In Part 1, I observed that for trauma survivors, romantic relationships are like extreme sports such as rock or ice climbing. With this metaphor in mind, I offered the following relationship preparation guidelines:
1. Understand what you are embarking on (risks and rewards);
2. Practice resilience and strength-building routines;
In Part 2, I will finish up the first guideline, and cover the next two.
1) RECAP: UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE EMBARKING ON (RISKS AND REWARDS)
Part One was about naming the risks for trauma survivors in love. I described how it is common for us trauma survivors to “flip out” over small things such as our partner being inconsiderate, or looking at us a particular way.
Our implicit trauma memories sound these alarms when a dangerous situation from our past becomes superimposed onto our present.
In sum, dating a trauma survivor is a challenge, because we are easily triggered. Two (or more) trauma survivors dating one another can become a trigger-fest.
Yet there are advantages to being two (or more) survivors in love. You can understand and empathize with each other’s struggles more than a non-survivor could.
You “get” how brave your partner is, because you know how much courage it takes for you to be in intimate relationship when your amydala keeps screaming, “danger!’
Another advantage is the opportunity to be each other’s allies in healing. For instance, you can build healing routines into your shared activities (more about this in Guideline 3).
Or, you can incorporate trauma healing into your “mission statement.” Just as some romantic partners dedicate their relationship to serving the planet or facilitating spiritual growth, you can decide to co-create a trauma healing relationship.
Finally, during those times when only one of you is triggered (it happens!), you can take turns offering support and reminding each other why your extreme sport adventure is worth it.
2) PRACTICE RESILIENCE AND STRENGTH-BUILDING ROUTINES
Just as a new ice climber prepares their body for high altitude climbing, in the same way, trauma survivors need to prepare ourselves to meet the challenges of relationship.
The two sides of this preparation are Developing Self-care Routines, and Ongoing Trauma Healing Work.
Children who face trauma are too busy surviving to acquire solid self-care habits, and sometimes their caregivers model neglect.
As a result, adult survivors of trauma may lack basic self-care skills, such as getting enough sleep, taking care of our teeth, eating healthy meals, or managing our money. It may be difficult for us to exercise, relax, or groom ourselves.
Now is a fine time to acquire these skills. To avoid overwhelm, start small. Choose a modest goal to work on for a month or two. To develop better sleep habits, you might try going to bed ten minutes earlier than usual for at least four nights a week.
Then see how it goes. Small successes build your confidence and momentum. Repeating something over and over gradually turns it into an automatic behavior, and each repetition reinforces the message that you are caring for you.
Don’t be afraid to be unorthodox—experiment until you find out what gets you to do the new thing you want to do, and then repeat that strategy!
Let me give you an example. I hate washing dishes (but love to cook). I have discovered a game that improves my dishwashing. I wash ten—and only ten—dishes.
Then I do something else for ten minutes. I go back and wash ten more dishes (cutlery counts!) and do something else. When I repeat this over a few hours, the dishes get done, with a minimum of suffering.
Why are self-care routines important for trauma survivors in love? When we cultivate a baseline of physical and emotional wellness our resilience is bolstered and it is easier for us to re-center ourselves within the ups and downs of relationship.
Healing complex trauma (vs a single incident trauma) is a multi-year process. Part of this healing work requires the presence of others, such as therapists, somatic coaches, bodyworkers, spiritual guides, and support groups or healing communities.
Since complex traumas are relational wounds, the cure is relational; thus, much of our trauma healing unfolds within trusted relationships.
At the same time, we each must take responsibility for our own healing. This means lots of solo practice time with our chosen healing practices (see Phase 1), and applying what we have learned in our relationships and communities.
Embodying our healing requires consistent, kind self-observation and self-care practice repeated over months or years.
Phases of Trauma Healing
There are three distinct phases of trauma recovery: 1. Safety and Stabilization; 2. Remembrance and Mourning; 3. Reconnection and Integration.
It can be helpful to assess which phase of the trauma healing process you are in, and what your tasks are for that phase.
