Marriages are often perceived by those who aren’t in them or by those who have suffered in them to be a place of restriction, resentment, and lack of understanding. Many other people, meanwhile, consider marriage to be the holy grail, the fountain of youth, and the best thing since sliced bread.
So why are so many bad marriages bad? What do so many of them have in common?
Although it may be a gross overgeneralization, trauma is often a major culprit. It’s sneaky, hides in the darkest and deepest places within a person, and boy, is it persistent!
If you’re married, I want you to reflect on your life and your marriage. What experiences have you had that could be affecting your marriage today? If you are having trouble coming up with answers, let me cite a handful I have seen come into play: growing up in a single-parent home, economic struggles, parental infidelity or divorce/separation, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, lack of affection, trust breaches, deployment, illness, death of a loved one, miscarriage, even the birth of a child (yes, that can be traumatic, too!). I can list pages of experiences that might be considered traumautic.
For the purposes of explaining how trauma can undermine a marriage, I am going to use the example of childhood sexual abuse experienced by a female.
When Childhood Traumas Haunt Adult Relationships
Elliott and Briere (1992) confirmed their long-held belief that women who experience childhood sexual abuse were not only more likely to have symptoms of posttraumatic stress, but also to have increased negative outcomes across several areas, including their marriages. For example, women participating in the study who had been sexually abused were more likely to have reported divorces than their non-sexually abused counterparts.
The fact the extent of the abuse (whether it was an inappropriate lap-sit or a long-term incestuous relationship) did not correlate to better or worse outcomes is important to consider in the context of relationship issues. The presence of ANY sexual abuse, no matter its form or extent, may be detrimental to a person’s relationships in the long run.
So if someone wants to prevent sexual trauma from affecting their marriage, what should they do? Where should they go?
The Role of Therapy
Time and time again, couples counseling has paid off for people who worked through such trauma together. In a research study by Macintosh and Johnson (2008), dealing with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse helped more than half of participating couples achieve improved relationships.
My suggestion, however, is for couples in situations like this to go beyond couples counseling and for each partner to also pursue individual therapy. Many therapists will see both partners individually as well as together. If you choose this route, it is important to do your research on prospective therapists. Generally speaking, you want someone who specializes in or is highly experienced with trauma.
What to Expect During a Consultation
In my own practice, my routine is to meet with couples prior to beginning treatment for a consultation where I listen to general issues and history (I always assess for trauma), formulate a treatment plan, and give an estimation of therapy length. I talk about the risks, some of the difficulties, and the importance of the couple’s engagement and commitment to doing the needed work. Then I let the couple decide if they want to schedule a session.
No one gets the same treatment plan or approach. Some couples see me individually as well as in couples counseling, while in other cases I see the couple together only. For some, I may even suggest a different therapist to provide the individual or couples therapy.
Whatever you pursue and whoever you choose to pursue it with, please make sure it is a good fit.
- Elliott, D. M., & Briere, J. (1992). Sexual abuse trauma among professional women: Validating the Trauma Symptom Checklist-40 (TSC-40). Child Abuse & Neglect, 16(3), 391-398. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(92)90048-v
- Macintosh, H. B., & Johnson, S. (2008). Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples and Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(3), 298-315. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00074.x
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