Trauma, PTSD, and other troubling experiences can invade and derail your relationship. Join sex therapist Laurie Watson and marriage therapist George Faller as they respond to a listener’s letter about her husband’s PTSD and how it plagued their relationship.
Laurie Watson : So today we’re going to talk about trauma, particularly from a listener who has written us about her husband who was traumatized in the police force.
Laurie Watson : Hey, you’re listening to Foreplay Radio for Couples and Sex Therapy, and I am Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.
George Faller: And I’m George Faller, your marriage therapist.
Laurie Watson : We want to take a wide lens on sexuality and talking with you about what we’ve learned as experts in the field on how you bring your body, your mind, and your brain to the sexual experience.
George Faller: We want to expand people’s perspective of just talking about sex, that it’s not something to be avoided. It’s actually something to embrace and to lean into with an openness to be changed by what you hear.
Laurie Watson : So we’ve got a long one here to read. A letter from a listener who particularly was drawn to you and your experiences in PDFD as a first responder, and is excited about you joining the podcast because she resonates with that. Her husband is a police officer.
Laurie Watson : And she says, I’m really hopeful that the addition of George will be of specific benefit to my particular situation. I was married for 25 years to a 15-year big city police sergeant who was just diagnosed with complex trauma and PTSD. We were both raised in a very restrictive religious atmosphere and have struggled with the sexual component of our relationship from the start. We each have been each other’s only sexual partner and waited until marriage to engage in intercourse. But I had every reason to believe that our sex life would be satisfying.
Laurie Watson : I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that one of us is a sexual withdrawer and emotional protector, and if you’ve guessed that that’s my husband, you would be correct. We have sex about once a month now. I almost always initiate and it’s driving me to distraction. We have a wonderful counselor who specializes in first responder families, but I’m running out of patience. My husband says he needs me to seduce him, but I find it hard to seduce someone who it seems is not that into me and has retreated further than ever into his internal world.
Laurie Watson : I read and studied about trauma and how it affects individuals and families, and I’ve even recently become certified in trauma informed yoga. Wow. She’s going all out. I can’t get my husband to read anything. I come from a long line of broken, cold marriages. My parents haven’t shared a bed in 20 years and I’m afraid I’m doomed. I’ve done a lot of work on myself with many miles to go, but I am desperate for close, intimate, passionate, physical connection. Help.
Laurie Watson : Gosh, my heart goes out to this woman. I mean, she clearly loves her husband, wants him, wants him to be healed, is doing all this work on trauma, doing all this work sexually to figure it out. And fearful that she’s just going to replicate her past.
George Faller: Right. And there are a lot of directions we can go with this. I mean, I think in another podcast, we’re going to have to talk about just how frustrating it is for some of these pursuers to want engagement and not get it. Right? And how we could help them be more patient and stand up for what they deserve.
Laurie Watson : Right.
George Faller: Right? But I guess what seems most helpful here is to just try to understand the tough spot her husband’s in. And even as you’re reading it, my brain was wandering off to, on nine-eleven, I could remember when I’m down at the site and I’m crawling into these voids and with all the smoke and you can’t see anything. I’ll never forget, and I write about this in my book, Sacred Stress, that I heard this loud gonging sound. And that sound meant you needed to clear the site because the adjoining buildings were likely to collapse. And if they collapse, you’re going to be buried alive.
Laurie Watson : Oh my God.
George Faller: The problem is we’re an hour into this thing and who knows if we’re going to find one of our brothers who are lost. What are you going to do? And that gong, we need to keep going. So that need to turn off your emotions to focus on your task. It’s so adaptive in those moments of stress.
Laurie Watson : Of having to accomplish something.
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson : Of going forward.
George Faller: Right. But now, what it takes to turn off those emotional signals. Now all of a sudden, a couple hours later, I’m heading home. How do I talk to my wife about any of this stuff?
George Faller: Right? So I’m always trying to connect with this great training that your husband has to try to avoid these emotional signals. Because as a police officer, you can’t really have a moral debate about what’s going to happen and should I not, all of these process-
Laurie Watson : Right. You have to act.
George Faller: You have to act.
Laurie Watson : Because if you don’t act, people die, right?
George Faller: It’s about being decisive.
Laurie Watson : Yeah. You have to.
