John Gottman on Trauma and Relationships

I recently read an article by John Gottman that I highly recommend to anyone who has ever suffered from trauma (you can find it HERE). The article helped me to understand many things about my past relationship experience and why some of my relationships have been so vastly different from others.

According to Gottman, humans are wired for connection from birth, but trauma rewires the brain to seek protection instead, and we are constantly scanning the environment to determine whether things are “safe” or “unsafe.” Gottman says that emotionally safe people can help trauma suffers regulate their nervous system by creating a safe place for thoughts and feelings. He writes: “co-regulation happens when another person sees and hears your feelings and experience. This allows you to feel comfortable.”

This is so incredibly true and explains so much of what I have been through over the past few years of dating. I have been in relationships with people who were extremely capable of co-regulation, and I have been in relationships with people who were not, and the difference is night and day. Those who have been able to help me co-regulate were able to validate my feelings and walk me through my moments of fear and anxiety by expressing empathy and understanding (no matter how crazy my fear might have seemed to them), while those who were not capable of this would jump to defense and invalidation (“That’s ridiculous!” “I can’t believe you would even think that!”) With the former, I felt heard which helped me to feel safe. With the latter, I became even more anxious and afraid.

Unfortunately, the difference also affected how I acted toward my partners. With those who were able to help me co-regulate, my fear and anxiety dissipated quickly without descending into arguments. With those who were not, however, my fear became worse, growing to the point of total meltdown and horrific fights. I’ve written about this a lot over the past few months, because I am still struggling with feelings of guilt and shame regarding some of the things I did and ways I acted during a recent unhealthy relationship (I told a friend, recently, that it feels a lot like an identity crisis. Which person am I? The person I was in that relationship? Or the person I’ve been in relationships both before and since then? The fact that both versions exist within me is extremely unsettling). But I am also coming to understand that I must practice self-compassion (interestingly, Gottman talks about this as well), and part of that lies in recognizing that who I was in that relationship is not who I’ve been in all my relationships. (And even in the unhealthy relationship, my ex and I had many moments when we were capable of this and we both recognized that during the times when one of us was able to remain level-headed we were able to work ourselves through a potential fight without a catastrophic meltdown. Unfortunately, these times were just too few and far between to enable us to maintain a healthy balance). But even though that relationship wasn’t healthy, many of my relationships have been, and those were filled with empathy and kindness and compassion. After reading Gottman’s article, I realize that my recent ex and I were simply unable to consistently help each other “co-regulate.” This is no one’s “fault” and has to do with a number of variables, personality differences, and past experiences. But after almost a year of therapy and countless books, I have come to understand what a critical, crucial role this co-regulation plays for those of us who suffer from traumatic pasts and how vitally important it is to choose relationships with those we can do this with.

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