We hear about traumatic events regularly in our daily lives. News outlets are often eager to highlight tragedies that befall individuals in our world. And although we are all familiar with such stories, there exists an absence of dialogue as to what happens to survivors of trauma after the fact. Once we’ve mourned and acknowledged the terribleness of an event, we have a tendency of prematurely laying it to rest without further discussion on the long-term impacts of such events on survivors. Often individuals that live a trauma carry it with them into every facet of their lives; into their intimate partnerships, their careers, their friendships and their communities. And this is especially true of survivors of childhood abuse and their future relationships.
Trauma plays a significant role in the lives of couples. In such partnerships, the presence of fear at the prospect of being emotionally vulnerable with another individual is at higher degrees of intensity, especially when compared to couples void of previous trauma. Such relationships are inundated with interaction patterns characterized by extreme fight or flight responses, as well as heightened hyper vigilance. The abuse that survivors endure as children often results in a distorted view of relationships and intimacy, primarily due to the past pairing of intimacy with experiences of pain. This distrustful view of close relationships often results in much distress and anxiety for survivors attempting to build intimacy with others (Briere, 1992).
The Power of Witnessing:
Nasim & Nadan (2013) describe childhood abuse as an event that is usually accompanied by secrecy and silence. Survivors often find themselves silenced by perpetrators, family members, or even the communities in which they live. The secrecy that accompanies this traumatic event presents survivors with environments and lives void of witnesses to their pain and trauma (2013). Seligman (2004) notes that when a survivor is unable to verbalize the fragmented experience of the trauma to others due to denial or external stigmatization, the survivor’s own ability to act as a witness to their own abuse is also diminished.
Nonetheless, there exists a powerful desire in survivors to tell the story of their abuse. Such disclosures within the confines of a safe and protective relationship have proven to have positive impacts on the irregular processing of traumatic memories (Caruth, 1995).
Herman (1992) explains that the witnessing that fails to happen in the survivor’s life in the past can occur within the therapeutic context. By listening or bearing witness to a survivor’s story regarding an abuse, survivors can finally witness what has happened to them (1992). This witnessing approach can be utilized within couple’s therapy, which has been proven to be a suitable arena to tackle relationship problems (MacIntosh & Johnson, 2008).
Benjamin (2004) posits that Couple’s therapy provides survivors with two-levels of witnessing. On one level, a therapist can act as a witness to the trauma reenactments that are occurring within the couple’s relationship. On another level, the partner of a survivor can bear witness to the story of the trauma, its impact on the survivor’s life, as well as its influence on the relationship. Creating such an environment of multiple witnesses who listen and believe a survivor’s experience can help the survivor integrate the once fragmented trauma into the continuous narrative of their life (2004).
Briere, J. N. (1992). Child abuse trauma: Theory and treatment of the lasting effects. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond doer and done to: An intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73, 5-46.
Caruth, C. (1995). Trauma and experience: Introduction. In C. Caruth (Ed.), Trauma: Explorations in memory (pp. 3-12). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic violence to political terror. New York: HarperCollins.
MacIntosh, H. B., & Johnson, S. (2008). Emotionally focused therapy for couples and childhood sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Marital Therapy, 34(3), 298-315.
Nasim, R., & Nadan, Y. (2013). Couples therapy with childhood sexual abuse survivors (CSA) and their partners: Establishing context for witnessing. Family Process, 52(3), 368-377.