George Faller: Right. So this training that is helping him professionally is hurting him personally.
Laurie Watson : Emotionally.
George Faller: Right.
Laurie Watson : And clearly, he’s completely shut down now.
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson : And I don’t want to go too far away from your experience for just one minute, because I just feel that in my heart. I’m so grateful that you lived and can imagine what it cost you to keep going. And, of course, what it costs the two of you, you and your wife, to process that and figure that out eventually. But, I mean, it feels so, I don’t know. It feels so scary. It feels so, I almost feel weepy about it, just what people like you and this man have to struggle with in order to do something that keeps the rest of us safe and saves us, literally.
George Faller: I could see my training kicking in now. You’re saying I can feel weepy and emotional. I’m like, just turn that stuff off. We got a podcast to do, right? I mean, that’s-
Laurie Watson : You don’t want that.
George Faller: It’s trying to help understand that this avoidance of emotions becomes overused. Sometimes it’s very effective and necessary and adaptive, but it becomes too comfortable. Any good trauma work is trying to get people to confront their fears.
Laurie Watson : Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Faller: They have good reasons to run, if you look at the symptoms of post traumatic stress, the hypervigilance, the negative thoughts, intrusive images, the avoidance. All of that is trying to make the person head away from their fears. So we’re picking up a theme here on these podcasts that so often when people head away from their emotional signals, in the short-term it makes them feel safer, but in the long-term it just creates lower levels of engagement and more thicker walls.
Laurie Watson : I would also say, we had a conversation last night about transference. And to me, transference is a shared emotion and we’re not always sure who originates it. But, I mean, I think what happens in coupleships, right, is like my weepiness, my fear is something that I’m picking up from them, something that maybe I felt from your history. It’s present, it’s real. It’s not just in me, it’s also between us. It’s between this couple.
Laurie Watson : And oftentimes the partner feels the frustration of their partner not being able to reach out. She’s working, working, working, and she feels so frustrated, and of course it would be frustrating to her. I understand that. But she’s also like, there’s something between us that it’s almost like reading their mind. I mean, he must be as frustrated in this lonely separate place, and she’s carrying the whole burden of the frustration. Does that make sense?
George Faller: It does.
Laurie Watson : Like when we’re with our patients and they tell us something, or our friend and, I mean, and we feel something emotionally, it’s the in-between space. It’s not just, I’m not just feeling sorry for what happened. I’m also absorbing emotionally what is between us.
George Faller: And that’s really important to have a successful life, to see the opportunity in feeling these emotions and allowing yourself to go. There’s a liberation in that. If you always have to put restraints, if your body’s constantly scanning for the possibility of threats, then you’re going to miss all these opportunities.
George Faller: And unfortunately, that’s what’s happening with somebody who’s experienced a trauma. Right? It’s like their nervous systems to get stuck in a higher red alert place and it creates this feedback loop, which a lot of us call a trauma trap, that literally, because of the trauma, the world becomes a scarier place. You need increased amounts of safety in your life, because you’ve just experienced something pretty horrific.
Laurie Watson : Mm-hmm (affirmative). But if you go toward the safety, then what happens to the body of the person who was traumatized? What do you-
George Faller: Well, what is safe is avoiding situations where that might trigger that trauma response, which means you start to hide more and seclude yourself and retreat from the world.
Laurie Watson : So when they go towards sex, that is supposedly this safe place, they can’t do that, right, because it’s too much vulnerability. So, and if they reduce their barriers, their blocks, their walls, the intrusiveness of the trauma is going to come. Right? The thoughts about it, the memories, all that. And so, they’re avoiding that situation of literal safety. They need safety. They need to be comforted. They need to feel their partner’s body so that they can get regulated again. But they can’t afford to do that, because what they’re up against is all this fear and the possibility of being flooded, essentially, by that trauma.
George Faller: It’s a horrible combination. The world becomes less safe, which means you need your partner more. But the partner also becomes more unsafe, because you don’t know how to communicate this. And then you start to create a negative cycle with your partner, so now that’s not a resource. So now the world becomes even more unsafe, because your partner’s not there.
Laurie Watson : There’s no place to go. There’s no respite.
George Faller: It just keeps coming back, feeding back on itself.
Laurie Watson : Uh-huh (affirmative).
