We are biologically wired to have relationships. Our central nervous systems gear us to connect with other humans, and our brains are oriented to engage socially, work collaboratively, and defend ourselves individually and collectively for survival.
In addition to responding to neurologically and functionally embedded necessities, having relationships can be deeply emotionally gratifying, providing connection, comfort and soothing, support and nurturing, companionship, and intimacy. Relationships comprise the architecture for trust, sex, sharing, teaching and learning, and the utility and mutual rewards that result from human beings bonding together into communities.
Intimate relationships—including nonsexual ones—are the safe places in which people can be truly themselves, find love and acceptance (warts and all), and fulfill the yearnings for connection that are so vital for emotional flourishing.
However, intimate relationships can also breed ambivalence, conflict, resentment, and trauma. Any emotional and contractual environment that signals dependence and need carries the potential for and probability of mixed allegiances: the ongoing commitment and devotion to the other person in the relationship having to meld with the unfettered assertion of one’s own identity, values, boundaries, desires, and beliefs.
There is an old joke that describes a guy complaining about his dentist, and specifically how painful the visits are and how insensitive the dentist seems to his pain and suffering.
A friend suggests, “Have you discussed these problems with your dentist and your feelings about how he is hurting you?”
“Are you kidding?” cries the man. “I might have to go back to him for treatment!”
Such is the quandary of the potential to become dependent and enmeshed with those we need and who sometimes may ignore, deny, disrespect, or infringe upon us. Intimacy can be a double-edged sword with obvious benefits and prospective risks.
When we attempt to sort out the conflicts, frustrations, and unfulfilled expectations that we could conceivably experience in a relationship, it would be useful to have a guidance system to help us wend our way through feelings of ambivalence, ambiguity, uncertainty, and resentment. The breaches of trust that can occur are best understood if they are viewed in terms of their origins: traumas and grievances.
A trauma may result from the following:
The traditional concept of trauma is predicated on an assumption of a catastrophic event outside the range of usual experience. However, trauma encompasses a much broader range of causal situations and is a very common occurrence. Traumas are universal, and they occur intermittently in everyone’s life. Recovering from traumas is necessary for basic physical functioning and mental and emotional health, and can be accomplished routinely by most people (given the right tools, training, and support).
In order to understand these points, you must start with the assumption that we all have vulnerabilities.
Vulnerabilities make us physically and psychologically prone to attack and to breakdown from life’s events and forces.
As we accumulate experiences and get to know ourselves, we can ideally identify (and often protect ourselves) against many of our own vulnerabilities. Certain vulnerabilities are genetically coded and specific. Vulnerabilities are the weak links that allow us to become ill or dysfunctional in a myriad of ways. For example, it is well known that particular diseases tend to run in families. A family history of heart disease, diabetes, depression, etc. doesn’t determine that you will be afflicted with these conditions, but it does weigh the odds that put you at greater statistical risk.
Trauma occurs when we are caught in an “attack” on one of our “weak links,” whether the attack was intentional, random, or even imagined. The essence of trauma is that it penetrates defenses, seizes upon vulnerability, and leaves us feeling hurt, defenseless, and usually causes us to “relive” in some way the embedded traumatic experience. Common sense observation and your own experiences will confirm this cause and effect link.
After a vehicle accident or near-accident, many people habitually tend to tense up when reminders or even vaguely similar conditions present themselves, as if girding up for another accident. For example, suppose you were in an auto accident that really rattled you, perhaps even injured you. For a long time afterward, you might become anxious when approaching the scene of that accident. Or, say the police were pursuing a speeding car that blew through a red light and almost hit your car. Subsequently, you might panic whenever you hear in the distance the sound of a police siren while you are driving. This reaction evokes both physiological (fight-or-flight) and psychological / mental / emotional responses. The set of defensive responses to an anticipated offending event (in the absence of its presence or direct evidence that it will necessarily occur) is called perseveration: responding to an event that is no longer present.
There are indeed many forms of trauma that occur when people are subjected to harsh conditions, abuse, overwhelming negativity, rejection, racism, isolation, poverty, and so forth. For many people, however, it is overwhelming enough even to have to deal with the more mundane traumas that result from the daily interactions, demands, and conflicts typically associated with ordinary relationships.
When your spouse, boss, friend, child, relative, partner, teammate, peer does not react in the way you want or expect, it can be emotionally traumatic. You need not be oversensitive or even know that the trauma is occurring. You can, however, tell by the after effects. Remember: the nature of trauma is that it causes us to relive or anticipate an event or reaction that previously left us hurt, shocked, exposed, or defenseless. So, when you find yourself (or your relationship partner) re-visiting the same conflicts, scripts, and (quickly accelerated) emotional responses to the faintest of cues, you will know that a trauma has been incited and activated.
For these traumas, you don’t need access to an emergency room or years of therapy. What you do need is the realization that you are probably reacting to some provocation that stimulates a less than conscious, unresolved emotional vulnerability that initiated a trauma. Such awareness will enable you to see your inner responses and your outward behavior as reactions to a trauma that you may perceive viscerally as necessary, but which are neither a function of choice and clear thinking, nor conducive to planning, keen observation, evaluation, and problem-solving.
