8. GettingStuck Regressing-StressAbuse - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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8. GettingStuck Regressing-StressAbuse

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Excessive stress, abuse, or trauma causes individuals to get stuck at or to regress to the stage of those experiences.  Extreme emotional or psychological disruptions draw a person's energy and attention away from dealing with or resolving the developmental needs of the current stage.  Skipping or rushing development creates stress in of itself that can be dysfunctional and scarring.  New stress in new situations such as the romantic relationship can draw the individual into a regressed developmental response that perplexes or hurts other people, including partners or family members.  Identification of the symbolic nature of the triggering stress is critical to helping the individual differentiate current issues from the original stress, abuse, or trauma.  If the individual cannot differentiate the current stress from his or her historical stress, he or she cannot differentiate historical anxiety, fear, pain, or hurt from the current actions of associates, friends, or his or her partner or family member.  The individual then holds the other person as culpable for his or her current experience of betrayal, abandonment, or rejection.  This often sets off a cycle of negative actions, withdrawal, and vengeance that others, especially ones romantic partner finds incomprehensible. "What?  What was that about?  Why?"  The energy or attention of everyone may get drawn exclusively to the current drama or trauma.  The therapist should direct the individual, couple, or family to consider that there may be original stressors that lead to the individual's sensitivity and sense of vulnerability.  Therapy should examine and identify as appropriate if the original harm may be from attachment failure from early infancy and childhood or other emotional/psychological stress, abuse, or trauma.

The most significant cue for developmental issues is when a client appears stuck or regressed at or regresses to an earlier stage of development.  Stress, trauma, and abuse will forestall an individual's focus and energy to meet developmental needs.  These needs do not go away just because one grows older.  For example, if a child is not allowed to explore independence around the toddler and early preschool ages, the need to be independent may be suppressed but not eliminated.  Many cultures other than modern mainstream American culture are more conservative whether they allow their children to explore freely, while others that are much more liberal.  In addition, there are multiple American sub-cultures with various attitudes to exploration and independence.  Children who are over-controlled and not allowed to experience independence or autonomy often explode in adolescence with intensely defiant behaviors.  Children may be restricted due to individual family values and/or traditional cultural values.  American children that are raised in restrictive households eventually are thrust forth into a more permissive larger society with peers who are more actively and freely exploring and risk-taking.  Defiant behaviors are often from individuals regressing to meet earlier developmental needs.  The behaviors are often very intense because of energy required to burst through all the years of parental and cultural restraints.  Of note for this discussion, these children become adults who become seek intimate relationships as partners in couples and as parents in families.  Their needs and energy for independence may erupt in the inter-dependent, independent, and dependent balance or imbalance of being a part of a couple or family.

When an individual acts in an immature manner identifiable as characteristic of a particular age, it may be indicative that he or she experienced major stress, trauma, or abuse at that age.  An individual may report or one or more members of a couple or family start bickering like 5 year olds, or collecting allies (unfortunately, usually picking one or more of the children) like a pre-teen, or punishing his or her partner with silence like a disconnected teenager.  Such behavior can point the therapist to the period of an individual's childhood when his or her energies were diverted from normal developmental challenges.  Age-appropriate developmental challenges- for example, how to negotiate conflict between friends or siblings, may have been diverted, because of an alcoholic father who needed to be kept from liquor, or a family code of denial of pain, or constant humiliation and physical punishment.  The original experience of stress, trauma, or abuse needs to be elicited and processed in therapy for the individual, or for a partner in the couple, or for a family member.

The developmentally stuck person is playing out, in the hopes of a better outcome the childhood dynamics with his or her current intimate figure: antagonist, lover, friend, colleague, boss, partner, or family member.  He or she is looking at the other person as continuing an original betrayal, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or rejection.  His or her early experiences may have made him hypersensitive to any slight, even unintentional from another person, perhaps especially his or her partner.  The stuck person needs to understand and distinguish between the original abuser and the current individual in his or her life.  Otherwise, he or she will continue to angrily punish the other person, in particular his or her partner for crimes he or she did not commit.  The causes damage in all relationships, but cause the greatest damage in his or her most important relationship.  The partner needs to understand the deep trauma that is at the source of the hypersensitivity and subsequent behavior.  If the partner is unable to understand and honor the motivation of the terrified hurt inner child to protect itself from historical trauma, then the partner will focus only on his or her personal sense of betrayal and injustice.  Empathy for the other person including an intimate partner is lost.  If the therapist can facilitate empathy for the terrified hurt inner child, then comes the possibility to distinguish between the misdirected motivation and the hurtful behaviors.  The stuck person can more clearly communicate his or her developmentally child-like needs in more positive manners, and the other person can strive more readily to meet those needs, while establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries.  With this insight, another such as the partner is less likely to dismiss these needs as immature and more likely to honor them as developmentally essential. Developmental needs can be delayed, diverted, or waylaid, but not denied and continually reappear in new relationships.