In Phase 1, the longest phase of healing (perhaps 70% of the process), we learn how to habitually restore our serenity after being triggered. First, we discover which tools reliably restore our sense of safety and self-connection. Second, we practice these tools until they are embodied.
During Phase 2 we use the stable foundation we built in Phase 1 to process the actual trauma. With this foundation we gently unpack the implicit trauma-based memories, decisions and identities held in the body. Phase 2 takes up about 20% of the healing process.
Phase 3 is when we take the healing and insight of Phases 1 and 2 into our relationships.
As we test out our new behaviors and identities with others, we discover that close relationships can be sources of trust and mutual support instead of the sources of shame, abandonment and betrayal that they used to be.
After Phase 3 we may repeat mini 3-phase cycles from time to time as our life experiences stimulate even deeper body memories to rise to the surface.
More About Phase 1
During Phase 1 we learn to safely experience and tolerate a variety of feelings and sensations, including shame, anger, terror, grief, overwhelm, etc. There are a variety of somatic tools that can help us navigate these strong sensations and restore our sense of safety and self-connection.
Your Trigger Go-Tos
An important part of Phase 1 is becoming familiar with what your body does when you are triggered.
Triggers start when our reptilian brain and limbic brains perceive a threat coming our way and swiftly respond to restore us to safety. This reaction is known as the “fight or flight” response.
“Fight or flight” is actually a repertoire of at least five automatic survival responses: fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociate.
The fight response can show up as clenching our jaw and/or fists/arms. In conversation, it can look like defensiveness, or argument.
The flight response can show up as physically leaving the room, or our muscles subtly pulling away from the perceived threat. In conversation it can look like avoiding certain subjects.
The freeze response can show up as silence, holding the breath, or feeling stuck or paralyzed. To others, we may seem poker-faced or extremely calm.
The appease response can show up as smiling, submissive body language, or yielding our personal space to others. It can look like caretaking, “making nice,” or trying to smooth things over by asking sympathetic questions or cracking jokes.
The dissociate response can show up as “checking out” from our experience and not noticing our sensations and feelings. To others it can look like a faraway expression, or seem like we are “not all there.” Dissociation can also show up as emotional detachment, forgetfulness, obsessive thinking, or a drive to “figure out” everything.
To get to know your personal trigger “go-tos,” try to notice the specific sensations present in your body when you are triggered; this somatic awareness will help you “come down” from the triggered state.
Why is ongoing trauma healing work important for trauma survivors in love? Effective trauma healing work gradually sucks the reactivity out of your body, making it easier and less frightening for you to trust and communicate with your loved ones.
Once you have a repertoire of well-practiced self-care routines and some solid trauma healing under your belt, you are ready to practice what I call the Sandbox Approach to Relationships.
The Sandbox Approach to Relationships
The Sandbox Approach is about taking full responsibility for yourself in romantic relationships.
The Sandbox metaphor goes like this: you have a kid, and you decide to bring them to the playground. Your lover also has a kid. You both bring your kids to the sandbox in the playground, where they can play and learn with each other.
In this metaphor, your “kid” and your lover’s kid are your “inner” children (or your psycho-biologies, or your animal bodies, etc.), and you are the parents or stewards of these aspects of yourselves.
When you are on a date or making love, your inner children get to connect and play. It’s playtime. Sandbox time. Sandbox time is a wonderful thing; we are meant to enjoy it.
We are also meant to take care of our inner kids at all times. When you bring your kid to the sandbox, you stick around. You don’t walk away. You supervise them, because you are their parent.
If you don’t like the notion of an “inner child,” use a different metaphor, such as bringing your dog to the dog park, or your animal body to the meadow, or your psycho-biology into the presence of someone else’s psycho-biology. Or bringing your loveable, traumatized, trigger-able self to a party.
In any case, you are the responsible grown-up, the dog owner, the guardian of your sensitive psycho-biology.
You don’t hand over your dog to the other dog owners at the dog park, right? You don’t stick your toddler in a sandbox and walk away, hoping that the other kids and grownups will parent them. No, you stay present while your dog or kid plays and interacts.
