We Hurt Each Other When We Don’t Understand How Trauma Works

Lissa Rankin, MD
8 min readNov 16, 2023

Gordon’s girlfriend Steph has to leave home for stretches of time for her work. They live together, and when they’re together, their relationship seems great. He’s happy to see her after work every day, he thinks fondly about her when he’s at work, he’s grateful for her when he comes home, they do their best to share their inner lives with each other, and they have a great sex life. He regularly tells her how much he loves her. She lights him up inside when she smiles. He can’t believe he got lucky enough to have someone so precious to him love him back. He tells her all the time, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” When he says it, he sincerely means it.

But something happens when she goes away.

He doesn’t really notice what happens. She’s the one who notices. From her perspective, it’s like she goes from being his best friend and most cherished ally to being his enemy, even though she doesn’t know what she’s done. His energy almost instantly switches from grateful cherishing to passive aggressive punishing. But when she asks him what she’s done to deserve the punishment, he denies that there’s anything wrong. But she can tell. Something is wrong.

Within twenty-four hours of her absence, she winds up feeling accused of something he can’t quite name, explain, or even acknowledge. She feels so confused, like she’s driving down the road, going the speed limit and obeying all known traffic rules. But then a cop pulls her over and gives her a ticket.

“What did I do wrong, Officer?

“I don’t know. But you did something wrong. I can feel it in my body. You’re guilty. Guilty, guilty, guilty!”

“But how can you write me a ticket if you aren’t accusing me of breaking the law?”

“Because I can tell you deserve it. No talking back now, missy.”

Those aren’t Gordon’s words- they’re the words inside her own head. But that’s how Steph feels within 24 hours of heading out of town for work- punished. It lights up all her parts that were so scared growing up of being a bad girl, of being punished, of doing something wrong and setting off her mother. It reminds her how when she was little and her brother would do something mean, she’d get punished, even when she was innocent- because she was the oldest and her mother expected her to be the perfect one, capable of keeping everything under control, including her brother. That falsely accused feeling makes her freeze sometimes. She just wants to know what she did wrong so she can fix it, make it right, at least apologize.

Clearly, Gordan thinks she’s guilty. But guilty of what? Doesn’t matter. Gordon is writing her a ticket nonetheless, just like her mother.

What’s Going On Inside?

If only we had wise, insightful narrators, like a Greek chorus or a good therapist watching the scene, explaining to us what was actually happening behind the scenes, we might hear the narrator explain that Gordan’s young exiles are attached to Steph but not to Gordon. As long as Steph is there, tending to him, paying attention to him, holding him in her arms at night, snuggling up with him and making love with him, his young parts are hunky dory.

But as soon as she flies the nest, those young parts start crying inside. They’re attached to Steph, as if Steph is their mother. But Gordon is not their father, so they feel frightened, rejected, abandoned, lonely, and sad when she leaves. But Gordon can’t really handle feeling those feelings, so protector parts jump in to start acting out, punishing Steph for leaving. Those protectors convince him not to read or respond to her texts- to make her wait, to make her pay. They make him ignore her after telling her he’ll call that night. Then they make him lie and claim to have forgotten he’d said he was going to call.

They fill his social schedule so chock full that he doesn’t make time for a date night on Zoom while she’s gone. But he makes sure he goes out with his female friends, the ones who are hoping he breaks up with Steph and chooses them instead. They agree to have clear boundaries with these women so Steph doesn’t need to feel threatened, but then they cross the boundaries- not sexually, but in other ways that knock Steph off balance and make her doubt whether she can trust him about bigger things when she can’t trust him about keeping his promises and abiding by his word regarding the smaller boundaries.

These little digs sting, and they add up. Steph is as happy as Gordon is when they’re together, but every time she goes away, she wonders if she’s made a mistake. She has a part that badgers him to try to get him to keep his promises, stop punishing her unfairly, and try harder to keep their connection solid when they’re long distance. But the more she pursues and prods him, the more his punishing part that just ignores her more, like “Take that, bitch!”

She has a part that protests and begs him to be nicer, kinder, and more respectful of her needs. But when she does that, the voices inside his head tell him she’s SO controlling, SO needy, SO annoying, SUCH a burden.

His protector parts convince him she’s really just trying to use him for his money like the others did. She’s really just a conniving, manipulative, untrustworthy minx, his inner voices chatter. She’s going to exploit him, drain him dry, then run off with someone else once she’s gotten everything she can out of him, his protect parts tell him. She can’t be trusted. He can’t let his guard down. The other shoe’s going to drop any minute now. She must be hiding something bad bad bad. She’s guilty guilty guilty. So he has to mete out the punishment.

