“Come Close To Me! Get Away From Me!” — Writer Heidi Hanson explains how PTSD can cause a push-pull dynamic in a relationship.
Note: This is a three part article based on my personal experience recovering from PTSD. Much of it is theoretical, however it is material I consider worth being studied in a scientific manner. You can find part one here and part two here.
As a person recovering from PTSD, I have experienced a push-pull dynamic in my relationship due to triggers frequently opening up past trauma. Triggers can cause a variety of internal responses from slight nervousness and unease to a full blown flashback of a traumatic memory. Sometimes the traumatic memories are not “a memory.” They are more like a nexus or group of memories that come with all these layers of meaning and can rip your heart out. There can be regret, heartbreak, unresolved grief, self-blame…all kinds of things that need to be resolved. I think of these type of memories as “medusas.”
If a trigger is something about your partner, you may indeed push them away just to get some relief from all the activation of the nervous system. When the triggers bring up deeply disturbing memories, you may decide to take space from them and want to be alone for a period of time. If the triggers happen all the time, you may want them gone entirely and end up breaking up for no good reason.
On the other hand it’s also natural to seek comfort from the person you love. The triggers can cause you to pull your partner to you, for solace, comfort, stability and security. When in such a fragile state, you may completely ignore real problems in the relationship and stay even if there are actual reasons to part ways.
Once, when I felt safe enough with him, my boyfriend and I were beginning to get intimate and something opened up a flashback of a traumatic sexual memory. It came up suddenly in its entirety as if I was reliving it. This memory was from a much earlier time and had been deeply buried. I had not thought of it in years. Due to a week of relative stability I guess my mind felt like it could afford to let it come out.
This flashback turned my world upside down. It was horrible.
Before I go further into this push-pull dynamic, I just want to say that in a certain way, PTSD is a myth. The experience of PTSD symptoms are 100 percent real and absolutely no joke. But all this horror, terror, emotional and mental chaos…it’s technically related to the past. Nothing is happening now to cause any of it. It is absolutely real to my entire physiology and yet, at the same time, it’s not real.
I’m not sure why I feel compelled to make this point because knowing this changes nothing. I don’t mean to diminish the validity and reality of my symptoms or make myself feel bad for having them. I’m saying this because if these symptoms are related to things that are not real, maybe there is hope to one day return to normal. Perhaps the body can unlearn the trauma of the past and return to living life in the present.
The Medusa Memory Nexuses
I have two “medusas” living inside me. The snakes on the head of the first relate to a year-long period in the past filled with sexual and relationship trauma. This is a calm-ish medusa. It’s older and sits there low down in my stomach just minding its own business. It has been somewhat pacified, a bit more friendly than in the past, but still dangerous in its own way. The newer one is snarling and writhing in pain within my heart, like a demon that was rudely awoken from the grave, its head full of black shadowy snakes. This one is eating me up inside.
So I am left holding two unruly medusas that at times scream and cry like babies. I could deny them or I could stay and serve them tea. I could ask them – Who are you? Where do you come from? What are you made of?
Seeking Space – Push Boyfriend Away Dynamic
I don’t know why but unfortunately there are things about my boyfriend that remind me of past traumatic experiences. They are such little things, like being a guy, and snoring at night… normal things. Because he was around me after past accidents, just the sight of him can link back to those awful moments. At any trigger, my body automatically responds with alarm, alert and fear. So of course there will be times I will want relief and push him away. I will say I want space, take some time to myself or avoid intimacy for some days.
In the graphic above I compile all these triggers into something called the Trigger Monster. Here are some examples of things about my boyfriend that constitute the Trigger Monster:
As a result, the Trigger Monster:
• Causes the person who has PTSD to get triggered constantly.
• Distorts their partner’s love – the person with PTSD can misinterpret affection as being dangerous.
• Magnifies their partner’s baggage such as childhood wounds, weaknesses, addictions.
• Magnifies normal relationship issues not related to PTSD (the current real issues that need solving) such as attachment styles, defense styles, issues that result from having different childhoods, life histories, personalities, communication styles, likes and dislikes.
• Minimizes or takes attention away from real relationship problems which could lead to never solving them – problems such as abusive behavior, defensiveness, communication problems, dishonesty, etc.
• Causes the person with PTSD to only see their partner as “bad and scary” even though they are good. This is due to the brain still trying to survive the trauma by focusing on the threat, the “badness.”
Seeking Closeness – Pull Boyfriend To Me Dynamic
10 reasons for seeking closeness:
Healthy — When I seek closeness, a certain percent of the time it is a healthy, conscious, and natural expression of human affection, connection, love and intimacy. I am not 100 percent PTSD, I am a person who part of the time exhibits symptoms of PTSD and part of the time is psychologically healthy.
Triggered and Need to Heal — If I happen to be severely triggered, experiencing terror or an emotional meltdown of some kind, then I may want closeness because I am trying to find a place of safety to heal.
