Childhood Trauma Survivors Less Satisfied With Marriage. What Can Spouses Do? A Study.

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We have seen that prolonged and repetitive childhood trauma can change a person’s core beliefs about other people, themselves, and how the world works in profound ways. Those who perceived themselves to be rejected and/or betrayed by their parents in childhood may, as adults, struggle with abandonment issues and feelings of worthlessness.

They may, too, behave self-destructively and self-sabotage as a result of dysfunctional strategies employed to try to escape the severe mental pain they feel (e.g. turning to drugs, alcohol, gambling, promiscuous extra-marital sex, etc.)
Such behavior may, of course, wreak havoc with marriage and may be driven by an unconscious repetition compulsion.
Another common consequence of extreme, interpersonal trauma as a child is emotional dysregulation (an inability to control emotions). So, on top of the problems already mentioned, a marriage partner who has undergone severe emotional pain as a child may be prone to outbursts of dissociated, irrational rage during which the prefrontal cortex shuts down thus, temporarily, precluding rational thought and logical problem solving which makes their partner feel as s/he is he is walking on eggshells.
Alternatively, the traumatized marriage partner may emotionally shut down at times of marital stress.
Such (unconsciously driven) strategies may well have been necessary to survive an abusive childhood, but may, too,  have become overlearned to such a degree that such responses have become automatic at times of stress and perceived threat/conflict.
Or, to put it another way, even though such responses are no longer helpful. they can endure long into adulthood, without effective therapy, as the brain continues to act in response to interpersonal danger as it had become conditioned to do during childhood.
On an unconscious level, the dysfunctional responses operate automatically as survival strategies. In effect, the brain is reacting as if there is a catastrophic danger even when, objectively speaking, this clearly is not the case.
if one of the married couple is so badly affected by their childhood trauma that it severely, negatively impacts the environment in which their children grow up, they too (i.e. the children) may become traumatized. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as intergenerational trauma.

To What Degree Can Spouses Of Traumatized Partners  Ameliorate The Problem?

Given the problems childhood trauma can create for a marriage (or any relationship, for that matter) it is perhaps not surprising that those who have been traumatized in the early part of their lives tend to be less satisfied with their marriage than others who have had relatively stable childhoods.

To investigate the nature of this marital dissatisfaction further, Nguyen et al. (2017) conducted a study to find out if qualities in the traumatized individual’s marital partner could ameliorate this sense of dissatisfaction. The study was longitudinal (i.e. conducted over an extended time period) and involved 414 newlywed couples.

The study found that those spouses who had been traumatized as children were less satisfied with their marriages even as newlyweds. Furthermore, their dissatisfaction with their marriages increased over time to a significantly greater degree than did that of the non-traumatized spouses.

It was also found that qualities in the non-traumatized spouse, no matter how positive, failed to significantly alleviate levels of marital dissatisfaction. The researchers inferred, based upon the findings of this study, that the negative effects that severe childhood trauma can have on relationships tend to be so pervasive that (without appropriate therapy) these effects are likely to remain chronic.

These, of course, are the findings of just one study, and further research into the question of how effective spouses can be at reducing marital dissatisfaction related to their traumatized partner’s experiences of childhood toxic stress are necessary.


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Nguyen, Teresa P et al. “Childhood abuse and later marital outcomes: Do partner characteristics moderate the association?.” Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) vol. 31,1 (2017): 82-92. doi:10.1037/fam0000208