My husband has developmental trauma and no one told me about it.
What is developmental trauma?
Commonly, with developmental trauma, there is no single traumatizing event, but rather, ongoing experiences of neglect, abuse, and misattunement. The early nature and chronicity of developmental trauma, along with the relational element when parents are the perpetrators, create the therapeutic [and interpersonal] challenges…
Laurence Heller, PhD and Aline LaPierre, PsyD, Healing Developmental Trauma
Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score writes that chronically traumatized children and adults consistently demonstrate the following symptoms:
Pervasive biological and emotional dysregulation, failed or disrupted attachment, problems staying focused and on track, and a hugely deficient sense of coherent personal identity and competence.
But, nobody told me this. Nobody explained what my husband’s symptoms meant and what this would mean for our family.
The Reality of Developmental Trauma for the Family
Despite the growing body of literature about trauma for clinicians and laypeople, the visibility of campaigns like #MeToo, and an almost daily inundation of news stories about the prevalence of abuse in the Catholic church and sports organizations, there is a dearth of resources for adults with developmental trauma and their families who are left with a landfill of leftover issues from one (and sometimes both) adults’ childhoods.
The chronicity of living with a dysregulated person takes its toll. Many partners and children develop symptoms of secondary traumatic stress, leading to mental and physical health issues, increased employee and school absenteeism along with decreased productivity, social isolation, unstable family dynamics, addictions, family breakdown, and high Adverse Childhood Experience scores for the children.
But nobody tells you this.
The Pressure of Developmental Trauma on the Family
The pressure of loving and caring for a person with developmental trauma is overwhelming. Partners are caught between deeply loving a person while at the same time needing to protect their own health and often, the health of children. It’s an almost impossible situation where the people responsible for the damage have long since abdicated. Partners know it’s not the fault of the adult with the trauma. Most of us are long past the point of self-blame too. We’re all caught in an invisible prison of the past. We need help to get out too.
This is why it is astounding that more resources are not available for the families of adults with developmental trauma.
I know I am not alone in this situation. I have had countless with partners who struggle to make sense of their loved ones’ symptoms, to find resources, and to continue to make a life for themselves and often, children.
So why isn’t anyone telling the partners this? And what needs to change?
The reality is that one adult’s unhealed trauma plays out in relationships in the home more so than any other venue. Transference and countertransference are not limited to a therapeutic relationship.
Partners and families need skills and strategies to cope with the dysregulation, the disruptive and sometimes, explosive interpersonal dynamics, and brain issues such as inattention, impulsivity, over-reactivity, and disorganization. We need education and explanation. We need people (i.e., clinicians) to offer these materials and connections to support resources. It is neither reasonable or realistic for partners to find resources themselves–although many of us do.
As well, clinicians need to include the partners in the recovery process. The home offers a plethora of insight into the inner world of the adult with the developmental trauma. Clinicians need to be open to hearing from partners about what is going on in the home.
Unfortunately, by the time most of us locate a therapist that can work with developmental trauma, the family unit is in crisis or disintegration. Partners may be showing signs of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious traumatization. This makes the work of detangling the current dynamics difficult and sometimes, impossible. In an ideal world, the family should not reach this point before therapy and support begin.
Partners, families, and adults with developmental trauma need to know the truth. We need to know how childhood trauma impacts an adult, what to expect, and how to manage it in the home— at all stages of recovery.
Today, I know my husband has developmental trauma. He knows it. Our children know it too. My wish is that someone had told us this sooner.