Shattered Seeking Wholeness — By “shattered” I mean feeling chaotic, fragile, not in touch with myself and lost. In the graphic, “Shattered One” says, “I need him! He seems intact and whole. I am chaos, I need to sense order somewhere.” This is actually something I noticed about myself a few years after the events. I was seeking a partner because they seemed “intact.” I realized that on some level, I was seeking wholeness and order, as my mind and system were in complete chaos. The trauma was almost like a lobotomy. My brain was not able to function normally. I think I felt a longing for something to lead me “home,” but really I need to come home within myself.
Patching Up the Cracks with Love — What it feels like to me is that going through extreme trauma is like going through an earthquake, which results in having these harsh cracks throughout myself and those cracks extend into the relationship in particular ways. Sometimes I feel like I am falling apart, or my relationship is crumbling or the world is unstable. When I feel like this I may try to patch up all the cracks I sense in life, in me, in us – with love, care and affection, in a kind of desperate hope that it will work.
Dependency — Seeking closeness can be an unhealthy, unconscious expression of dependency. However, I feel that dependency is okay and is an act of courage when in a place of recovery.
Grieving One: Fear of Loss — Grieving One says, “I can’t deal with losing anything else!” When I get triggered and see boyfriend as a perpetrator (a reminder in him triggers a memory of a past abusive male partner) some part of me believes it can only survive if I “get away” from the threat. One problem though is that, if I did really get away entirely, part of me, that I am calling the Grieving One, believes it could not survive the grieving process. Trauma includes loss. There is a pile of unresolved grief related to unexamined losses. The Grieving One literally believes it would fall apart if another loss – of my boyfriend – were stacked up on that pile. So it clings to him.
Sense of Being Impaired — Feeling mentally impaired, mentally disorganized, weak, injured, tired, different, misunderstood by the world can lead to wanting to lean on your partner for help in life with things you can’t do anymore on your own (both things you actually can’t do anymore due to injury and also those you just believe you can’t do anymore due to the shock and impact of the traumatic events).
The Traumatized One: Age Regression — Traumatized One says, “I feel little and fragile, I can’t afford to break the love bond; I need the support right now.” The “traumatized one” in this graphic is about age regression, so this one is represented by a baby. The needs of a baby are basic but very important – they need an attachment bond or parental figure and a stable, consistent and supportive environment. My experience with trauma is that it seems to have thrown me back developmentally. For a while I felt like an infant who was seeking and needing a parent. The emotions that arose if I thought my partner wanted to leave seemed very similar to those of a baby. As I recover I seem to be returning to my biological age (this pertains to adult attachment and how it relates to both childhood and adulthood trauma).
Pent Up Trauma Energy — “I need you to trigger me so I can figure out how to find resolution.” This has to do with how the mind and body contain unresolved trauma and this held back trauma energy may, on some level, be seeking to be triggered so it can complete it’s expression and find a place of resolution.
Therapeutic Effects of Being Close to Another Human Body — Physically holding another person close, feeling their warmth, putting your ear on them and hearing their heart beating, feeling their tummy move up and down as they breathe is Somatic Therapy. If you pay attention to your sensations as you do it, it constitutes an activity that is regulating for the nervous system just like other Somatic Therapy exercises. Touch is a natural part of being human from the first moment we are born. A major reason for someone with PTSD to seek physical closeness is a desire for healing. If done consciously and in a space of emotional safety, it can be.
There are some dangers associated with this push-pull dynamic (there are probably more than the items listed here).
• Leave a Healthy Relationship — A person with PTSD may leave a healthy situation due to having activation/fight-flight-freeze reactions that stem from past trauma, thinking they are responses to the present.
• Partner’s Needs for Intimacy Not Met — The partner may be left alone too often and seek to get their needs met outside of the relationship. They may engage addictive behaviors as a way to feel pleasure and comfort when their partner is not available.
• Indiscriminate Intimacy – Someone with PTSD may become close to another person without any thinking involved. I have noticed that sometimes when I seek closeness and love I do it without any discrimination. When I am triggered and feel terrified, like when I woke from an entire night of nightmares of facing death again, I want to feel my boyfriend’s warm body near mine and be able to feel the beating of another human heart. There are no criteria or standards apart from his physical presence. This is where I can imagine someone with PTSD could get in trouble. Due to the fact that there is no thought involved they may pull someone close who is not the most healing, nurturing person. After all, the person just has to have a heartbeat.
Lately I have been waking up to the task I must do: separate the real from the unreal. What in my relationship is a real problem that needs solving? What from the past is intruding into the present?
I want to find the answer.
But this is detective work that cannot be done with the mind. It must be done inside the body, in the movements needing expression — creations that erupt with sobs and buried words, the myriad of sensations traveling along the nerves from the muscles, to glands, to organs, through the spine to the brain and back again.
The Myth has an Ending, but it can only be found by sinking into the Story the Body Tells, and taking footsteps through its broken landscape until every story has been told, until every part is resourced and the land becomes whole again.
This article was originally published on Heidi’s blog, The Art of Healing Trauma.
Featured photo credit: Wendy/Flickr
Artwork/graphic credit: Heidi Hanson