by Benjamin Fry
Maria and Simon Paxton recently declared in the Mail On-line that they were so much closer now they were divorced. How can this be?
Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that “hell is other people”. Well there is no greater hell in another than a broken relationship. So why would a divorced couple get on better when not married? The answer is quite simple if you understand trauma theory.
Every experience has two components; firstly a “trigger” and then a “reaction”. Much of what we do in our trauma work therapy is to firstly identify the difference, and then to work on the nervous system to calm the reaction. So the first step is to actually know that there are two factors involved. Two. Sound familiar?
In every relationship this dynamic is mirrored. The “other” of Satre fame is my trigger, and my trauma reservoir feeds my reaction, which if strong enough feels like “hell”. The unending dynamic of relationship is trigger and reaction, trigger and reaction, trigger and reaction. Now when we add in the romantic and domestic element of a relationship, we add fuel to this fire of reactivity.
Much of the experience of a close relationship, like a marriage, is a suspension of disbelief that we are now “safe”. This security allows us to access vulnerabilities which were previously just too overwhelming to permit. In some ways, therefore, we become less stable, not more, when we feel firmly held in a loving bond. This can be seen as a relief; we can stop holding on (there is even a film about this called “waiting to exhale”).
However, the problem is that this letting go results in us accessing even more reactivity, which results in us blowing up even more and even bigger to the same triggers as before. That’s why we usually have our biggest rows (and if we’re honest often show our worst behaviour) with the people we love the most. Lovers quarrel in a way that people who just know each other a bit never do. Love, and the activity of being “in” love, turns up the dial on our reactions to the triggers coming from the loved one.
So when we fall out of love, take a break and then meet again years later, the other person hasn’t changed (they still provide the same “triggers”), but we just don’t react so much anymore. We are not so open to them, and therefore not so bothered. In fact, we might say something like “I can’t believe I used to…”
There is another layer to this too. Just by not being “in” love anymore, we remove not only our reactivity, but also many of our triggers. We tend to project a great deal of stuff onto those we love, the residue of unfinished business with our first love objects (usually parents), and so we are actually manufacturing much of the content of the triggers too, not just our reactions to them. Being “out” of love tends to fracture these projections and hence calm down the supposed triggers.
Love needs real skill and self-knowledge to navigate. We work on boundaries to bring reality to our triggers, and on trauma reduction to calm down our reactions. Then “other people” can be our heaven, because we return our own biology to where it was meant to be, an Eden of self-regulation.
Benjamin Fry works across a range of services and media using personal, professional and scientific expertise to help people to a baggage-free life. A published author, and a past columnist for The Times and Psychologies magazine, Benjamin is a social activist in mental health. He founded Get Stable in 2010 to get effective treatment paid for by the state and his great passion is to bring treatment, which works, to all levels of society and across all severities of conditions.
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