The Greek chorus would tell us he just has to keep her off guard, make sure she doesn’t get too comfortable, destabilize her just enough- so she stays close, but not too close. He can enjoy the times when she’s home, holding his exiles, comforting them and keeping their tender feelings at bay. But he can’t let her really attach, really feel safe, really get intimate. That would be too scary. Then he might lose her one day.

When his parts get paranoid about her, he forgets in those moments that she makes her own money in this job that takes her away from him. He forgets that she actually earns money for him and gives him more money than he gives her. He forgets that he can’t think of a single time she made a commitment and then didn’t keep her word, even though he breaks his promises on the regular whenever she leaves town. He forgets that she’s never cheated, not on him, not on any of her former partners, assuming she’s telling him the truth. He forgets that he’s the one who told her to take the job in the first place. He forgets that she’s offered to quit, and he’s the one who always coaxes her to keep the job. Because, as much as he can’t admit it, he can’t let himself get too happy either. Destablized is good for them both, his protector parts say.

He forgets he loves her when she’s away, forgets he’s so grateful for everything she does to make his life far better than it was before they met. It’s like the parts of him that really care about her go completely underground when she gets on that plane and flies away. He doesn’t really understand why he starts thinking differently about his girlfriend when she leaves, why his thoughts change from grateful ones to paranoid, punishing ones that cast her as someone he must guard against.

He also doesn’t understand that as soon as he picks her up from the airport, he’s tight and contracted in his body. He doesn’t relax for days afterwards. When she touches him, he flinches, and he doesn’t reach out to touch her until days have passed and he starts to soften again. His thoughts gradually shift back, and one day, he wakes up next to her and can’t believe how lucky he is to have this wonderful angel in his life.

But she has “walk on eggshell” parts that are constantly confused, bewildered, always wondering when Office Krupke is going to show up and give her the next ticket. Whenever she goes away, she has parts that need a lot of reassurance, a lot of comfort, a lot of connection after work, just to feel like they’re still a couple, even if they’re geographically far apart. She tells him this. She can articulate better than he can what she needs to feel safe and stabilized when she goes to the job they both thought would benefit them as a couple. She doesn’t realize he has parts that don’t want her stabilized. They want her off guard, never quite safe, never secure enough to truly relax into the intimacy she deeply wants and he’s terrified of.

By the time Steph returns from work trips, she’s so upset at how Gordon has treated her while she was gone that she thinks about ending it all. All the passive aggressive punishing reminds her of her mother, and she just can’t handle the feeling of being false accused when she can’t think of anything she’s done wrong, other than go on a work trip for a job he encouraged her to take because the money was so good.

The problem is that neither of them truly understands how their attachment systems work. They don’t know each other’s protector parts well because they tend to just “blend” with them, rather than being able to speak clearly on their behalf and make requests from a Self-led place. When they fail to understand what’s going on inside themselves and each other, it all just feels like painful chaos.

Soon, I’ll be writing a series about attachment styles and how understanding our own and each other’s attachment styles can help us be kinder, more generous, and more compassionate to ourselves and those we care about for the free version of my Substack “The Body Is A Trailhead.I’m also regularly putting out chapters from my unpublished manuscript The Boundaries Handbook about IFS-informed boundaries for my paid subscribers.

Check out The Body Is A Trailhead on Substack here.

Paid subscriber Mitzi Schwartz gave me permission to share a comment she made about what I’ve been writing there.

“Lissa, IMHO, you are one of the clearest voices in our world who truly understands and therefore is able to clearly and directly articulate what trauma is. Your ability to describe its origins, how it presents and impacts people and therefore societies, and how we can bring awareness and healing to its often disastrous consequences is pretty unmatched. You bring much-needed Light into our world.” -Mitzi Schwartz

I’ll still be writing, per usual, here on the blog and letting you know about events, classes, workshops, and other news. So please, if you subscribe to Substack, don’t unsubscribe here! I’m mostly using Substack to write about IFS, trauma-informed medicine, boundaries, and spiritual bypassing. But I’ll still be writing about whatever else feels relevant on the blog, so stay with us here, please.

If you know anyone else you think might benefit from The Body Is A Trailhead, please refer your friends. You can even give gift subscriptions on Substack, which is a cool way to connect with others in recovery from trauma. Reading a post together and talking about it can be an intimate and insight-producing way to heal together. I hope all my expensive therapy helps you all learn as much as I’ve been learning!

Warm hugs in dark times,

Lissa

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.