You make sure they are safe; make sure they don’t act out and hurt other kids or dogs. That’s the Sandbox Approach—you and your partner(s) are each 100% responsible for your own needs and well being. Your partner is not there to rescue you, parent your inner child, or take care of your inner dog.
When To Step Out of the Sandbox
Now let’s say you are spending some intimate time with your love, which means your inner kids are in the sandbox together. What do you do if your partner’s inner kid starts (metaphorically) throwing sand in your inner kid’s eyes?
You act like a responsible parent, and ask your partner to take care of their kid, and stop the harmful behavior. If they cannot or will not (perhaps they are in “fight or flight” mode), the compassionate and self-responsible thing to do is to step out of the sandbox.
You can have compassion for your partner’s triggered state while removing your kid from harm.
By the same token, you don’t allow your inner kid to throw sand back. When your partner does something you find hurtful and you get triggered; if you find are on the verge of speaking or acting harmfully, it’s time to step out of that interaction. Take a breather.
Now is the time to take your kid out of the sandbox and soothe them. It’s time to take care of your inner dog. Your job is to restore your perspective. Hopefully your partner will do the same. You certainly cannot do it for them!
If both your inner kids are freaking out, if both your psycho-biologies are threatened, it will take at least twenty minutes for the amygdala response to calm down. So this is not the time to “work out” the conflict.
Do not try to offer amends or make requests. Later on you can do these things, and perhaps share with each other what you have learned about your inner children/dogs/psycho-biologies.
I invite you to reflect on the Sandbox Approach. I hope it motivates you to be diligent with your self-care and ongoing trauma healing work, so you can navigate the sandbox with ever-increasing love and wisdom.
If you are hungry for more, Evil Twin work is a proactive way to cultivate self-responsibility.
3) BUILD TRUST; BE EACH OTHER’S ALLIES
This third guideline is analogous to when an ice-climbing crew engages in team building.
Allies in Healing by Laura Davis can help us imagine what sustainable allyship looks like in our romantic relationships.
Trauma survivor partners who want practice mutual support/allyship can: make self-care dates; try some boundary repair practices; and share your trigger go-tos.
Make a date to do one or two self-care practices together, or in parallel.
Pick a practice you both like, and do it together. Here are some practices to try out.
Or, practice different self-care practices while in the same space. One of you could do a restorative yoga pose for twenty minutes while the other one journals or colors.
You can stay home and practice together, or you can go out for your self-care date. Try visiting a bathhouse or sauna, or going on a silent hike in a park.
Trauma destroys our innate boundaries, so it is necessary to rebuild them. First, try these practices with a friend, therapist, somatic practitioner or supportive group.
Once they are familiar, you can practice them with a partner. Boundaries are challenging for trauma survivors, but it doesn’t need to be a grim affair. It can be fun!
Here are some playful, gentle ways to practice healthy boundary skills together.
Take turns giving and receiving “Yes” “No” and “Maybe” boundaries with your partner. Start by standing, facing each other with several feet between you.
When it is your turn to set the boundaries, speak each of these three words aloud, one at a time, while making the following gestures:
“Yes” with arms open at your sides, your palms open and receptive, facing out;
“Maybe” with arms in the “yes” position, with palms open but turned back;
“No” with your arms fully extended at shoulder level, palms forward, fingers up.
Cycle through Y/N/M several times, then switch roles. Whether you are giving or receiving Y/N/M, pay attention to how each one affects your mood and body sensations. Remember to keep your focus on learning about yourself and your partner.
Go! Stop! Practices
Although boundaries are serious business for trauma survivors, playful practices can transform our sense of agency.
These practices can give our bodies an experience of having our choices respected without reservation.
As before, partners take turns giving and receiving boundaries, this time around being looked at or touched.
Both partners sit or stand comfortably. The first person who will be setting the “look at me/stop looking at me” boundary instructs their partner on how to stop looking at them:
“When I say, ‘Stop looking at me,’ I want you to cover your eyes (or look down, or look away, etc).”
