In Relationships, How Are We Going To Be? By Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes
(As originally featured in the Spring / Summer 2023 Issue of Tracy Anderson Magazine)
“In all cultures, the family imprints its members with selfhood. Human experience of identity has two elements; a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate. The laboratory in which these ingredients are mixed and dispensed is the family, the matrix of identity.” – Salvador Minuchin
I have been studying the field of trauma for the past thirty years. It is now widely accepted that trauma is passed down from one generation to the next and can wreak havoc into posterity. These traumas are often manifested in our romantic relationships and create problematic connections that lead not only to deep emotional distress but also can cause serious and chronic physical issues. Our bodies are designed to assess impending peril and to react accordingly. When we are in toxic or problematic relationships, we are often experiencing high levels of stress. Our brains are wired to release certain stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline when we are threatened. These important messengers have evolutionary origins creating flight or fright responses which signal that there is danger ahead. Although necessary for the survival of our species, long term and chronic hormonal stress responses can cause a myriad of physical symptoms such as inflammation, gastric distress, migraines, insomnia, cognitive issues and many more. Additionally, constant stress can lead to depression, anxiety and often panic attacks. In essence, our bodies and innate stress responses , designed to protect us from danger, can inadvertently turn on us if chronic stress is not addressed.
Nowhere is the true aftermath of chronic stress more evident than in my psychotherapy practice. Time and time again my patients present with serious psychological symptoms as well as somatic (physical) issues which are directly related to the romantic relationships they have chosen. One of my early mentors, Dr. Murray Bowen (1966, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice) posits that when looking for love we find partners who are “equally undifferentiated from their family mass”.
What he is suggesting is that unless we have done deep inner work, it is as if we have antennae for finding people to get involved with whose own unresolved issues will collide with ours. He calls this , “emotional fusion.” Bowen believed, “that which is created in a relationship can be fixed in a relationship.”
Just recently, I began with a couple, married since college with two young children. Both had come from very volatile families where their parents’ relationships ended in divorce. Upon further history gathering, it seems as this type of toxic partnering had also been present for several generations before their parents. Neither person in this couple had ever seen modeled, a healthy, loving and mutually respectful relationship. By the time they came in for counseling, the wife was suffering from migraines, severe allergic responses (inflammation response) and depression. The husband was angry, withdrawn and often volatile. They were both miserable and their two children were manifesting the stress of this marriage through their own behavioral and somatic symptoms. Although their problematic dynamic; fighting, withdrawing, threatening had gone on for many years, getting close to age forty had propelled the wife to suddenly shut down and realize she could not go on in the marriage without drastic changes being made. The question now becomes, how does one navigate the treacherous water of trying to undo inherited feelings and behaviors which are toxic to happiness in a relationship? My first question to this couple was. “Do you want to try to stay together?” They both sheepishly nodded yes. I then explained to them that marriage (and indeed most romantic relationships) are like being in a lifeboat maneuvering the often turbulent waters of life. I explained that if they were to make it safely to shore, they would have to learn to work together and help each other. If they continued on the same volatile path, the boat would most likely top-size and sink. The first step was having each partner make a commitment to do the intense and painful work of taking a hard look at themselves, and accepting ownership of how their own individual coping mechanisms, behaviors, and maladaptive responses to conflict had adversely affected their love.
This is easier said than done. Bruce Springsteen in his forward to Terence Real’s 2022 book, Us, asks, “How do you break the chain of trauma and illness whose price is compounded with each successive generation?” There is no easy answer, but the work must begin with each person reconnecting with their true and authentic self, not the adaptive self that they had to manifest in order to survive their families of origin. The behaviors and beliefs that may have been adaptive to survive our childhoods often remain with us into adulthood and actually become maladaptive in our current relationships. In the case of the couple I mentioned above, the wife had learned as a child to hold her feelings in and continually acquiesce to the wishes of others in her chaotic and turbulent home life. Marrying her husband who was often volatile and verbally abusive (as his father had been to his mother) had only reinforced her adaptive behaviors of giving in and denying her own needs. This continued disavowal of her true identity led to her developing many somatic symptoms and eventually depression.
Approaching age forty ignited an intolerance to what had once been tolerable, albeit destructive. In this case, the wife’s awakening led to a crisis in the marriage as her resistance to the status quo completely challenged the persistent dance in their relationship. I often find myself saying, “It only takes one person to change the dance, for the dance to change.” The work with this couple now has to focus on getting them to individually face who they had to be to survive their childhoods and how the coping strategies they developed as children had infiltrated their relationship. If they are going to remain committed to each other they will have to learn how to collaborate and work as a team in the marriage rather than battling each other and then withdrawing to their separate sides in the “boxing ring”. The truth is , they have to defuse from their childhood selves and become two grownups who as Terrance Neal would say need to become “us”. A word I find myself using over and over as a therapist is, “ empathy”. One has to have empathy for one’s self first and foremost, something that may have been lacking in childhood experiences from caretakers. In relationships, each partner has to remain empathic to the other. This is no easy task when our stress hormones are triggered, hurling us back to childhood coping mechanisms. Our first contacts with intimacy were in our families of origin. We learn there how to connect with others. In order to find the deepest and most positive healthy relationships, we have to unlearn then relearn new patterns of connectedness.
