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Dealing With Defensive Walls

What to do when havens become prisons.



RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Very few people escape some form of trauma in their lives. Most survive those personal tragedies by developing physical or emotional escape strategies that help them cope at the time.


One of the most common of those defensive mechanisms is to create an emotional wall that helps to separate the person from the event. It is a private and hidden haven in which he or she can somehow control anguish from which they cannot escape.


Most people carry these escape havens into intimate relationships in their adult lives, whether they realize it or not. They are unconscious default responses that are ever ready to avoid the pain of potentially re-emerging past traumas. When activated, they allow a person to unconsciously or consciously retreat behind the walls that are still there, prisoners to their prior sorrows and unable to be fully present in the current relationship.


These emotional walls show up in many different ways. Sometimes they are subtle and slow to emerge, but at other times, they are intense and reactive, seeming to come out of nowhere. The partner who retreats behind those protective walls may not even realize he or she is experiencing the buried pain of the original trauma.


Here are some examples that may help you and your partner to recognize the emergence of defensive walls and to help each other maintain equilibrium when they threaten to disrupt your relationship.


Suddenly erupting defensive walls


These sudden eruptions seem to come out of nowhere and often leave the other partner surprised, wounded, confused, or defensive. Often, they have been smoldering for some time without evidence they are brewing.


Hyperreactivity


When a trigger to prior trauma is activated, the person experiencing it is re-experiencing the original anguish as if it were happening again in the current moment. It can be triggered on the other end of any behavior that rekindles the memory of the past trauma.


The partner re-experiencing these intense feelings may suddenly snap, walk out, counter-attack, or become immobilized, unable to function. They are clearly responding to their partner as if they are someone from the past. Their emotions are out of control, and they react as if they are about to be mortally wounded, immediately retreating into their once-protective haven.


Meltdowns


If the partners re-experiencing trauma cannot get their walls up fast enough, they may fall apart. When exposed and vulnerable in that way, they often decompensate, exhibiting pain, rage, confusion, or helplessness. Seemingly out of nowhere, they cannot control the flood of emotions that overtake them like a bursting dam.


Meltdowns often accurately qualify as a PTSD response, erupting because of long-term suppression they can no longer bear. The partners on the other end who have may have no knowledge of the past trauma often feel helpless and don’t know what to do. Those feelings of powerlessness can trigger their own need to retreat, creating feelings of abandonment in the partner melting down. If that becomes a replication of what happened in the original trauma, there is an immediate deepening of the need to disconnect as they once did.


Personality changes


Partners on the other end of spontaneous and rapidly emerging walls often report that those partners seem to be someone they don’t recognize. Drugs or alcohol may also provide the gateway for less inhibition and can too easily be blamed for the sudden eruption, rather than the realization that the hidden trauma is the true culprit.


Eventually, those sudden eruptions and the personality changes that often accompany them will emerge independently. A person who is normally quite compatible and easygoing can, all of a sudden, erupt in anger and blame, threaten to leave, make wipe-out statements, or not be amenable to any resolution in that moment.


Rage is not always the only reactive behavior. Some people may just retreat into silence in an urgent need to put physical distance between themselves and the entrapping situation they are experiencing. They may present that urgency with finality, as if they are never coming back, which may create panic and fear in their partners.


Slowly emerging walls


Most people are drawn to their partners by a sense of familiarity, even if that ensures that these trauma-induced behaviors are more likely to happen.

If, over time, they begin to be triggered in the same familiar patterns that were part of the original need to separate out, they may begin withdrawing into those places that once protected them. Their outward behavior may seem unchanged for a while, but as behaviors begin to emerge that are reminiscent of past trauma, the warning signs of retreat become evident.


Martyrdom


When people continue to present themselves as stable and fine while feeling disappointed or wounded inside, they are likely slipping into martyrdom. They have less and less ability to receive for fear of losing control. They may begin to keep score internally while seeming fine on the outside, presenting a “brave soldier” outward appearance while withdrawing internally.


Signals that martyrdom is beginning are subtle. There is less talking, less frustration tolerance, resistance to simple requests, denial of distress, and less interest in events that would normally be more intriguing.


Escaping


The partners who are slowly retreating behind their emotional walls often turn to outside relationships or situations while simultaneously being withdrawn in their primary relationship.


When challenged by their partners that they seem happier elsewhere, they are likely to defend and excuse what they are doing, not wanting to risk their primary relationship by admitting what is obvious. The abandoned partner tries to challenge the reality but often feels futile and powerless to stop it.


Sometimes those escapes are temporary and do help the trauma reactions quiet down. If a person who normally retreats behind walls instead embraces new challenges, commits to self-healing, or just takes time for self, it may help them put things into perspective.

But other times, they create a true challenge to the relationship’s continued success. A love affair is an obvious example, where a person can stay behind walls while enjoying a safe spree or open up to someone they are not yet untrusting of. Another example would be fully immersing oneself in a new direction that doesn’t include the current partner but takes significant amounts of energy and time away, leaving the emotional walls intact between them intact.


Subtle distancing


As protective walls re-emerge, the person going into hiding predictably begins to split off. Though they appear to still be present and interactive, they are beginning a slow retreat from the relationship.

Some will become much less involved. They restrict access to their inner worlds and are not curious about their partners’ lives. Their behaviors seem more robot-like as if they are participating in the most minimal way they can while still seeming part of the relationship. There are greater periods of silence and less desire for intimacy or affection. When questioned or challenged, their most typical response is to excuse or deny, attributing their less involvement to other issues.


Key takeaways


There are similarities in all of the examples above. The person whose once-protective havens beckon will slowly split off and live from behind them, while seemingly still present. When they do, they erase the intimate connection they once had between themselves and their partner, now experiencing their partner as the same kind of person who originally hurt them. Perched to be hurt again, they can no longer see the hope they once felt that their partner was different.


Whether mild or severe, those walls that were once havens of protection now become prisons, keeping those who created them from ever living beyond those limitations.

Intimate partners who understand what is going on recognize what is happening and do not take these retreats personally but rather want to know how they have activated the triggers. Though they know they cannot heal what has happened in the past, they can keep from repeating the behaviors that continue to harm.

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