When couples come to us for treatment, they have frequently been struggling with the dysregulated emotions of trauma. Their right brains have been correctly mutually creating an outlet for these unmetabolized emotions through their recycling dramas, but the partners usually do not know what to do with them and have almost always developed a sizable amount of fear around their expression.
The experts in trauma theory (Bessel van der Kolk, Judith Herman, and Lenore Terr, to name a few) have made it clear that in order for a painful, disruptive event to be experienced as traumatic it must include an experience of loss of control. There is a perceived threat to continued existence and/or the ability to remain mentally intact, because the victim of a trauma is unable to “make it stop”. In fact, trauma experts tell us that it is precisely this helplessness that makes the event traumatic. Because of its focus on maintaining survival, the human brain reacts with panic to the experience of helplessness. So it is the loss of control that is traumatic.
Dysregulated emotions are by definition out of control. When they show up in couples treatment they are always a demonstration of historical trauma, making couples therapy the perfect venue for accessing them. The appearance of dysregulated emotions show the therapist and the partner the out-of-control aspect of what their right brain has stored about their trauma. The therapist is then called upon to do a delicate “balancing act”–to collaboratively reduce the threat level enough for both partners to be able to talk about the emotions that have been triggered without shutting down the out-of-control feeling that is needing to be experienced and witnessed. The “out-of-control-ness” of these dysregulated emotions must be lived by all three people in the room to demonstrate tolerance for fully knowing and feeling the exact nature of the historical trauma.
Control is a hot issue in intimate partnerships. There is the attempt to control the other in a nonconscious effort to prevent repetition of the original trauma. There is the fear of loss of control, with the shame of the original trauma being relived through the shame of losing control of one’s feelings. Therapists who respond to over-controlling or loss of control with a focus on safe curiosity rather than immediate regulating and shaming open the possibility that both partners will allow a “deep dive” into the origins of their feelings around control. Shame, terror and rage can then be verbalized and attached to the original childhood trauma, instead of to the current relationship.
As the therapist, if you are feeling anxious or frightened by a client’s out-of-control behavior, say so. The message to your client is, “I can’t think and respond to your needs if I’m too scared, and neither can your partner, but we both want to know why you’re feeling out of control right now.”