Harriet and Kaemon, a young professional couple both in their late twenties presented for counseling.  They were dressed in business suits and altogether very well groomed.  In the first session, the therapist covered the logistical details: insurance billing, scheduling, cancellation policies, etc.  That all goes very professionally as would be expected.  The therapist then begins the session with, "So, what brings you to therapy?" With that, Harriet turns to her boyfriend Kaemon and says in a pouty 13 year-old little girl voice, "Well, it's just that you're so mean to me!"  From about 28 years of age, she had immediately dropped about 15 years of maturity to early adolescence.  This was an immediate cue that there was probably a major stress, trauma, or abuse episode or situation that Harriet endured at around that age.  And, that it was being evoked and ignited again in her relationship with her boyfriend.  As Harriet began to expound on what Kaemon does, the therapist is conscious that the facts don't count.  The details don't matter.  What is important is what her facts symbolize, especially how they symbolize an unresolved developmental issue from that earlier era of her life.  If allowed to get into the details, Harriet and the couple will argue the details without gaining any benefit from the discourse.  In fact, it will be highly distracting and damaging as they contest the facts and effectively deny each other's realities.  The objective realities are relatively unimportant.  However, the symbolic realities are critical.  Unfortunately, many individuals are unable to articulate the symbolic realities, hurt, pain, anxieties, and fears.  Kaemon's experience was that he was unjustly criticized and punished for trivial issues where he had no negative intent.  The therapist can choose whatever feels like the most appropriate style to reveal the underlying trauma.  

It can be done through family of origin and cross-cultural work, "What were the models for conflict in your home?  Was there someone who hurt you this way before?  How did you father treat your mother?  You?"   

Or, experientially, "What are you feeling when you say that?  Do you hear your tone?  What do you want?"  

Or, gestalt work, "There's hurt and anxiety in your body and voice?  Where is the tension?  Stay with it.  What does it tell you?  When did you feel it before?"  

Cognitive work or insight work can also be very helpful to access the core issues, and enough for some individuals or couples to move forward.  However, depending on the depth of the trauma (stuckness), it may not be enough by itself to facilitate the change or growth.  Additional cathartic work may be necessary.  

In this example with this couple, therapy involved a combination of insight work and cathartic work using gestalt techniques to help Harriet become aware of her original trauma.  Quite probably, this could have been done in individual therapy with Harriet if she had come alone to therapy.  The original trauma come from her father's Scandinavian cultural style amplified by his alcoholism-fueled emotional unavailability, and his affairs and eventual abandonment of the family.  She became viscerally self-aware of when the anxieties were ignited within her.  Talking about it brought her back to that pre-adolescent place of vulnerability.   Until this work was done, Kaemon could not understand where Harriet was coming from.  He just knew that he was blasted for nothing seemingly.  Harriet had not been able to articulate to him, "When you do that, I feel like the lost little girl I was when my father did that.  And I want you to respond differently… better…"  She put that out to him instinctively (but obtusely) as she still needed resolution for what needs unmet in her family-of-origin.  Harriet had been stuck, trying to get unstuck.  However, Kaemon did not know that she was stuck, wanted to get unstuck, and most importantly, that he was supposed to get her unstuck!  Therapy needed to uncover these foundational traumas for both partners to understand… for both partners to find compassion for Harriet and her trauma.  Only then, could Kaemon make sense of her seemingly illogical reactions, better manage his reactivity, and seek to engage with her empathetically.  As therapy lead Harriet to her deeper injuries, she was able to take responsibility to self-soothe herself rather than only rage at Kaemon for the wounds he had not created.  She was then better able to ask for and negotiate for the care she needed.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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