Our brains are designed to make connections – to associate a feeling with an image, a smell, or a certain look. We make such associations based on things that injure us particularly fast as this helps us avoid future injury. Most of the time these connections are good – they cause us to recoil at the sight of a snake or stop when we hear a growl. The associations we have made function faster than our conscious thoughts, and the time they save us can be life saving. Again, this is good, but it also means that the reactions based on these associations are not within our conscious control. Breaking an association that is invalid, or no longer valid, is difficult because associations are far easily to make than to unmake, and we can end up doing, thinking, or feeling things that we should not due to an associations that is no longer valid or needed.
Associations formed due to physical or sexual abuse are particularly strong. Associations based on emotional abuse are usually a bit less strong, but still very powerful. By-in-large the strength of an association is a function of how much the event hurt and how many times it happened. This means a very bad one time event can be very strong, and that a much less harmful event repeated many times can also be strong.
A few examples:
- A girl is repeatedly beaten with a brown leather belt. Years later, her husband takes a similar belt out of his pants, and his wife panics. She suddenly feels unsafe, and fears he is going to hurt her. She may or may not make the connection, and even if she does she is likely to feel uneasy with her husband even though she knows in her conscience mind that he would never hurt her.
- A parent would get drunk on a specific form of alcohol with a distinctive smell, and then yell and threaten. Years later the smell of that drink, and only that drink, causes terror.
- A certain word or set of words was used to hurt a child, or those words were used when the child was being hurt. If, for example, a father said, “I’m doing this because I love you” as he beat his children, the words “I love you” could trigger negative emotions when those children are grown.
- A college student is “teased” about some aspect of his or her physical appearance, mannerism, or some other trait. The teasing feels excessive, but the person feels powerless to stop it, or even to protest. As an adult, that person will be very sensitive to any teasing, as well as hyper-sensitive about whatever the teasing was about.
- The above are all extreme examples to make the point – however, much less extreme situations also occur. In some ways these can actually be more difficult because the less severe reaction may not be as readily noticed as out of place or irrational.
Dealing with associations that are harming your marriage is difficult, and it takes time to find, face, and break each association. It often takes help to see the associations, or to suspect them based on the symptoms they cause. To some degree, you may be able to help each other see the associations, depending on the level of health and trust in your relationship. In some cases, you will need trained third party help to find and/or to deal with the associations.
Before you start showing your bride her associations, and telling her how they harm you, spend some time praying and looking at yourself. Learn to see out of place or too extreme reactions as a hint that there may be something in your past that is causing you to react wrongly. Also, ask your bride where she feels your reactions are odd, out of place, or irrational. Don’t argue with her when she suggests something – tell her you will pray and think on it. Ask a couple of friends if they see anything odd in your reactions in the area your wife has pointed out. Who knows, when she sees you working on this in your life, she may be challenged to do the same in her life.