The person who will be respecting the boundaries needs to swiftly obey the “stop looking at me” command, so if the requested posture is physically painful for you, suggest another way you can “stop looking” at your partner, until you arrive at a posture that works for both of you.
Once you are set up, the boundary-setter begins, saying “Look at me!” “Stop looking at me!” over and over, at their own pace. Important: the partner who is looking/looking away needs to obey IMMEDIATELY. So pay attention.
You can set a timer for this, or you can just stop when it feels like “enough.” Then switch roles, set it up carefully again, and repeat the practice.
In this practice you take turns giving and receiving boundaried touch. To prepare, each of you chooses a neutral or mildly pleasant place on your body where you are completely comfortable being touched.
The partner who is to receive touch first instructs their partner where and how they are to touch them: “Hold my feet, with your palms on top of my feet, using this much pressure.” Make sure your partner understands and can comfortably do what you want.
Once that is set up, the person who will receive touch commands their partner: “Hold my feet! Stop holding my feet!” (or, “touch my elbow! Stop touching my elbow!” etc.). Important: the partner who is offering touch must obey IMMEDIATELY. So stay present.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be done in a serious manner to “work.” Try using a relaxed, or silly or over-dramatic tone of voice when giving commands. Feel free to experiment with how fast or slow you give the commands. It can be powerful to keep these practices playful.
You may find yourself laughing or giggling (or crying) as your body re-learns that it is allowed to have boundaries. You may find yourself enjoying giving your partner exactly what they want, when they want it.
At the same time—and this is VERY important—the partner being given a boundary needs to obey the Start!/Stop! instructions IMMEDIATELY. If you do, somatic magic can happen. If you do, trust between you and your partner will grow.
However, if you are uncomfortable with these rules; if you find you are not willing to obey your partner’s instructions, then this is not the time for you to engage these practices. For both your sakes, give yourself permission to “opt out.” It’s fine if you are not ready for this exercise. This is just another boundary that deserves respect.
In the same way, if either of you gets tired in the middle of the practice, if it stops being fun for either of you, stop (it’s okay if it’s a little scary or uncomfortable, as long as it’s fun)! Continue another time.
After doing any of these Boundary Repair Practices, take some time afterward to debrief any “ahas.” Share with each other which boundaries were easy or difficult to give or receive.
Our sexual boundaries are often in need of repair, so *after you have experimented with them in nonsexual situations* you might want to bring these practices into your sexual repertoire. There is much to learn here, and much fun to be had.
Also, I invite you to make up your own boundary repairing practices based on these ones, such as, “Come Closer! Step Back!” or “Listen to me! Stop listening to me!”
Tell each other your trigger “go-tos.” Give your partner(s) permission to track your “triggered” body cues. With practice, you can notice early on when your partner has entered their typical fight or flight reaction.
Once you have this information, you have some options:
1. You can make requests of each other. “When I go into freeze mode, I hold my breath, get very quiet and I try not to be noticed. If you see me in this state, can you please do ___ to help me feel safe and ‘come back?’”
Or, “When you see me go into flight mode please give me lots of space. Don’t ask me any questions. That will help me bring myself back to center.”
2. With their consent, reflect back what you observe in your partner’s body, using a neutral tone of voice: “I notice your jaw is clenched and your eyes look hard.” You might add, “I wonder how you are feeling?”
3. Or take number 2. a little further by adding a tentative interpretation: “I wonder if your body feels it needs to fight right now?”
4. You may decide to give your partner (and yourself) some space and time to “come down” before continuing a difficult conversation.
You could say, “I notice your body is doing ____. I am glad your body is taking care of you. I’d like us to wait until we are both more centered before we continue this discussion.”
Why are trust-building and ally practices important for trauma survivors in love? A solid foundation of trust and interdependence helps us access more options when it is time to negotiate, communicate and de-escalate together.
Feeling like a team can get us through the hard times, and sweeten the easy times.
Thanks for reading. Please be gentle with you and your loved ones.
Much gratitude to Phyllis Pay, Denise Benson, and my incredible clients.