Many of us have experienced a degree of trauma, but it doesn't need to have the upper hand.
One of the joys of my work as a priest is helping couples prepare for marriage. As part of the process, the couples always find it interesting to take a personality inventory, which shows how they match up on certain topics. The question topics are wide-ranging and various, including their attitude toward owning a dog, how they’re going to celebrate Christmas, and how they think about saving for retirement.
Believe it or not, marriages can flounder over these issues. It isn’t necessary that the couple agree on everything, but it’s important for them to be aware of their differences, talk them through, and prepare to make compromises – or even better, commit to forge a new life together without prioritizing their own personal desires. It always helps to think of the marriage relationship as an adventure, a new stage of life that is free of preconceived expectations that are being brought into it. It’s two people building a single life together.
For some, thinking back to something as simple as a Thanksgiving dinner is a nostalgic trip down memory lane. For me, it brings to mind my grandfather standing on the back deck, whiskey in hand, smoking a giant turkey over hickory wood in his grill. It brings to mind playing with my cousins, card games that drifted late into the evening, and my aunts and uncles gently teasing me. Other people think back to Thanksgiving and it brings to mind family dissension, arguments, and memories they would like to forget.
When we dig into our past, there’s almost always some amount of trauma that is unearthed – an estimated 70% of people have some sort of traumatic experience in their lives. It may be an intense experience like divorce, death, illness, accident, bullying, neglect, or abandonment. It could also be, seemingly, more mild, like an old argument that was never resolved, an embarrassing experience from high school, a lingering self-doubt that developed in childhood and won’t go away. All of these experiences, if left unexamined, continue to affect us. They damage us emotionally and even physically in ways we may not even be able to understand – all we know is that we’re behaving in a self-destructive way and seem powerless to stop it.
This is why, when I talk with engaged couples, it’s vital that we examine those old memories and acknowledge all of the baggage from the past, even if it seems unimportant. Often, the way a person enters into a new relationship is shaped by the past. The issues could go all the way back to childhood, because that’s when we’re most impressionable. A problem might arise that is traced back to how their parents treated each other, how they argued, if they ever yelled.
The point is, varying levels of trauma from the past are a fact of life for all of us. Life isn’t perfect, so we all have our ups and downs. This doesn’t mean we’re broken and incapable of healthy relationships, it only means that we have some work to do when it comes to gaining self knowledge and placing our past in the proper context. This is particularly important when it comes to the most important of our relationships – marriage and parenthood.
How to overcome trauma
I have very fond memories of my childhood and admire my father very much. When I first became a father myself, I resolved to participate in the lives of my children in the same way mine had, to coach their sports teams, play catch with them in the yard, take them for bike rides, and read books with them. I’m fortunate to have a good example to fall back on. I know many people, though, whose fathers – or mothers — were absent, or harsh and demanding, or had broken relationships with their children. People with these experiences struggle with fear. They’re afraid they’ll be failures in their marriages and as parents, just like their parents were. They’re afraid to commit to the relationship, afraid it will end badly, that it will result in hurt.
Whenever I go through the marriage preparation process with a couple and one of them has a divorce in their background, I take special care to talk with them the conditions that led to the breakup. Often, there are issues surrounding that experience that continue to manifest in lack of trust, unwillingness to be vulnerable, and self-doubt. In order to keep the past from poisoning the new relationship, the old one must be examined openly and honestly, because we are never free of our past until we truly understand it and begin to take steps to heal.
Dr. Javier Fiz Perez wrote a piece here at Aleteia not too long ago that has excellent advice about recovering from past trauma. His first steps include accepting the past and talking about it with someone who is supportive. This is essentially my role in marriage preparation. He also recommends professional help, which is certainly warranted in some cases. Ultimately, the goal is changes in behavior and the elimination of the ongoing influence of trauma.
What’s most important with past trauma is the simple willingness to acknowledge it, because once we identify it specifically as trauma, as wrong, suddenly that experience is put in its proper place as an aberration. It should not have happened. The entire world isn’t entirely dark. All marriages aren’t doomed to fail. All parents don’t fail their children. We can do better. We will do better.
What if marriage prep included the first 10 years of married life?