Why do people get into unhealthy relationships? Why do we get into relationships where certain issues emerge over and over again?
We have an unconscious antenna to find others who will help us reenact some of the issues that were unresolved from our own families of origin. For example, if you grew up in a home where there was physical abuse or inappropriate physical contact and you find yourself in a relationship with someone who tends to get physical during a fight, it wouldn’t seem as horribly impossible to deal with as it would be to someone who came from a loving, non-violent home. The first time someone touched them in the wrong way, they’d be like, are you kidding?
When it’s something that you’ve experienced, things don’t seem as unusual or wrong in the beginning. It’s hard to accept that your parents or caretakers are crazy or inadequate or abusive or neglectful. This is one of the biggest problems for people entering therapy, whether for themselves as individuals or in their relationships. What happens in the psyche is that the child finds it unbearable to believe that their parents are out of control. It must be that the child is the problem, and that is why these crazy adults behave this way. As a result, children start believing, “ I must be bad, I must have deserved this. If only I didn’t cry, or have needs, or make demands, this caretaker would take better care of me”. This is quite adaptive in early childhood because without it, the psyche shatters.
The psyche copes through adaptation to the reality that one is dependent on the very people who hurt you, abuse you, neglect you, or demonstrate other negative behaviors. The adaptive behaviors we develop as children to survive often become maladaptive. Holding on to these patterns, and then reenacting them with other people in our adult lives, is called a repetition compulsion.
Can you give us an example of repetition compulsion?
If you were married to an alcoholic for example, then divorced and married another alcoholic, people might assume you enjoy being in a relationship with an alcoholic. That’s not true. If we assume here that you had an alcoholic parent, the compulsion is not to repeat the bad dynamic, and expose yourself to being hurt, it is the belief that your behavior can somehow stop the drinking and make this person become who you need them to be. As a child, you didn’t have power, but if you find somebody with an addiction problem in your adult life, maybe this time you can undo it.
It’s so important to understand that a repetition compulsion isn’t a desire to reproduce the pain—it’s the wish that this time, if you’re only good enough, strong enough, whatever enough, you can get that behavior to change.
As children, if we have narcissistic, violent, abusive or neglectful parents, our brains’ neurochemistry, neurotransmission systems, and neurogenesis are set to high alert. This is very powerful brain chemistry happening at a very crucial developmental time in our lives. As adults, when we encounter these same states of high alert, it doesn’t feel unfamiliar. It actually feels familiar.
For example, if you’ve had narcissistic parents when you meet somebody who is kind and takes good care of you, it almost feels like there’s something wrong with them. It doesn’t match your brain chemistry—it doesn’t feel like love, it feels wrong. This is very important to recognise.
If the first sign of love you experienced in childhood involved a narcissist, that is the love language you’ve learned, and you might associate other people’s narcissism with somehow being in love. Being with someone who isn’t narcissistic—who goes out of their way to put your needs first—doesn’t feel right. There must be something wrong with them, they must be weak. Why are they being so nice to me? Our brain chemistry, our psyche, or even our bodies are all used to reacting to a very different scenario. What you’re familiar with isn’t always what’s good.
Toxic ways of loving are coping mechanisms from early experiences that we don’t know how to step away from. Instead we need to recognise when we’re in a bad situation when there is much pain in our relationships. Chronic pain in a relationship is not good, not healthy, and not love, even if it feels familiar.
We have to trust our bodies because our bodies keep score. We must be aware that at high alert moments, the chemicals being released in our brains—mostly cortisol and adrenaline stress hormones—can be misinterpreted as excitement, because the hormonal reaction to fear and excitement can feel similar.
You don’t have to be in pain in a relationship, it’s about deciding that it’s not okay. And having the courage to examine your childhood and early relationships, even if repetition compulsion makes this very hard to do.
Can you expand more on how the tolerable becomes intolerable?
I’ll give you the example of a couple I’m working with now. She is approaching 40, which is a big developmental step for a woman, the end of childbearing years, a time of reckoning. Suddenly what was tolerable becomes intolerable for her. She was always unhappy in the marriage, but she grew up with an alcoholic father and a very narcissistic mother, whose marriage had ended by the time she was 15. She had tolerated being in a volatile marriage with a withdrawn man, but something switched with her upcoming developmental birthday. That can happen. Now what had been tolerable to her, even though it was terrible, became intolerable.
She was also beginning to see the patterns being handed down to her children. Sometimes it is easier to see certain patterns enacted by your children than in yourself. Often couples enter therapy because their children begin acting out in public, and what was a private event becomes public.
