Dissociation is a way people, to varying degrees, disconnect from their thoughts and feelings in order to avoid pain or traumatic memories. It is a refuge of sorts into an altered state of mind that is often characterized by obsessive thoughts, fantasies, or even non-thinking states. It can be employed consciously or unconsciously as a defense mechanism and can range in intensity from mild daydreams to feeling separate from one’s body.
In this time of advanced technology (societal dissociation?), dissociating is easier than ever. You can simply turn on the television or, better yet, turn on your computer or mobile device and find yourself on a high-speed train through the internet highway, encountering all kinds of people, distracting yourself with all kinds of information, and stimulating yourself in all kinds of ways. All the while, your body is there, in the chair or wherever it is, coping with the emotional unrest residing deep inside.
Although dissociation can be an effective short-term strategy for pain management, it often wreaks havoc on relationships.
The Impact of Dissociation on Relationships
Relationships flourish when the participants relate to each other, which requires mutual sharing of thoughts and feelings not just about each other but about their lives and the world around them, about their pasts, and about the future. Relating is the “food” of a relationship.
Dissociation can distress relationships because it undermines the ability to relate and thus starves the relationship over time.
Dissociation can distress relationships because it undermines the ability to relate and thus starves the relationship over time. It is a bit of a catch-22: people often (unconsciously) choose partners who will bring up elements of their painful past in order to grow, heal, and develop. For those who dissociated during that original pain, however, employing the strategy now starves the relationship of the food of relating to each other.
Many people who frequently dissociate find that relationships can feel quite stifling. Inevitably, painful memories and feelings arise in the relationship and they (unconsciously) dissociate. At the same time, they see this other person there feeling hurt that they’ve disconnected or “left,” and feel trapped. They can’t leave, but they can’t stay, either. It can feel agonizing, lonely, and confusing to both partners when dissociation occurs.
How Couples Counseling Can Help
A good couples counselor can be an invaluable resource and guide to finding a new way forward, both for the individual who dissociates and for the distressed couple. Specifically, couples counseling can help by:
- Identifying and naming the issue: It may be hard for a couple to recognize that dissociation is causing distress in the relationship because it often is an unconscious coping process and is easily confused for intentional emotional distancing. If there is something beyond dissociation going on—and there often is—a therapist should be able to help identify that, too.
- Helping the couple understand what’s going on: Dissociation often leaves the other partner feeling abandoned, unheard, and unloved. A therapist can help both people recognize that this is not about a lack of interest or love but rather a deep survival mechanism. A dissociating person typically only wants to feel better, not make their partner feel bad.
- Making space to slowly reduce dissociative symptoms: This is vital. A therapist can slow things down enough to help each person observe the dissociation and, over time, feel into the pain as a means of reducing symptoms.
- Helping the couple find new skills: This is the creative aspect of therapy—helping the couple discover new ways to respond when painful feelings and memories arise.
If there is unresolved pain or trauma in the background of your relationship and you suspect dissociation may be hurting your ability to relate to your partner, contact a trained and compassionate couples counselor. You don’t have to suffer alone.
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