Wounded associations

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 Breaking an association that is invalid, or no longer valid, is difficult because associations are far easily to make than to unmake, and we can end up doing, thinking, or feeling things that we should not due to an associations that is no longer valid or needed.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.

2 Comments on “Wounded associations

  1. I have to wonder… Is everyone in your world a complete emotional quadriplegic?

    The frequency with which you discuss “wounded” people, using a variety of adjectives for more or less the same thing, has become, shall we say, notable for its extremity. Not just in the last week, mind you. It seems to me that, by far, the majority of us are relatively normal, relatively well-adjusted, relatively even-keeled, relatively emotionally stable.

    You talk about these situations as though everything we do, everywhere we go, every word we speak, every gesture we make, every effort we attempt will be colored, twisted, and damaged by the fantastic, age-old, and unhealable viciousness that apparently permeates every single one of us from sufferings throughout our entire lives.

    I don’t buy it.

    My woman is a statistical psychologist, who spends her work time with disturbed kids. She leans heavily on a psychological philosophy and theory of counselling known formally as Reality Therapy. A layman’s summary of RT is that, yes, you have problems, yes, there is difficulty to be overcome, yes there are coping strategies to learn, but NO, you may NOT blame your harsh toilet training as a child for everything — that was then, this is now; stop being such a totally reactive victim to whatever has gone before, and start growing up (and she says just those words to adults in her care from time to time) and learn to deal with what is in front of you — reality — from this point on. If you want to “get better,” to “be healed,” to function better in society, to have a better relationship with your spouse, it is Your Problem to deal with it, not Everybody Else’s Problem to coddle your imaginary fragility. It’s a blunt way of dealing with people who want to blame the world (especially their past) for their troubles rather than take responsibility for getting back to a point of normalcy today.

    In such a light, I’m just a little tired of being told, over and over and over and OVER again, that every well-meaning effort on my part and every utterly innocent word that falls from my lips is doomed to the pit of misinterpretation and inadvertent exploitation.

  2. @karl – You asked me if “Is everyone in your world a complete emotional quadriplegic?” The answer would be no – however, I have come to realise that the vast majority are walking wounded. Their wounds mean they are suffering, less happy and successful than they could be, and it means they hurt others around them – and the hurt those closet to them the most. You may think this is exaggeration, but when you look at the frequency of divorce, spousal abuse, depression, addiction and so on and so on in the world, I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of folks are deeply messed up.

    You said “It seems to me that, by far, the majority of us are relatively normal, relatively well-adjusted, relatively even-keeled, relatively emotionally stable.” Then how do you explain the things I mentioned above? Are these the results of people being normal, well-adjusted and stable? If most were as you suggest, I just don’t think we would see what we see.

    I do know most of us assume others are like we are, so you are probably much as you describe, and thus see others as you see yourself. For much of my life I assumed as you do, basing my assumptions on my personal reality. It’s not that I think I’m perfect, but I have had it better than most folks, and that tends to result in being more stable. However, the deeper I dig into the reality of the marriages around me, the more I find that all to often the apparent normalcy is a thin veneer.

    Is everything we do coloured by our past? It does not have to be, but for those who have deep problems they have not dealt with, this will be true to some extent.

    I do not disagree with what you state as RT, but I would add a few things.

    Firstly there are a lot of folks who don’t SEE that they are acting out of their past hurts. They just see it as how they are, and as such not something that can change. I don’t buy that, it’s an excuse, a cover. I see a lot of men who are bumping into and hurting their bride and kids because they refuse to think the things in their past are influencing them.

    Secondly, there is a point at which wounds are not self-healing. A sunburn will take care of its self, a broken leg will not. Asking someone with a broken leg to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is cruel.

    Thirdly, some of the results of the past seem to go away for a while, causing folks to think it’s no longer an issue. Until there is stress, and then there it is again. I also see folks who push it away because they have things they want to do, or responsibility. This works for a time, maybe for decades, but often it does not stay pushed away. I think much of what we call a “mid-life crisis” is a result of this kind of thing. Same for women who get divorced after 20+ years of marriage for no discernible reason other than they want to find themselves.

    I fully agree that we can all be as healthy as you suggest most are, but my experience tells me that many are not. There is a lot of anger, abuse, and sin hidden in people’s lives, and just because we don’t see it on the surface does not mean it’s not there.

    I doubt I have changed your mind with this karl, it’s really more as an explanation for those reading along. I don’t mean to come off as “you are wrong”, although I’m sure I have, but it’s not what I see. It’s been suggested to me that I see more of this because I am looking for it, and because of who seeks me out. No doubt this is the case. It’s like buying a new car and “suddenly” you see a lot of the same car out there. It’s not that there are more, but that you are more aware. I have certainly become more aware of those who are suffering, and causeless suffering, because of past wounds. I am also aware this is a root cause of a lot of suffering in marriages, and as that is my passion, I take it seriously.

    All of that said, I thank you for your observation. I will be more aware of mentio0ing this, and will be looking to see if it’s showing up too often in what I post. It’s easy to get unbalanced, and I do not want to do that.

    Finally, please know that I wrote the text on the cartoon for my Saturday tip BEFORE you replied to me here – it is not a slap at you!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: