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Working With a Couple Who Have a Trauma History

Amanda Woolveridge, M.App.sci.
PACT Level II
Sydney, Australia
amandawoolveridgecounselling.com.au

John yanked open the curtains at 10:30 am. Light flooded the bedroom as he placed their one-year-old baby on Susanne, who looked bleary eyed and confused as she struggled to wake up. “He’s been asking for you,” John said, before he disappeared downstairs. In his role as house husband, he had decided that Susanne, who had reluctantly returned to full time work after 9 months at home, had slept in long enough for a weekend.

The day was not off to a good start for Susanne. 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, all the alarm bells in her amygdala jangled simultaneously. The stage was set for her to have what John calls “one of her episodes.” She came thundering down the stairs to let him have it, which led to him walking away from her white hot anger in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Which, in turn, led to Susanne feeling even more misunderstood and abandoned. While John could return to homeostasis quite quickly, it took Susanne days to recover her equilibrium. She needed resolution; he, on the other hand, needed to shut down to protect himself. As a result, this couple unwittingly triggered a trauma response that set them off course and kept them from secure functioning.

In therapy, I wanted to level the playing field. However, although I tried to go after John’s triggers with the PACT skills of cross checking, cross questioning, and even going down the middle, initially his defenses remained ironclad. Literally: he participates in Iron Man competitions and has the sturdy barrel chest of those who train extensively. He has a crew cut and a chiseled face, with a frequent don’t-mess-with-me expression. He often leans back in his chair, sometimes with hands behind his head, one leg crossed over the other. A man in charge. Susanne, on the other hand, has an oval face, with a soulful, sometimes bewildered expression about the eyes.

During one session, Susanne talked about John’s parental tone, his over-managing of her life, and his confusing use of humor. She often feels criticized, which he deflects by saying he is “only joking,” causing her considerable confusion. At that point, I looked more closely at John, and I was able to see the little boy behind the man-in-charge. This brought to mind the PACT motto “Go after the baby.” John also has a trauma history, with a violent stepfather and a teenage mother who was trying to grow up while raising little John. So I told him I could see how painful it was to think about his boyhood experiences. Which he denied. Nevertheless, that was the first session in which John’s ironclad defenses wobbled. He said he’d had enough and needed to leave. Susanne said she could not go in the car with him in this ominous mood.

She nodded after I invited her to look at John and realize that this was about him staying safe, not about threatening her.

I turned to him and said, “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 when your stepfather stomped down 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 recognize the boy who was threatening to walk out. He was no menace to her, and was not her father at all.

I reminded them both of the PACT principle 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 shifted after this session, and they reported having a really good conversation a few days later about how to take better care of each other. During the next session, they were able to do the PACT exercise called Lovers’ Pose to help them move beyond their defences and their triggers, and build trust between them.


2 Comments

  1. melissaferrari says:

    Such a great explanation of using PACT. Wonderful article my Aussie colleague.

    Like

  2. Amanda Elizabeth Howe says:

    Yes I agree with Melissa, great article Amanda. You have written a wonderful piece on how to work with a couples implicit defence patterns and how to help break this down, thank you

    Like

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