Is dissociation disrupting communication in your relationship?

Early on in our relationship, my partner and I thought we communicated well.

Like many couples, we loved to talk, to share and to spend time with each other. We believed nothing was off limits and would have never considered communication as an issue.

Early on – and of course, hindsight is 20/20 – there were things missing from our communication. My husband seemed to share things out of order or at odd times. Sometimes, I would find out about things much later than I would have liked. At the time, it was not a big deal but it was ‘off’ and he seemed overly forgetful or easily distracted by other matters.

In the early years, it was easy to explain these misplaced pieces as unimportant or as quirky. After all, he was a musician and weren’t artists kind of unbothered by the details of regular life? Plus, we were both occupied with work and university and starting a life together. At the time, it was noticeable and yes, bothersome but somewhat explainable.

However, as time went by, it became less easy to justify the intrusive or absent nature of information sharing. We had commitments like jobs, a home, and later, children. Things needed to run smoothly with plans laid out in advance. It became more challenging (and frustrating) when information ‘bombs’ dropped and plans abruptly changed.

Furthermore, some of the information was alarming. Based on what my husband told me, it sounded like things were not going as well as appeared in certain situations. But what did I know? The incidents were often outside the context of our relationship and home and I had no way to assess the truth. Deep down, I wondered if things were as bad as indicated, why did he not deal with it or leave?

Understandably, I thought it was about a specific situation or person and so I encouraged and sometimes, insisted he address the problems. However, resolutions of situations didn’t stop the communication disruptions. In fact, sometimes they got worse.

Both of us had no idea what this was about. When he shared something out-of-context, he remembered saying it but had no idea why it came up at a certain time. Often, he was deeply ashamed by what was happening. Furthermore, he admitted he felt stuck, unable to self-initiate changes to address the problems he was telling me about.

We felt scared.

He went to therapy about this and I went too. We desperately tried to explain it to professionals (even trauma-informed ones) but no one seemed able to help. He thought he was crazy and I was even beginning to question my sanity. Honestly, we almost split up because of the stress.

But we kept going and tried to believe and hope for an explanation.

And there was, which is the reason I write this post. I want you to know it’s not uncommon for people with childhood trauma to struggle this way. It’s not unusual for communication to be disrupted or interrupted. It’s not unusual at all.

Even more, it’s not unusual for relationships to struggle because of this.


Dissociation and communication

What my husband, myself nor the professionals whom he saw for years knew about was the presence of dissociation. Even later, with a correct diagnosis, no one seemed to really understand how to work with it.

But even if we recognize the warning signs of a childhood trauma history and correctly diagnose the post-traumatic stress, we still need to understand the pervasive neurobiological effects of trauma in order to effectively treat its aftermath.

Working with the Neurobiological Legacy of Early Trauma. Janina Fisher, PhD.


No one knew about fragmentation or compartmentalization.

Dissociation refers to a compartmentalization of experience: elements of an experience are not integrated into a unitary whole but are stored into isolated fragments. . .

Onno van der Hart, Bessel van der Kolk & Suzette Boon.

No one explained to us that there is a disconnect between parts of the brain in children who grow up in chronic conditions of threat.

Imaging studies have provided a remarkable view of the potential effects of childhood abuse on brain structure, function, and connectivity.

The effects of childhood maltreatment on brain structure, function and connectivity. Martin H Teicher et al.

No one identified identified parts.

The traumatized parts are not experienced as ‘parts of me’ but as symptoms. . .

Psychological Aids for Working with Psychological Trauma. Janina Fisher.

No one explained any of that.

Yet, this is exactly why there were communication disruptions in our relationship.

It is exactly why sharing information was chunked up. It is why ‘information bombs’ dropped’ and why it seemed our plans had to abruptly change.


Dissociation

Today, my husband is working on this with a therapist who knows how to work with dissociation. While the recovery journey is challenging for both of us, the knowledge of what is happening is a relief.

Sadly, it’s very hard to locate help for people with dissociation as it remains misunderstood, under-resourced, and not taught in most graduate-level therapy programs. I don’t want anyone to go through what we did.

I write this post to help you consider if this is an issue for your loved one or you and to offer you a possible explanation. Perhaps you can share it with someone to better explain your struggles and maybe, just maybe, we can begin to see change.

If you would like to understand dissociation and dissociative disorders a little better, I have put together a list of ten recommended posts/videos.

Other Recommended Reading
Working with the Neurobiological Legacy of Early Trauma (pdf). Janina Fisher, PhD.
Janina Fisher on innovations in treating trauma (interview). Psychotherapy Networker.