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Monday, July 23, 2012

When Arguments with Your Spouse Trigger Old Emotional Wounds from Childhood

It's not at all unusual for arguments with a spouse or romantic partner to trigger old emotional wounds from childhood.  Without even realizing it, we can become so emotionally triggered that we can surprise even ourselves with our out of proportion responses.  Old, unresolved wounds are often just under the surface and when we're triggered, we often don't even know it.  Later on, when we're calmer, we might reflect that our responses were emotionally over the top, and wonder how and why we could have become so upset over something that we realize, once we can be more objective, didn't warrant this kind of upset.



I'm not referring to the occasional loss of temper that we experience when we're too tired, hungry or overwhelmed by stress.  What I'm referring is a consistent pattern of emotional upset that we wonder about when we've had a chance to calm down and we ask ourselves, "Why did I get so upset over that, when it wasn't really that important?" It can leave us feeling embarrassed, perplexed and confused about ourselves.

When this dynamic occurs fairly consistently, it's often a sign that old emotional wounds from childhood are being triggered.  In other words, we're not just responding to the situation at hand.  The magnitude of our emotions are often being fueled by unresolved childhood issues from our families of origin.

The following scenario, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed, illustrates this phenomenon:

Alice:
Alice, who was in her late 30s, was normally a calm and rational person most of the time.  But whenever she and her husband, Ed, got into an argument where he had problems seeing her point of view, she became enraged.  It didn't matter if they were talking about money, politics, or where to vacation.  If Alice felt that Ed was unable to understand her perspective, she became livid.  She would lose her temper and feel out of control.  Sometimes, she felt so agitated that she could barely breathe.

Usually, after he had a chance to think about it later on, Ed would often come around to see Alice's point of view.  He still might not agree, but he could empathize with Alice's feelings.  He just needed a little time to reflect on it.  But this didn't make a difference for Alice.  Once she became enraged, she might take a few hours or even a whole day to calm down.  Before that, she couldn't even hear what Ed had to say.

Needless to say, this dynamic had a big impact on their marriage.  After the first year of enduring Alice's strong emotional reactions, Ed told Alice that he didn't want to live this way and if she didn't get help, he might leave the marriage.

Even without the possibility of Ed leaving, Alice would often realize after she calmed down that her emotional reaction to their argument was over the top.  But she didn't know what to make of it or what to do.  After she sought help in therapy, it soon came apparent that these disagreements with her husband were triggering old, unresolved emotional wounds from her family.

As we explored Alice's emotional build up during a recent argument with her husband, we slowed everything down so Alice could experience how her emotions escalated to such a point.  I asked her to identify the feelings she was experiencing in her body.  As she sensed into her body to feel what was going on for her, she realized that whenever Ed didn't understand what she was trying to tell him, she erupted in anger, but the anger masked a lot of fear.

Using clinical hypnosis, we were able to trace that fear back to a time when she was four years old.  Her father, who was a severe alcoholic and often in a drunken stupor, was too drunk to understand what Alice would try to tell him.  At the time, her mother was in denial about the severity of the father's alcoholism, so she would leave Alice alone with him whenever she visited her mother across town.

On one of those occasions, Alice's father left a pot of water boiling on the stove, and then he fell asleep in a drunken stupor.  Alice smelled something burning, ran into the kitchen, and saw the pot burning.  But when she tried to wake up her father, she couldn't get him up.  He was so groggy that he couldn't understand what she was saying and pushed her away.  She was terrified.  But fortunately, she ran to the neighbor next door, who called the fire department.  Soon after that, the Bureau of Child Welfare got involved and provided services to Alice and her family.

The hypnosis allowed Alice to connect her current emotional reactions to the earlier ones.  She was able to see that the emotions connected to this memory, which she had never forgotten and was accessible to her even before we did hypnosis, got triggered whenever she had an argument with her husband were she felt he didn't understand her.

We were able to work on this memory, which was representative of many similar memories, so that Alice could overcome her unresolved trauma and no longer get triggered in her marriage.  It took a lot of work, but she was relieved to have some explanation as to why she was overreacting with her husband.

I want to be clear that, in this example, I'm not referring to "recovered memories," which can be inaccurate and misleading.  I often get calls from people who sense they might have been sexually or physically abused and they hope that hypnosis will give them the answer.  What I usually tell them is that memory can be very tricky.  It's not like hypnosis enables you to be able to recover information like  picking out a file from a file drawer.

The memory that I'm referring to in this example is a memory that Alice had been well aware of before we began using hypnosis.  The difference is that she never connected her childhood trauma with her current dynamic with her husband.  Once we were able to work through the childhood trauma, Alice was no longer triggered in her current life, which was a tremendous relief.

Getting Help


Often, in our ordinary consciousness, we're not able to make these connections.   When you work with an experienced hypnotherapist, you enter into a state of deep relaxation which allows you access to your unconscious.  In that state, you can make connections that are usually not available to you in ordinary consciousness.

As I've said many times before in other blog posts, you're in complete control at all times with clinical hypnosis.  People who have been traumatized are often afraid of not being in control, and their notions about hypnosis are derived from stage hypnosis, which is nothing like clinical hypnosis (also known as hypnotherapy).

I recommend that, if you're considering clinical hypnosis that you only see a licensed mental health professional who is a hypnotherapist rather than seeing a non-clinician who might have some training in   hypnosis but who has no clinical skills.

It's possible to free yourself of trauma or old emotional wounds that can get triggered in your current life.  Transcending old emotional wounds can make a big difference in the quality of your life and the lives of your loved ones.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  I am certified in mind-body oriented psychotherapy.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.

Photo credit: Photo Pin