Among the many areas that cause disturbance and conflict in relationships are:
When your partner is disinterested in or demanding of sex, when your spouse overspends or won’t spend, when your child defies, disrespects you, or habitually fails to follow through, you may become more than emotionally miffed—you may be traumatized. And when your child is continually on the receiving end of negative feedback, he/she too may be traumatized.
One of the most common complaints—and the one that underlies disinterest, lack of motivation, and “negative forecasting”—is some version of:
“No matter what I do, it won’t be good enough.”
And with that signature, the disappointed and traumatized person further disengages from the connection in the relationship. When we feel that there is no use, no good anticipated outcome, we try less or stop trying altogether.
We are so caught up in defending and protecting ourselves, in rationalizing our point of view and “rightness” about situations, beliefs, and needs that we often neglect to be objective. Objectivity is critical for having sympathy for and receptivity to the other person and also for shaping procedures for successful negotiation, compromise, rational decision-making, and accountability. Being objective is a practiced skill, and it does not mean that you abandon your emotional investment or your values and beliefs. Your emotions, values, reasoning, and beliefs should help you to be grounded, confident, and secure, rather than launch you into battle upon the slightest provocation or perceived threat. When you overreact, you can be sure that this is linked to trauma.
To be clear: by linking trauma to the emotional overreactions triggered by disputes, disappointments, and resentments in your relationships, I’m not pontificating about some mysterious childhood experience buried deep in your subconscious. I’m highlighting a repetitive (often automatic) emotional overreaction (either internally, externally, or both) to a relationship dissatisfaction or provocation that becomes overextended because it accesses some trauma related to the person, interaction, or topic. This overextension causes anguish, reflexively selfish, defensive, and protective behavior, and sometimes attack or lashing out. The reaction is counterproductive and inimical to intimacy, positive connection, and problem resolution.
When you identify the reaction as a response to trauma and you deal with the trauma (the context) as separate from the topic of dispute (the content), you can calm down, feel better, and consciously choose to engage in connection, intimacy, and the potential for resolution.
In order to effectively do this, you need also to understand and articulate grievances and to differentiate the rationale and evidence of the dispute from the emotional overlay that disguises it.
We typically find the word grievance in a formal context, such as a court proceeding or a labor dispute. This is in accordance with living in a rule-based society where there are procedures for petitioning or complaining about violations and transgressions of the codified rules.
A grievance can be:
In presenting a grievance, the person petitioning or complaining (yes, this word is legitimate) must do two things:
Grievances are based upon breaches of contracts or agreements; these breaches are, in essence, violations of rules. Some rules are written into law, while others are commonly accepted by values in the culture of concern.
For example, if you withhold money from someone or some agency that makes a demand upon you, it is required that you establish a reason for not paying (e.g., failure to perform as promised). It is not sufficient to say that you “feel” that you do not owe the money.
If a student challenges a grade received, he must reference the basis upon which the grading was made or was said to have been made, and he must match his performance in regard to such standards.
To expand upon this concept and to make it relevant to your issues and relationships, think of a situation or two in which you believe (and feel) that someone has wronged you. Perhaps a family member treats you poorly or doesn’t respect you. A person disregards your boundaries, takes advantage of you, embarrasses you, or makes you feel diminished. Perhaps you are not given what you are entitled to: affection, intimacy, recognition and acknowledgment, support, credit…
Perhaps you are not listened to, considered, or given a say. Maybe you are blamed for something that you didn’t do, or someone else got off easy when you didn’t.
Surely we all have strong negative feelings when these things happen to us; and, of course, they happen in the natural course of life, often on a regular basis.
To break the cycle of frustration and “hitting your head against a wall” in trying to meet your needs and convince those in relationship with you to accede to your wishes, you will need to form the habits and skills involved in clarifying and articulating grievances. To do so effectively, you must get your emotions under control, identify and separate the traumatic, very personalized responses from the merits of your case, and get your relationship partner to the table (or perhaps a forum with a third party) to present evidence of the transgressions against you and the obligation and feasibility of addressing those violations.
Even when you become skilled in such self-control and interpersonal negotiations, you may not always get what you think you deserve. However, the satisfaction and confidence that accrues from maturely and self-sufficiently dealing with your own overexcitement and negativity will supersede the anguish and frustration of being ignored or mistreated.
No one likes rejection or mistreatment. We all want to get our own way, and each of us thinks he is right (even when, paradoxically, we may not truly believe in ourselves). Even in the face of intransigence, selfishness, and violation on the part of those who are supposed to honor and care for us (or at least be fair), it is routinely viable to consciously separate traumas from grievances, heal our own traumas, and express grievances in a rational, articulate, non-blaming manner, so that the other party can face the real issues and facts without obstructions and the need to resort to defenses in order to ward off drama-laden attacks or runaway emotionality.
Traumas and grievances are inherent parts of reacting emotionally to people who matter to us and to situations that we perceive to threaten our wholeness and sense of fairness. By habitually identifying them and sorting them into separate and connected matters of strong feelings and accountability, we can preserve our sense of integrity and worthiness and create more win-win solutions or at least satisfactory compromises in relationships.