How Your Past Can Wreak Havoc on Your Marriage Today (And What to Do About It)

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The following is a story from our book, Soul Healing Love. It illustrates how we have trauma that is processed and stored in the “old brain” or the amygdala and hippocampus if you are interested! This trauma can be triggered in one sixteenth of a second! One of the most common places it gets triggered is in marriage because the marriage relationship is so intimate. We go into great detail about how this happens and what you can do about it in our Soul Healing Love Couples Workshop in Charlotte. We actually have one this fall. In the mean time you can read about a true story of our own marriage where soul wounds from the past came back to haunt us in our early marriage.

I (Bev) grew up in the hills of Tennessee, which is a nice way of saying we were hillbillies, or more commonly known as rednecks.  When I was a young girl, I would listen to my parents fight, and become anxious and fearful because the conflicts would often result in violence. I often described my parents redneck fights as an episode of the television show Cops, only without the cops. Typically, the show features redneck parents with flesh grinding and blood spurting and pitiful, traumatized children huddling in the corner frozen in fear. Sadly, this was my childhood.

Often in these redneck fights my father would threaten to leave. He had done this many times before, but one night when I was 5 years old, they had a particularly bad redneck fight where my father said he was going to leave, and I somehow knew he meant it. He told my mother that he could not take her crazy behavior anymore and he was going to leave. All of a sudden, I knew he was serious. All I could think about was that my mother was not normal. She said and did crazy violent things and I panicked at the thought of being left alone with her having to take care of my younger siblings. I feared for our safety.

In my panic, I grabbed my father’s leg and clung to it for dear life. I begged and pleaded with him to stay. In his angst, he drug me across the wood floor, opened the screen to the porch and slung me off saying, “Sorry kiddo, I’m outa here.” I can still feel some of the original old brain trauma of embedding my fingernails in the screen door and begging, through sobs, for my father to come back. He never did, except for limited visitations after that.

I did everything in my power to put this painful memory out of my mind. I was successful for years and thought that I had outrun my negative soul wounds  until… I got married.

Years later, as a budding bride of two months, I was so excited as I prepared dinner for my new groom. There is a saying in the Deep South, “We are as poor as Job’s turkey,” which accurately described us as honeymooners. We were both in graduate school and lived from pay check to pay check. I was so proud of myself because I prepared Tom a delicious, nutritious dinner for only $1.88. That economical meal happened to be quiche. Proverbs 31 women had nothing on me as I thought I was truly the ideal bride.

Unfortunately, a book came out in the early 1970s that quickly became a thorn in my side. The name of that book was Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. I want to find this cleaver author some day and tell him just how I feel about his literary contribution and the trouble it caused me in my early marriage.

As I prepared the food, Tom started making faces, curling his lip, and asking what I put in the quiche. He began to tell me about his distaste for mushy egg dishes. Now, as he tells the story in workshops, he says that this had nothing to do with him being “a real man” at all. His honest impression of quiche is that it looks like something that was eaten once and someone brought it back up, baked it, and tried to eat it again. Usually this gets a “yuck” response from the audience, which further proves his point.

As we sat at the kitchen table discussing quiche, our conversation took a bad turn.  The conversation turned into an argument as we debated “the merits of mush egg dishes”, Tom got heated and said, “I’m leaving. I’m gonna go out on the porch and cool off.”

When he was young his mother told him that all good, hot-blooded, Portuguese boys should cool off when they get mad. His mother taught him, in lieu of losing his temper, and hurting someone’s feelings, to go outside and calm down. One would think that I, his bride, would see the healthy rationale in this–but no!  I had a major “old brainer.”

“Leave!…Did I hear you say leave?” The danger bell rang in the limbic factory of my old brain and there I was anxious, panicked, full of the fear of death.  I clung. I cried. I grabbed his leg.  “Please don’t leave.  How could you be so mean as to leave me at a time like this?!”

“Huh?” he sighed incredulously. “What are you so upset about? I’m just cooling off like my mom taught me years ago!  Can’t a guy get a break around here?”

