When Karen’s face popped up on my computer screen, I sensed a storm was raging in her world. “How’ve you and your family been doing with the shelter-in-place mandate?” I asked.
“Not great!” She fired back.
Frustration, disappointment, and resentment that she’d bottled up from the past week of lock-down surfaced and spilled over. She’d been sequestered at home with her husband, Thomas and two teen-aged sons. Karen’s distress levels were flooding her nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline, and she was in a deep state of fight or flight, while the men in her life were soldiering through this time, also living out their own battles activated by their nervous systems, in entirely different ways.
I listened as she vented her anger about Thomas’ broken promises and lack of availability. “He’s shut away in his home office working 14-hour days!”
The rhythms of life that had once forced Thomas into moderation were gone, and it seemed his old workaholic tendencies were on full-throttle. Karen’s anger mixed with grief as tears flowed. She described how her sons were also locked away in bedrooms playing online games for hours on end.
As Karen lamented about how Thomas had abandoned his earlier plans for positive family time during social isolation, I recognized her flooding emotions as her unique trauma response. The current situation was triggering Karen’s limbic brain to relive the betrayal trauma from an affair that she and Thomas had worked through in therapy the previous year. Now, her primitive brain stem was responding as if she were in a fox hole with an enemy. She had lost touch with her wiser self, compassion for her partner, and the skills she once possessed for healthy connection.
Though they were unaware of it, the social isolation and shelter-in-place policies had created a present reality where each member of this family was reliving the darkness of a traumatic past. The boys’ limbic brains were triggered to cope with their present lack of self-agency as they had the previous year when they felt trapped in their rooms to wait out the storms of their parents’ volatile arguments.
Now the family that had planned to make the pandemic a unique opportunity for home-based learning and reprioritizing their lives seemed disconnected, shut down, and blocked from connecting with one another at all. And the more Karen pushed to get them to alter their courses, the angrier they all grew with her.
I helped Karen soothe her mind and body with a “mindfulness in the moment” breathing and centering exercise.
When she was calmer, I reminded her, “You know Thomas better than anyone. What did he learn to do as a child when life was unsafe?“
“He and his family just pushed through,” she reflected, softly. “All they knew how to do was work!”
I could see the “ah-ha!” hitting her. She continued, “For the first couple of days of social isolation, he was relaxed and open to the creative possibilities of being home with the kids, and making special family memories. This made me happy and hopeful, but then it seemed like he just didn’t want to keep those promises.”
“Under stress, we all regress.” I reminded Karen of my personal mantra that I teach all of my clients. The stressful conditions present in this pandemic seemed to have activated Thomas’ coping mechanisms from childhood trauma. When we’d explored this in couples therapy the year before, he’d done a beautiful job of growing in self-awareness and tuning back into his relationship with Karen. I’d need a future visit with Thomas present to focus on this further, so I turned my attention to Karen.
“And what are your trauma triggers?” I asked her.
“Oh, it’s this abandonment!” she answered. “It’s awful! I feel like they’ve all betrayed me and turned away from me—but most especially Thomas! He’s left me to parent two reluctant teenage boys by myself, while he’s in the very same house ignoring us and behaving the same way they are!”
I was able to validate how frustrating and painful it must be for her to feel stuck, without meaningful connection when she’d expected it, and to see her loved ones numbing and spacing out to cope with their own losses. This would surely take her back to darker times.
She felt alone as she watched them spiral into purposelessness. Unfortunately, her distressed way of communicating in her attempt to rally them back to meaningful connection only caused further disintegration.
“I was sarcastic earlier this week, but it’s just dissolved into open attacks,” she confessed.
“I’m so embarrassed! It seems like all our hard work in therapy from last year has flown out the window!” Karen mourned.
“I don’t think your hard work was wasted,” I reassured her, trusting that when her own nervous system was soothed from our time today, she’d have her stronger, wiser self back. As Karen was able to attune to herself with compassion, and plan to meet her needs in healthier ways, she realized that she could prioritize turning toward Thomas with this same soft, open understanding. She planned to talk to him about our visit and would intentionally turn toward him frequently with warm kindness, instead of anxiety and contempt. This would soothe them both, helping them coregulate emotionally. Hopefully, their trauma responses to one another would reduce.
With renewed compassion for Thomas, Karen said, “I do understand that it must feel like he’s protecting us. It must feel empowering if he achieves more at work right now. Although in his profession, that’s crazy!”
“But what about his childhood? Then, it wasn’t crazy at all. It’s what his brainstem knows to do,” I explained. “It’s like his wounded inner child from the past has jumped into the driver’s seat of his life and grabbed the steering wheel, yelling, ‘I can save us! I’ve got to get to work!’ And nothing else feels important to him right now. He’s lost his former calm and the priorities that went with it.”
“I see that now,” she agreed. “He seems angry, but by his behavior, I do see how he’s triggered.” She paused, as more truth dawned on her. “We’ve had friends and family lose work,” she cried softly. “Of course he’s scared. His behavior makes sense now, even though I’d like him to stop.”
“And in the intensity of this triggering, he turns away from you. So it’s natural that you’d feel so many huge negative emotions like rage and disappointment, and you feel like lashing out at him.”
“You know,” she confided, “I’ve gone to sleep the last couple of nights thinking, “I just have to get out of here. I can’t stay here.” I’ve been planning how to take the kids away without him. Which is the last thing I really want to do—but it felt necessary when I was triggered.”
We discussed that she did need a plan for self-care, but in her case, it wasn’t to leave. Karen and her whole family needed to create daily rhythms where they could all work, connect, have some time apart, and move their bodies. She decided to schedule her mornings to include yoga online, some contemplative reading, and virtual work sessions with a colleague.
We also scheduled an online couples session for the two of them to process the difficult feelings from this rough week, so they could work together on how best to move forward.
In that couples session, I asked Karen, “What do you need from Thomas?”
Her voice was gentle, “Besides listening, I just really need hugs. Lots of hugs!”
Thomas reached for her with the promise of many to follow.
The couple would focus on staying soft through the muscles in their bodies—continuing to release and ease tension through mindful breathing and deeper relaxation. They’d learned to recognize that body tension coincided with mental rigidity and emotional negativity. And they recalled ways they could break their cycles of negative thinking, behaviors, and interactions.
Karen and Thomas each committed to the Gottman exercise of Seven Weeks Toward Fondness and Admiration, setting an intention each day to focus on a loving cue in order to reignite their positive emotions. They also established some new rituals of connection to break up their work-at-home days. They stopped for coffee breaks, hugs, and meal preparation.
They included a de-stressing check-in each day to share the answers to the following three questions: What do you feel? What do you need? And how can we collaborate so that you meet that need in a healthy way?
Through this process, I trusted that this couple would be able to have the important conversations about needed changes for their sons, their relationship, and for each of them individually.
We are in a pandemic. Everything is uncertain. We’ll all be triggered in some ways—shutting down, fleeing, getting angry and reactive. But hopefully, as Karen and Thomas did, we’ll also lean in to the opportunities for growth individually and together.
This piece was also published on The Gottman Relationship Blog. https://www.gottman.com/blog/under-stress-we-all-regress/