George Faller: And it’s-
Laurie Watson : And this has been going on for our listener for 15 years, right? Married 25, he’s been a cop for 15 years. So-
George Faller: And it could show itself differently. Not all trauma survivors are going to not want sex. Some of them are going to want sex two times a day every single day, because that’s their way of feeling a sense of control. Right? But when the world feels helpless because of the trauma, people want to have more control. Some gather that through avoidance. Some gather that through obsessive compulsive ways of making the world safer. But the goal is to same. It’s to make the world safer.
Laurie Watson : Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it’s true that, actually in PTSD, 70% of people who have PTSD, they’re sexually disrupted. I mean, you’re right. Sometimes it becomes obsessive, either an attempt to fend … I’m not sure that it’s that sexual, but sometimes it’s an attempt to fend off feeling, like they’re using orgasm to fend off feeling other things. And sometimes it becomes where they’re desperately, like any addiction almost, they’re desperately trying to feel something. So let’s come back in a little bit and further explore what is happening in this couple-
George Faller: Awesome.
Laurie Watson : About why sex is so turned off. And it sounds like lots of things that are turned off between them.
Speaker 3: Speaking with certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson, from Awakening Center for Couples and Intimacy. Laurie, what is an intensive?
Laurie Watson : So an intensive is 12 to 14 hours of therapy all in one weekend. And it’s a way to really make fast progress compared to weekly therapy. I mean, there’s just so much more you can get done when you have a chunk of time.
Speaker 3: Overcome the challenges in your relationship and your sex life. Learn more about intensives and Awakening Center’s other services at Awaken Love and Sex.com.
Laurie Watson : Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books, and I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book Sacred Stress, a radically different approach to using life’s challenges for positive change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies and turn stresses into a positive force in your life. And who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days?
Laurie Watson : We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing, but George and other EFT therapists all around the country and the world hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson. And it helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at georgefaller.com.
Laurie Watson : One of the things that this woman isn’t feeling, but I think is important to talk about, when your partner has been traumatized. And I particularly see it in the women, the partners of husbands who have been traumatized, is sometimes, you said, the world isn’t safe and they’re resonating in this highly pitched way about the trauma.
Laurie Watson : And that often is where women turn off to their partner. They want to comfort them, they want to be with them, but they almost feel this high pitch, and so then they can’t relax sexually and they need to. And so, that’s why sex sometimes goes wrong on her side of it, is because she’s resonating with his trauma. This woman, for whatever reason, is able to stay pretty clear of that and still want him, still want to be with him, which is wonderful and a gift, especially a gift if she can get through to him.
George Faller: Right. So let’s try to understand how to get through to him. How do we help this man in this situation confront these fears instead of just giving into the avoidance that’s slowly numbing out his life? I think to understand it, what we call that therapeutic window, where we don’t want to overwhelm the person with their trauma, but we also don’t want to avoid talking about the trauma, because then you can never heal it.
George Faller: So there’s that sweet spot in the middle that says, all right, can you tolerate, what’s your capacity like to kind of revisit this? And if it becomes too much, how do we ground you and get you to regulate? Because if it becomes too much, then those strategies are going to kick back in again. And I think this is what’s so frustrating for the partner. It’s like, when’s the right time, there’s never a right time. That’s because this person is torn between these two places, which is, I don’t want to get overwhelmed, but yet if I never talk about it, nothing ever improves.
Laurie Watson : I never get healed.
George Faller: I never get healed.
Laurie Watson : And so in my theory, I think they’ve got to talk about it. They’ve got to talk about it with their partner too. I mean, how did you decide at some point to talk a little bit about it with your wife? I know you guys got healed of it, what made you say it’s worth the risk of telling her what I went through?
George Faller: It’s a difficult process. It starts with a few sentences and it increases with success over time. But there’s a saying in every firehouse that says, whatever you see here stays here. You strongly … Let’s pull back a second. I really need my listeners to understand that when you are off in war or in one of these trauma situations, the levels of engagement are so high.
Laurie Watson : Right.
George Faller: The people you’re with get it. You’re laughing and crying and sleeping together and eating together. You’re doing so much emotionally. The levels are through the roof.
Laurie Watson : Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Faller: Right. And then you come back into a world or into an environment where people really don’t get it.