My old brain did not want to give Tom a break, and my negative soul impressions told me that when a man leaves, he may not come back. At that point, I was not thinking like a young, sensible bride. I was thinking like an abandoned little girl.  It was very difficult for Tom and me that night. Needless to say our honeymoon haven had been disrupted by a terrible old brainer. I learned later that there was name for my overreaction. It is called — reactivity.

Reactivity

The definition of Reactivity is using more emotion in a current situation than it deserves because a soul wound is being triggered. As we stated earlier, many painful memories of our past are stored in the old brain. These memories can be triggered and activated by stimuli in our present relationships.  Let’s say that your mother was very lax in preparing food for you as a child.  Let’s also assume that your wife forgot to pack your lunch as you were leaving for work.  You may have one of many responses.  You may tell her that you are disappointed, and you request that she do better in the future.  You may also just overlook it and decide to eat out with your associates.  But if you overreact, get enraged, yell, threaten, accuse, or pout, then you are experiencing reactivity.

Old Brainers and Marital Strife

One of the things we learn the hard way as we dealt with reactivity in our early marriage is that if one mate becomes reactive, then there is a greater likelihood that he or she will trigger reactivity in their partner. This is what happened with us when we dealt with what we now call “the quiche affair.”

When I over reacted to Tom’s leaving that night as we argued over quiche, I triggered reactivity in him. He will tell you his story. I (Dr. Tom) grew up in a Christian home and had a pretty good childhood until I was 13 years old and I discovered that my father was having an affair with a nurse at our family doctor’s office. I told my mom, and my dad was furious with me, and blamed me for the conflict that ensued after. We called the pastor, our youth leader, and a couple of elders in our church to come over and try to help my parents patch things up. They managed to stick together just barely, but my dad never got over his anger at me, and my mom never trusted my dad again.

They stayed together for the next eleven years, but were never close again. My mom started to confide in me and tell me what a poor Christian and bad husband my father was. I wanted to be there for her, but her constant clinging and neediness was suffocating to me. I could not wait to graduate and go to college just to get away from her constant smothering. I, like Bev, thought that I could outrun those painful feeling of being clung to… until the fateful night of the “quiche affair.”

When I left the room to cool off, Bev reacted to her childhood soul wound of abandonment by begging, pleading, and clinging for me to return. Unfortunately, this triggered my soul wound of being suffocated and clung-to by my mom. I over reacted and felt the overwhelming urge to escape. Bev’s reactivity triggered my reactivity and both of us were severely overreacting. We call this phenomenon—interactivity.

Interactivity

Knowing what we know about the power of  “old brainers” to bring destruction to couples, it is easy to see how these experiences can become volatile. We often see that one partner, for example the wife, becomes fearful, angry, and overly emotional, which causes her to draw false conclusions about her husband.  Her husband will then become angry and fearful and hurl a few false accusations of his own.

Dr. Patricia Love calls this, “Making up your own reality about your partner.”  As you can see, I had made up my own reality that Tom would leave me.  I drew a false conclusion that he would do as other men had done in my past. Tom assumed that I wanted to suffocate and cling to him so he wanted to distance.

Our wounds were indeed interactive and both of our responses to our own woundedness served to further hurt each other. We were wounding each other in much the same way our parents wounded us and we could not seem to help ourselves. We felt like the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15, when he said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do” (NIV).

One of my greatest fears was that Tom would leave me, yet my hysterics could actually facilitate this reality.  My reactivity could have actually made it hard for him to stay.  I was doing that which I hated, because I was responding out of my fear and creating a struggle for my husband and he in turn did the same.

We sought help. We read books and studied many marital therapy techniques to begin to heal our soul wounds. It was from our own pain and the desire to help others in theirs that The Soul Healing Love Model was born. It worked on us and has worked on so many couples and individuals over the past 3 decades. The Soul Healing Love Model has 10 practical tools to help you understand your soul wounds, bring healing to them with God’s help, enable you to learn your partner’s soul wounds which enhances empathy, creates healthier communication and fosters forgiveness. For more information about our Soul Healers Couples Workshop or our Soul Healing Love Couples One to One Intensives, go to Rodgerscc.com and click the workshops tap. Help is a click away.

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