Focus on the Family

Is Childhood Trauma Impacting Your Marriage?

Childhood trauma
Each person comes to their wedding with a unique set of life experiences and levels of childhood trauma that impact the marriage relationship.

One afternoon, my neighbor telephoned and quickly turned the conversation to the event that had been the topic of conversation in our community. According to the news story, an elderly woman tossed lighter fluid on her husband and lit a match. Thankfully, no serious harm was done, and the authorities intervened.

What Was She Thinking?

I wondered, did the woman have a break with reality? Did mental illness run in the family?

My friend spoke quietly, seriously. “I know why she did it.” There was a pause. “I’ve made an appointment for counseling and wondered if you would watch the children for me?”

For several months her children had a weekly play date with mine while she and her counselor worked together.

Each individual comes to their wedding with a unique set of life experiences and levels of childhood trauma that impact the marriage relationship. Depending on countless factors, some experiences can be traumatic and have long-range impacts on the individual, the marriage, and the family. Developed by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the ACE assessment, used by physicians to wholistically assess young patients, lists ten adverse childhood experiences that can negatively impact emotional, physical, and spiritual health and wellness in adulthood.

According to Harris, in her book The Deepest Well, a score of four on the ACE assessment often shows up in health concerns from asthma to heart issues and stroke. A score of seven or more can trigger learning problems and depression. Emotionally, an ACE score can contribute to exaggerated reactions, control issues, or the inability to form deep relational connections. Childhood experiences can make it difficult for an adult to relate to or trust God. Together, all of these factors influence how a husband and wife relate, react, and respond to one another.

Measure The Impact of Childhood Trauma

According to the Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University, the ACE assessment asks: Before your 18th birthday…

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often swear at you, insult or humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you, or hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
  3. Did an adult or person at least five years older than you touch, fondle you, or have you touch their body in a sexual way? Or attempt oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
  4. Did you often feel no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Or that your family didn’t look out for, feel close to, or support each other?
  5. Did you often feel you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you, or that your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
  6. Were your parents separated or divorced?
  7. Was your mother or stepmother often pushed, grabbed, slapped, had something thrown at her, or threatened with a gun or knife?
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker, alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
  9. Was a household member depressed, or mentally ill, or did they attempt suicide?
  10. Did a household member go to prison?

Formational experiences such as this list of ten leave imprints that make their appearance in the marriage relationship. The intensity of the reaction stemming from hidden childhood trauma can leave those around wondering what just happened and cause family members to walk on eggshells.

Childhood Trauma’s Impact on Marriage

Our body was created to uniquely react to trauma. In a naturally occurring sequence, trauma causes the thinking part of our brain — the cerebrum located in the front of our head — to go offline. In an emergency, the thinking part of our brain is disconnected and the flight, fight, freeze, or please mechanism takes over. That flight, fight, freeze, or please section of the brain, the amygdala, is adjacent to the memory-making department. How often has a smell, sound, or taste triggered an unwanted ricochet back to the trauma we prefer to not recall?

When we see ourselves or our spouse doing something that isn’t kind, smart, or respectful, the truth is the thinking part of that brain is probably not thinking at all. Reasoning is impossible when the cerebrum is offline. Instead, we merely react rather than thoughtfully respond. We are not thinking.

And because trauma can be a regular occurrence, we continue to react rather than reason. Today’s challenges can be the catalyst for the fight, flight, freeze, or please response. A severed relationship, relocation, change in finances, new job, legal issues, illness, or other upheavals can trigger emotional or mental complications. Like the woman in the news story, the reaction may seem excessive, even outrageous. The reality is the turmoil for that person who already has a history of adverse experiences is perpetual, keeping life off balance and the amygdala’s fight, flight, freeze, or please protective mechanism on constant alert. When our emergency system is activated, our thinking and reasoning system is not. For a significant portion of the population, what began as adverse childhood experiences continue to impact today’s marriage relationships.

React or Respond to Childhood Trauma

Recognizing that we are reacting rather than responding is step one. Jeanne Zehr, Ph.D. of Mind Cap Cognitive Advantage Program recommends investing a few minutes to do square breathing. This practice, used by the Navy SEALS, reduces stress and its impact while heightening concentration and performance. Square breathing can remind the cerebrum to get back online.

  1. Begin by slowly exhaling all of your air out of your lungs.
  2. Gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of four.
  3. Hold at the top of the breath for a count of four.
  4. Gently exhale through your mouth for a count of four.
  5. At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for a count of four.
  6. Repeat this cycle several times until you feel your body calm down, and your heart slow.

In painful situations, name your feelings. Recognizing aloud, “This hurts,” reminds the cerebrum to reengage.

Husbands and wives need the ability and skills to respond to situations with wise, discerning decisions for the health of the marriage relationship. While we were affected by experiences — good and not so good — when we were children, as well as our own experiences as adults, God is sovereign. True to his promises, he guides us to make wise decisions today that positively impact us and our marriage. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him,” James 1:5 ESV.

Tools to Improve Your Marriage

Healthy responses create better decisions for a healthier relationship. Sometimes the healthy decision is to seek professional tools as my friend did for her situation. Making good choices does not always mean your life will calm down, because you can only control yourself, your attitudes, and your actions. You cannot control anyone else. As you continue to respond rather than react, you set a stronger life path for yourself and your marriage.

The first step is to get the thinking part of our brain, the cerebrum, back to doing its important job. Pause for a moment, breathe, and ask yourself, “What am I thinking?” Then, prayerfully ask, “What is the next right thing to do?”

One day I asked my neighbor, “What about the news story inspired you to seek counseling?”

“When I read what happened, I knew immediately why she reacted the way she did.”

“Because her husband ate her chocolates?” The magnitude of her reaction still felt startling.

“It wasn’t the candy.” She leaned in. “The loss of her birthday gift was the final hurt in a long string of offenses.”

“The proverbial final straw that broke the camel’s back.”

She nodded. “I don’t know her situation, but I could relate. We each have a threshold of what we can mentally, emotionally, and physically carry.”

I thought of those times when I had reached the end of my ability to cope. “And she had reached her limit.”

“I knew I had to get tools. It was important to deal healthily with my background, my present circumstances, and my relationships. It’s not easy,” my neighbor confided. “I understand I cannot change my spouse or the childhood traumas he experienced, but I can act and respond thoughtfully in ways that benefit our marriage.”

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