Before you pick up that verbal knife, before you brick yourself in even further, let me remind you that you love this person. And therein lies the rub, my friend. Do you remember, really, in that heated moment when fear or righteous anger courses through your veins, that you love this person? Do you remember it when your body shuts down and, for the life of you, you can barely squeak out a word or two? The sobering answer, if you’re dead honest with yourself, is that you do not. In that heated moment, the sweetness between you, the sense of the two of you as a team facing the world together, the sense of us, is nearly impossible to locate.
The good news is that the love is still there. The bad news is that it’s stored in parts of your brain, body, and nervous system that, in those flash moments, you no longer inhabit. Your endocrine system is on high alert, pumping stimulants into your bloodstream. Your autonomic nervous system—far below your consciousness—is in fight-or-flight, spurring you on or shutting you down. The higher functions of your brain (the prefrontal cortex, the reins) have gone completely offline, while the more primitive parts of your brain (the limbic system, particularly the amygdalae) have decisively taken over.
At those times, the brain is in a state in which the prefrontal cortex is neither connected to nor soothing the subcortical system. Without that soothing and connection, we lose a pause between what we feel and what we do. These more primitive parts of our bodies and brains care only about our personal survival; they have no interest in maintaining the vulnerability of intimacy. Us evaporates and becomes you and me, adversaries in a cold world of I win, you lose.
Us is the seat of closeness. You and me is the seat of adversarial contest. You and me is great when you are confronting a tiger, but less so when you are confronting your spouse, your boss, or your child. In those fraught moments, what makes it so hard to keep a cool head is a million or so years of evolution, plus one other powerful force: trauma. Trauma pulls you into survival mode, in which you are clenching your fists for the fight or clamping your jaws shut like a fortress. And the more trauma you sustained as a child, the more compelling you and me becomes.
If you are thinking, Well, gosh, I didn’t have much trauma growing up, my answer is maybe. We’ll talk about it later. But before you make up your mind, why not settle into my discussion of childhood trauma? Because sometimes it doesn’t take much. Depending on your constitution and a host of other variables, it may take only a slight tap on the egg to produce fissures that can last a lifetime.
What’s Your Trauma?
When I’m working with a couple, I have one important question in my mind. It’s not What are the stressors? Stressors—like the pandemic, money woes, mismatched sex drives, kids, and in-laws—are all important, but a well-functioning couple can handle a reasonable amount of stress. The critical question I think about is not even What is the dynamic, the choreography, between you? That’s also an important question, but it’s not the most essential. The central question I ask myself during a therapy session is simply this one: Which part of you am I talking to?
Am I talking to the mature part of you, the one who’s present in the here and now? This is the part I call the Wise Adult. That’s the part that cares about us. Or am I speaking to a triggered part of you, to your adversarial you and me consciousness? The triggered part of you sees things through the prism of the past. I believe there’s no such thing as overreacting; it’s just that what someone is reacting to may no longer be what’s in front of them. One of the blessings that partners in intimate relationships bestow upon each other is the simple and healing gift of their presence. But in order to be present with your partner, you must yourself be in the present, not saturated by your past.
The phrase trauma memory is really a misnomer. You don’t remember trauma; you relive it. The combat vet who hears a car backfire and suddenly spins around like he’s gripping a rifle is not thinking, Now I’m walking down Main Street remembering combat. In that flash moment, the vet is viscerally back at war. The past superimposes itself onto the present, fundamentally confusing the mind. When our trauma is triggered, we might physically spring into fight-or-flight mode. Faced with an overwhelming shock—infidelity, for example—I’ve seen patients gasp and head for the door before they came to in my hallway.
But most of us do not reenact the experience of the trauma itself. Instead, we act out the coping strategy that we evolved to deal with it. You were emotionally abandoned throughout your childhood, and so you’ve grown into a charming seducer, expert at securing others’ attention. Or you were intruded upon as a child, and now you operate behind walls; you are adept at keeping people out. I speak of this compensating part of us as the Adaptive Child.
One of my great mentors, Pia Mellody, spoke of the Adaptive Child as a “kid in grown-up’s clothing.” The Adaptive Child is a child’s version of an adult, the you that you cobbled together in the absence of healthy parenting. Here’s a chart detailing the traits of the Adaptive Child, as distinct from the Wise Adult.
Adaptive Child Wise Adult
Black & White Nuanced
Tight in body Relaxed in body
I’d like you to notice a few things as you look at this chart. First of all, see how tight, certain, and black and white the Adaptive Child is? One of my clients said that her Adaptive Child was like a little fundamentalist who lived inside her. This is in contrast to the flexibility, humility, and appreciation of nuance that are characteristic of the Wise Adult—qualities you may also recognize, from the literature on adult development, as those associated with emotional maturity.