One of the things we know is that development continues through our whole adult life. For traditional Freudian psychoanalysts, development stopped at 18. We now know that this isn’t true. We continue to develop and evolve throughout our lifespan and at every stage of development new consciousness can arise. This new consciousness often disrupts the status quo.
In order to change, you have to develop new self awareness and do the work on yourself to recognize the difference between turbulent or smooth waters. Facing the past is so important, and extremely hard. It takes courage to face what your life has been, what you had to endure. Once you do that, you can make a decision about whether something that used to be tolerable is not anymore.
It takes consciousness, and great courage. We live with a lot of denial. I’m a huge proponent of therapy and of talking to other people. Trauma is often surrounded by shame, so there is often a conspiracy of silence about what happens to us.
Do you have to heal the inner child to live in your authentic truth?
It only takes one person to change the dance, for the dance to change. How do you come to the place where you feel the courage to change the dance? I’m a true believer in intuition and recognizing danger signals, sadness, neglect, and feeling deprived. Without examining our past we are often like moths to flame, repeating and getting involved in toxic relationships over and over again. We actually have antennae that recognize and are drawn to other people who are as damaged as we are.
It’s about becoming conscious. It’s about having the courage to be aware. If you’re in a problematic relationship, you’re on a raft together, navigating life’s rapids. If you are fighting while you are hurling down the river, the raft will either hit the rocks or you’ll be thrown overboard. If you’re going to be on this raft together, you’ve got to figure out how to work with each other, how to communicate with each other, how to collaborate with each other.
You have to have empathy for each other—and empathy starts with yourself. If you don’t have empathy for yourself, you can’t have empathy for anybody else. And what happens with couples is they get into conflict and instead of finding common ground, they lose empathy for each other.
Everybody’s in their own corner licking their wounds, and the other person disappears. So you have to make a commitment to face what your life was like as a child, how you saw relationships and how you were treated. And then you have to decide whether to continue this pattern and hand it down to the next generations, or whether you’ll have the courage to do the hard work of changing, listening, showing empathy and care.
Would you tolerate some of the behaviors you deal with in your relationship from anyone else? Often the answer is no. One of the things that happens, as women reach their 40s and 50s, isthat they begin to recognise and get rid of toxic friendships and relationships. We gain wisdom as we get older, things that were once tolerable in all relationships become intolerable. Every woman I know begins to question their friendships, including me.
The mind-body connection and how our brains send out powerful stress hormones when triggered is essential to understand. We revert to our primitive reptilian brains, when we sense danger. For evolutionary reasons, we need those stress hormones in order to survive. Those of us who have experienced difficult, volatile childhoods will sense danger, and will withdraw or run away. Fights and arguments provoke stress signals, and you’ll want to flee or freeze.
I work with patients trying to help them recognize when they’re in a state of high alert, and whether danger is really present. If you’re not really in danger, but your body is telling you the opposite, it’s easier to tolerate continuing to try to get what you need.
You need to recognize when your body is on high alert and whether you really are in a dangerous situation at that moment. Most of the time, unless you’re in a really physically abusive relationship, it is about a trigger, when your brain is reacting as it did when you were a child.
The body tells us everything we know. We know when we’re sad, scared or excited. We know when we have fear. But are those feelings in conjunction with reality? Recognizing where you are now, being able to face how you’ve reached this place.
Women tolerate so much deprivation. And I’m talking about successful, famous, beautiful, women, it doesn’t matter.
I had a referral, from a very powerful woman from the corporate world. She was a beautiful woman, in her early 40s, never married. She met a man while on a climbing trip and he claimed he was unhappily married. Like so many other women before her, she was going to be the one to get this guy out of his marriage and earn his love. Of course, that never happened. She lost 2 years waiting for this man, only to find out through an Instagram post that he had another lover. The same woman is a boss, a woman with power, and yet she’s still accepted and endured so much pain in her personal life.
In taking her history, I learned that she had experienced tremendous deprivation in her childhood; her father cheated on her mother. The wish dies hard. We come from these complex backgrounds and our only wish is to finally get it right. You have to give up the wish, and find people who give you what you need, who will take good care of you. We have to learn that being with a person who does not provoke stress and deprivation is ok.
When we grow up in stressful environments our bodies become used to the stress hormones that have coursed through our body since childhood. These hormones can be quite addictive. People seek adrenaline when their bodies are accustomed to high stress. Adrenaline is a highly addictive drug, as is cortisol. People get very used to living in states of high alert. And when they’re not on high alert, they feel like something’s wrong. This feeling is often because they are in a state of adrenal withdrawal and they need to recognize that being in states of high alert is not necessarily healthy.
You’ve spoken about trauma. What about women who are simply stuck in ordinary, uneventful relationships?
Women who always dreamed of marriage and they find themselves with someone who won’t commit, they have to face their own expectations. Why is it better to be in a state of deprivation than to be on your own, evolving yourself and then seeking someone that really wants to be with you? What happened to you? Why do you feel that’s okay?
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