at John and suddenly I ‘saw’ the little boy behind the ‘man-in-charge’. Stan’s words “go after the baby echoed in my mind. John also has a trauma history with a violent stepfather and a teenage mother who was trying to grow herself up whilst raising little John. He is very protective of his mother, who went on to become a legal-aid lawyer, passionate about children’s justice. I told him I could see how painful it was to think about his boyhood experiences, which of course he denied. This was the first session where John’s iron-clad defenses wobbled. He looked thunderous, said he’d had enough, needed to leave. Susanne said she could not go in the car with him in this ominous mood (car journeys being the site of much psychological bullying with her father).
She nodded after I invited her to look at John and realise that this was about him staying safe, not about threatening her. I turned to him and said words to the effect:
“It’s important for you to be safe John, I can see that, it makes sense that hearing Susanne ‘thundering’ down the stairs that morning after you left the baby with her, caused you to shut down, given what you experienced with your stepfather when he stomped his way along the corridor to your room to punch you so violently you wet yourself. I can really see the pain that young boy John was in, it’s here right now in the room. But right now, it’s important to remember that you are well equipped to look after that boy, be kind to him. This is now and that was then and this is different.”
I turned to Susanne and invited her to recognise the ‘boy’ who was threatening to walk out. He was no menace to her, not her father at all. I reminded them both that they were in each other’s care and that to walk out, wouldn’t help them feel safe. It was important to take a breath and come back to their senses, to this moment, to look at each other’s eyes, (something we’d previously worked on).
Something seemed to shift after this session as they reported having a really good conversation a few days later about how to take better care of each other’s triggers and the next session they were able to do the Lover’s Pose.