How Does Prior Trauma Impact a Couple’s Relationship?

Tori Olds, a therapist at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, TX, talks about how prior trauma can impact your relationships and what to do as a couple when one partner seems to be projecting past memories onto the other.


Our Romantic Partner Opens Up the Family File In Our Head

Any previous negative experiences get imported directly when being with a romantic, committed partner. The reasons for that have to do with the fact that our romantic partner is someone we really depend on. They’re family, so they’re going to open up the family file in our head. And all of the things that we learned growing up, all of those adaptations and expectations that we talked about with attachment theory are going to be really salient when we’re in front of our partner.

Implicit Memory Is Like the Opposite of Déjà Vu

I’ll give an example. If a woman was often shamed by her dad, then when her husband says something a little bit critical she’ll read it as intense shaming and then all of the feelings about that are going to come up. This has to do with implicit memory. Implicit memory is when there’s not a timestamp on the memory, so we are having the memory but we don’t have the sensation of having a memory. It’s like the opposite of déjà vu where we’re actually having a memory but we feel like it’s happening right now.

We All Have Little Flashbacks

The most extreme example of that would be a flashback. In a flashback, we’re suddenly back there reliving it, we’re thinking everybody around us are the people from our memory. So, we all have little versions of a flashback, especially when it’s a trauma because trauma is more likely to be encoded implicitly. So, when it comes again, we get confused. It’s like we are having all those feelings about that negative experience, but we don’t realize we’re having them, we’re just remembering the feeling. We think that remembered feeling has something to do with the present.

In the example of a woman that’s had a lot of shame, it’s as though her partner’s voice or something triggered a memory—that’s all—because we work with associations, so it’s an association that triggered the memory of being shamed that unconsciously brought that up. But then all of the feelings about it, that feeling of feeling like a little girl, being so small, that gets triggered as if it’s alive, happening now and we think it’s happening again.

And that’s why we project that they are shaming us and then we have all the stuff, the anger, then people get really mad at their partner, attacking. They don’t even know what’s going on but suddenly they’re in fight or flight and in that part of their brain without being aware of it. They’re attacking because they don’t feel safe and then that triggers the other person’s trauma and implicit memory and they’re going back and forth.

It’s Really Important Not to Shame Your Partner

None of that is conscious and the partner is thinking, “Wow, that seems like such an overreaction,” but it’s really important not to shame it because we all have those kinds of implicit memories, this unresolved stuff. We don’t ever want to shame it or think, “Don’t make me into your mother” or something like that. I hear people say things like that and it’s like “No, no, no!” Who else are they going to make into their mother if not you? That makes sense. It’s human nature to do that. You can’t tell someone not to do that.

In couple’s therapy, we would work with what do you do at that moment when you realize that that is what’s happening. All of this draws straight from the work of Dr. Stan Tatkin, who is a mentor of mine. I recommend my couples listen to his audio lecture called “Your Brain on Love,” because it really elucidates these topics of how to deal with each person’s brain in a healthy way.

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