Laurie Watson : Yeah.
George Faller: And you’re encouraged not to talk about these things.
Laurie Watson : They’re going out to work there. They’re doing other activities.
George Faller: Right. You’re worried about the sports [inaudible 00:16:18] and food and like these things that aren’t so relevant.
Laurie Watson : It’s not survival.
George Faller: It’s not survival. So there’s a crash that comes for any trauma survivor when they get reintroduced back into everyday life.
Laurie Watson : Right.
George Faller: It’s a set-up for both partners to really miss each other. So I think what I had to learn to do is, I didn’t need to share the details and what I saw or what I smelled or you know, but I could start to share what it felt like to be so helpless to be looking for people and not find them.
Laurie Watson : Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Faller: I remember the dogs, the search dogs at ground zero were getting depressed after days of never finding anyone alive.
Laurie Watson : Oh my God.
George Faller: So what they would do is they would actually, they would bury live firefighters so those doors could have some success and feel like they found somebody.
Laurie Watson : Like it was worth-
George Faller: Like it was worth their time, right? So how can I talk about those feelings. Right? My wife can’t relate to them.
Laurie Watson : How could you not talk about those feelings? You’re the trauma guy.
George Faller: That’s a good pursuer answer. That’s a good pursuer answer.
Laurie Watson : You’re the trauma guy. But I just, I don’t know how people can go on without revealing.
George Faller: Because the feeling is-
Laurie Watson : I mean, I know you had all your buddies, but they didn’t have your experience.
George Faller: Well, the feeling is if I’m going to talk about it with my wife, I’m going to have to feel it again. Talking about it means you have to feel it again. I don’t want to feel it again. So that’s one of the big draws of even initiating a conversation. Then there’s the fear that if I bring it up, it’s going to trigger a lot of fears in my wife-
Laurie Watson : Sure.
George Faller: And she’s going to worry about me. So I don’t want her to worry about it.
Laurie Watson : You’re protecting her.
George Faller: So it makes a lot of sense to protect her and myself by not having a conversations. What I’m not recognizing is, not having a conversation is also leaving me alone in these places.
Laurie Watson : Right.
George Faller: And the numbness that starts to take over your life as you chronically, habitually put up walls to turn off your emotional signals. That I’m not recognizing.
Laurie Watson : But you’re also saying, I don’t need to tell those details. I’m having trouble with that. It’s like, how do people get through this without telling the details?
George Faller: Well, I think there’s a time and a place of when you’re talking about specific traumas. You’re in battle and you lost your comrade. I mean, you do need to … The science behind, I think we live in exciting times, because we’re starting to see what’s happening live in the brain if we’re looking at FMRI machines or, what we’re starting to discover-
Laurie Watson : What parts of the brain light up when people are triggered or-
George Faller: Scared. Right.
Laurie Watson : Yeah. And comforted too, which is great directive research.
George Faller: I get excited about the theory of change, that what happens to a traumatized brain is it does need to replay the memory. But the whole key is as it’s replaying the memory, can it attach a new experience to that old memory? So if I’m thinking about working with a lady who was molested when she was younger and nobody was there for her. Right? We need to bring her brain back to share that scene. I was in my room and this is what would happen and this is how I felt and I’d look out the window. And her body will go back there. But the difference is, she’s now sharing that with her husband, witnessing, holding her-
Laurie Watson : He’s right there. Right there.
George Faller: Telling her it’s not her fault, right? That he loves her regardless, that she did everything she could. That’s the corrective emotional experience that starts to rewire the brain.
Laurie Watson : Right.
George Faller: So we do want these traumatic episodes when it’s safe. You have to build a capacity to get there. You have to start talking globally about things. I feel kind of guilty. I feel helpless. Having your partner respond and having some success and letting them in starts to build the capacity to get further into the details. A lot of partners want the details right out of the gate and it’s just too overwhelming. That therapeutic window, it just becomes too much and that person shuts down.
Laurie Watson : So the partner goes too fast.
George Faller: Yes.
