Every day I hear from people whose relationship is in trouble. When they contact me they are often desperate for answers. Most want to save the marriage, but don’t know what to do. Here’s a letter I received today from a woman who is concerned about her husband:
“Last January a man came home from work with my husband’s face but did not act at all like him. I’ve known this man for 30 years, married 22 of them and have never met THIS guy before. Mean, nasty, and cruel are just a few words to describe him. I know he’s in pain and we need help, but he refuses to even consider that he may have a problem. He blames me for everything.”
Here’s another from a man concerned about his wife:
“Over the past five years especially, I have noticed that my relationship with my wife has gone from one of open displays of affection and frequent verbal affirmations, to ‘stay away from me, don’t talk to me, I had a hard day, I just need some space.’ She now rarely tries to hug me, never initiates sex, and talks to me probably about half as much as she used to. It’s gotten to the point where I find out what’s going on in her life from my mother or sisters. We’re both miserable. I don’t know what’s bothering her and I don’t know what to do.”
When people do come in for help, they focus on the immediate problems such as these:
- We fight a lot.
- We don’t communicate.
- We have different interests and seem to be going separate ways.
- He says he still loves me, but he’s not in love with me.
- His drinking has gotten worse and I can never count on him.
- She’s moody and depressed and I worry about how she treats the children.
What people rarely understand is that common childhood traumas are often the underlying cause of problems we experience as adults including physical, emotional, and relationship problems.
The Powerful Influence of Common Childhood Traumas
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood traumas and later-life health and well-being, including relationship and marriage problems. ACEs are adverse childhood experiences that harm children’s developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later.
They cause much of chronic disease, most mental illness, are at the root of most violence, and can cause marriages to fall apart and children to be harmed. The good news is that once they are recognized they can be treated and harm can be averted.
Here are the ten common ACEs first identified in the study:
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often hit, push, grab, slap, or throw something at you.
- Did an adult or someone at least five years older than you ever touch, fondle you, or have you touch their body in a sexual way?
- Did you often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special or did your family fail to look out for each other or feel close to each other?
- Did you often feel you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, had no one to protect you, or your parents were sometimes too drunk or high to take care of you?
- Was a biological parent ever lost to you through divorce, abandonment, or other reason?
- Was your mother or stepmother often pushed, grabbed, slapped, had something thrown at her or hit?
- Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
- Was a household member depressed, mentally ill, or ever attempt suicide?
- Did a household member ever go to jail or prison?
How many did you experience growing up? Here’s what we know about your ACE scores:
Nearly 2 in 3 adults have at least one and if you have one, there’s an 87% chance that you have two or more.
- The more ACEs you have, the greater the risk for later problems.
- An ACE score of 1 triples your risk of later alcohol problems. 4 Aces increases your risk 7 times more than people with no ACEs.
- The more ACEs as a child, the more depression as an adult. 60% of women with 4 ACEs suffer from depression.
- 2% of people with no ACEs attempt suicide. Nearly 20% of people with 4 ACEs attempt suicide.
- The more ACEs you have, the more likely you are to have many sexual partners. With three or more ACEs you are 3 times more likely to have 50 or more partners than if you have no ACEs.
- The more ACEs you have, the more likely you are to be in an abusive relationship. With 4 ACEs you are 4.5 times more likely to be with a physically violent partner.
- The more ACEs you have the more likely you are to suffer from the 10 most common causes of death including smoking, obesity, depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
- The more ACEs you have the more likely you’ll have problems that undermine your marriage and harm your children, unless you take time to heal.
Of course, the ten Adverse Childhood Experiences which were originally studied aren’t the only traumas that can harm your relationship, your health, your well-being, and your life. Even so called microtraumas can have lasting effects. Being sick as a child, losing connection with a close friend, having a pet die, being put down by a sibling, being left alone even for a short time, and being teased; all can impact our adult relationships.
These traumatic experiences can seem like “no big deal.” It’s difficult for us to believe that something that happened 20, 30, or 40 years ago can still cause significant problems as adults. We tend to minimize these events or forget them altogether. Sometimes it’s the smallest of events that can have the most lasting effect.
“This is why we say these microtraumatic events can be even more insidious than full-blown traumas,” say psychologists George Pratt and Peter Lambrou in their book Code to Joy, “precisely because they hide behind the veneer of innocent insignificance.”
It shouldn’t surprise us that if we have trauma during the early years of our lives in our first family, we are likely to have reverberations in our adult families. This is called “traumatic resonance.” When we pluck the low E-string on a guitar, the high E-string vibrates along with it. A similar thing happens in relationships.
When my wife seems to withdraw, it resonates with old feelings of abandonment and fear and I react with irritation and anger. My anger resonates with my wife’s early experiences growing up with an abusive father. She closes down to protect herself and our relationship suffers as a result. Trauma leads to more trauma and we end up fighting or withdrawing.
Our unhealed childhood traumas can lead to behaviors that can become ACEs for our own children and the terrible cycle continues. But once we recognize these “shadows from the past,” we can heal old wounds and keep our marriages alive and well and help our children grow up with few or no ACEs. Think what that will do for the well-being of the world.
I enjoy hearing your own stories and experience. For more information on healing or for help with family problems, feel free to contact me at www.MenAlive.com.
Photo: sara biljana/Flickr