Why Small Things Become Big Things in Your Relationship: Making Sense of Trauma

Two years ago, I started the daunting task of potty training my two year old. The Cliffs Notes version is she was timid about pooping in the potty, something my pediatrician told me was very normal. This led to her holding it, which led to constipation, which led to a painful first experience on the potty, which led to months and months of resistance, lots of tears (mostly mine to be clear) and endless frustrations. 

Once I got to the point of visualizing my daughter in her cap and gown graduating from high school in a pull-up, I decided to call a trusted colleague for help. She sent me a book called The Ins and Outs of Poop by Thomas R. DuHamel. The book told me that my daughter had been through a poop trauma and therefore, needed to go through some trauma resolution steps to help her feel comfortable and safe pooping in the potty. This may sound as dramatic and over-the-top to you as it did to me at first. Until a mere five days later, after following the trauma resolution protocol, I had a bona fide potty pooper. And just like that, I believed the book’s every word.

Why are you telling me this and how does this help my marriage? Great question.  

I’m telling you this to teach you about trauma. If you or your partner has been through something traumatic (even if the traumatic event was years or even decades ago), it may be affecting your relationship. It may be causing behaviors (likely not resistance to pooping in the potty) that are problematic in your relationship. You may be responding to these behaviors with frustration, tears, and anger like I was, and feel as hopeless as I felt. I needed to know three important things to help my daughter and restore sanity back to our lives. These three things can help your relationship too.

  1. Acknowledging that there was a traumatic event. 

I hear this all the time in couples therapy: Why does my partner get so upset over such small things? 

When there has been traumaan experience when a person felt unsafe, violated, abused, abandoned, betrayed, neglected or helpless to protect themselves or someone elsethere is often a long-term impact. This impact commonly shows up in intimate relationships.  

For example, Mike may express frustration that Amanda forgot to call the plumber. When he complains, Amanda gets extremely defensive and hostile. Mike is quick to conclude that Amanda is irrational and overly emotional. What Mike later learns in couples therapy is that when Amanda would forget a task as a child, her father would berate her and call her insulting names. When Mike pointed out her forgotten task, she subconsciously braced herself for a verbal attack.  

Once the pooping book told me very directly that my child had gone through a poop trauma (yes that makes me giggle a little now), I immediately had a different feeling toward her behaviors. Instead of frustration, I felt compassion. The same thing happened for Mike. He stopped viewing Amanda as a drama queen, and instead, compassionately recognized she had been through something traumatic.

     2. Recognizing the behavior as an adaptive response to trauma.

To be clear, I am not saying accept difficult behaviors and don’t worry about them because they came from trauma. I am saying, recognize that your partner’s response was likely a very adaptive way to protect himself or herself from harm or prevent future harm during or after a traumatic experience. Instead of “What is wrong with you?” It’s more like “Oh, I get why you avoid talking to me when you are upset, emotions were probably scary in your home growing up, and keeping quiet was the most effective way to stay safe.”

If someone is expecting pain, it makes sense to be avoidant. When someone is expecting to be hurt, it makes sense to get defensive and self-protective.

Understanding my daughter’s reaction as a response to a traumatic event changed everything.  When I thought my daughter was just being stubborn (“I don’t like the potty, I prefer a pull-up”), I got super frustrated. When I realized my daughter was scared it was going to hurt, like it did the first time, I again felt compassion.

    3. Learning what helps.

The knowledge that my daughter went through a trauma and was having an expected trauma response did not make me give up and invest in years’ worth of pull-ups. And you shouldn’t expect that the problematic response of your partner continue endlessly as well. What this knowledge did do was motivate me to learn more, understand more about what she was going through and use more effective tools in the moment to help her feel safe so that she could change her problem behavior.  

You can’t resolve your partner’s trauma for them. However, I have seen partners significantly promote their partner’s healing from trauma when they come alongside them with compassion, knowledge and tools. 

Who knew poop could teach us so much?


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