Laurie Watson : Uh-huh (affirmative). And doesn’t let the person wander their way into it. Maybe ask too many detailed questions, has their own body get in alert. And that tells their partner, the traumatized partner, don’t share. I’m hurting my wife by sharing this with her. So she needs to, what I talk about with partners sometimes is you need to hear the whispers first. It’s like you have to hear in the beginning something that’s significant and just receive that. And it’s almost the way she receives it in her body with patience, slow, kindness without necessarily pushing. Well then what happened?
George Faller: Right. I was working with a special forces soldier and he had been deployed multiple times and he came back. And he just, this is the start of a share an experience. He’s not talking about what he did down range. He starts to talk about what happens to him when he goes to Walmart.
Laurie Watson : Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Faller: Right? So he goes to Walmart on a Black Friday and all of a sudden, what does he feel? He feels nothing. He feels empty as he sees the chaos and all the energy and the laughter and he can’t relate to it.
Laurie Watson : So different than his world was.
George Faller: It’s so different than his world.
Laurie Watson : It’s not survival. It’s shopping.
George Faller: Exactly. So if he’s in session with his wife and he’s trying to describe that empty feeling. Right? And we do want to get people in their bodies. So much of the trauma work is really highlighting. This is where it’s stored. Not in the frontal cortex where people are telling, sharing information. It’s stored in their bodies and what that’s like.
George Faller: So when this guy can describe that emptiness in his chest, going down to his stomach. Right? And his wife can hear that and say, I have no idea you’re feeling that in Walmart. Right? And then she reaches over and she starts to rub his chest and she starts to rub his stomach. And I ask him, “What’s that like as your wife’s hand is rubbing your chest?” And he says, “I can feel warmth.” Right?
George Faller: It’s that warmth in a place of emptiness that starts to retrain his body that there’s a very different way of doing it. His sharing didn’t lead to further avoidance. It actually led to some warmth. So much of what we’re trying to do is to get those examples of success that start to build that muscle memory towards further sharing, further vulnerability, further safety.
Laurie Watson : And what I like about that example is it’s kind of wordless. I mean, she’s not offering something that could be trite or, it’s okay now or … It’s just touch that is connecting, almost like she’s reaching into the empty place the best she can.
George Faller: That’s right.
Laurie Watson : And touching him. I mean, I think that is some of what drives me to work in sexuality, because it’s such a powerful place of being regulated. But it’s more than just that. It’s, in this example, it’s her touch, her understanding that gets communicated by the body, where trauma is stored, right? Trauma is stored in the body.
Laurie Watson : And I think, I want to go back a minute. You said something about how when we tell the trauma story or we tell the details and a person is there empathically, holding us, touching us, holding our hand, listening to us, looking at us. It’s such a different experience than being alone in that loss trauma.
Laurie Watson : Whereas when PTSD is happening, the story is being told in their head over and over again without the other. There’s nobody that they’re telling it to. They’re just telling it in their own head. And that continues the alert, the vigilance, the raised blood pressure that says, Oh my God, it’s happening again. It’s happening, it’s happening and happening. And they’re off. They have panic attacks and things like that. But when they’re telling the other, they’re grounded, somebody’s listening, somebody’s caring. And I think you’re right.
Laurie Watson : I often ask people to maybe do something sexually that is a six. And so, I ask people to rate things, scale of one to 10, how anxious does this make you? And we settle on a six. And it really doesn’t matter, because everybody’s six is a different, but that seems to be the right amount of tolerable anxiety that they can take an action, take a risk.
Laurie Watson : And I think what you’re saying is, we want the person with trauma to tell us in pieces so that they are not going to an seven, eight, nine, 10, where they get the panicky feeling. But we also need them to tell something that is anxiety producing so that we can be with them and help heal them.
Laurie Watson : And so that’s what she needs. So what can she say? First of all, I think listening to the part that he has told her, the whispers. And how else can she encourage him? Because I think this is, as an officer, right, a police officer, this is chronic. He’s probably had to make all kinds of choices, through many years, that are traumatic.
George Faller: Well, I think we’re going to have to devote a whole podcast to how do we help her stand up in more gentle, calmer ways. The first step is how do we get him to really want to face these fears? And the only answer to that is he has to have some success in little pieces to start leading him towards further and further sharing. So lot to talk about as we just jump into trauma, but I think what we want to do next week is get more focused when the trauma is sexual.
Laurie Watson : Okay. Let’s talk about that next. Thanks for listening to Foreplay Radio.
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