Mindful Counseling for Complex Trauma: Anxiety, Shame, Stuckness
When Trauma Finds Relationship
Ambivalence in a relationship is normal, and integration of two ever-changing people remains a lifelong process. We find comfortable patterns, and we settle into roles that once served a purpose but may no longer benefit either partner. Counseling provides a safe, neutral space to identify stuck places, to step inward and notice internal conflicts, to come together, and to create expansion and choice where once the only experience was constriction and resentment.
Trauma sometimes disturbs one’s ability to connect and remain connected at an intimate level. Seemingly harmless words or actions can trigger a change in states and instant conflict. In counseling, safety comes first. We name these shifts as they occur and assess the needs of different states as they arise in each individual. There’s an ongoing process of differentiation, discarding, recognizing what is, grieving what was, and integrating all of this into the present moment. What does this part need? What can this part give?
If you feel yourself on the fence about the relationship, this is an opportunity to clarify your own needs. If you want out, this may be a chance to honor yourself while at the same time giving yourself and your partner the gift of understanding the big picture and perhaps the ability to avoid getting stuck and repeating the same relationship again in the future. If you are here to repair the relationship, this is a chance to get to know yourself and your partner better — to honor the strengths and pains of both partners. It is also an opportunity to learn ways to help one-another regulate and feel connected — a team facing this world together.
If we can physically experience, in session, a felt sense of love and safety, the entire relationship changes. Defenses collapse and allow an upward spiral in connection strategies.
Couples, Partners, Pairs, Dyads…
Couples counseling (sometimes referred to as marriage counseling) in this case refers to all sorts of couples, including platonic, familial, or romantic couples.
In attending as a couple, you are finding a safe, mediated space to notice, name, and process relational patterns as they play out in the present moment.
What we bring, and the natural increase of conflict over time…
We each bring our own needs, drives, motives, expectations, perceptions, judgments, history, and internal conflicts. Some bring trauma. We might carry hope in one part while another part carries expectations of negative outcome, remains on guard, and sometimes provokes or creates that negative outcome. Patterns that lie dormant in the honeymoon phase may become evident as security sets in.
We bring a unique tolerance for change or familiarity. To one party, the relationship might feel comfortable while at the same time the other partner might feel smothered or stagnant.
Sometimes couples develop a subconcious or unspoken agreement to adhere to roles, losing flexibility in those roles as they become more developed and ingrained over the years. Not only do we seek opposites, we tend to polarize one another over time, increasing opposition and conflict.
Common issues for many couples include communication and negotiation, personal and relational boundaries, differentiation and individuation, unmet needs, inlaws and family integration. Many couples seek therapy after an affair, at the point of breakup, when feeling neglected or smothered by a partner, when continuously triggered by a partner’s behavior that doesn’t seem to change, or when feeling emotionally numb, like living with a roommate or a stranger.
Attachment Styles – How templates of Self and Other influence harmony or conflict…
Primary attachment styles include…
- Secure – “I’m safe with Self. I’m safe with others. I feel supported.”
- Anxious, lives in ‘not enough’ mode, feelings of abandonment easily triggered, limited internal support, avoids Self
- Avoidant, lives in ‘too much’, easily triggered by feelings of invasion or losing self, limited external support, avoids Other
(4th type, ‘fearful/disorganized’ style can be viewed as alternating between anxious/avoidant and is more associated with dissociation.)
Relationship patterns based on individual attachment styles…
when anxious meets anxious: enmeshed relationship
when avoidant meets avoidant: distanced relationship
when secure meets secure: balanced relationship
when anxious meets avoidant: chasing and chased
when secure meets anxious or avoidant: moving toward balanced or ending
For a more detailed breakdown of attachment styles, please read my blog on Attachment Styles Defined.
The Therapy Process
We take turns exploring each individual and the dynamics between individuals – the connections and disconnections, the felt experience and reactions to each.
We make time for content, when we can focus on words and issues. We also make time for process, stopping to notice the emotion, the history, the associations, the present-moment internal motives behind the words and issues that come up.
Couples counseling provides a safe and mediated forum through which all parties are honored and given space – first to be and know Self, then to integrate Self with other in a cooperative, compassionate relationship, eventually learning to acknowledge and honor that which is vitally important to the other.
My couples counseling approach is informed by Gottman, Whitaker, attachment theory, Internal Family Systems, Hakomi Therapy, and Gestalt Therapy. It is a Mindful, body-based, experiential, trauma-framed process modeled on the expectation that external relationship dynamics reflect the internal, balancing freedom and connection, repeating cycles of differentiation and integration of whole individuals, moving not into fusion but into interdependent partnership.