All couples are traumatized couples. That is, every relationship goes through some kind of traumatic incident: a breakup, a cheat, a lie, a devastating discovery by one partner that the other partner is flawed. I believe all couples can benefit from EMDR therapy.
Jen and Cary came to see me just two years into their marriage. Both in their early forties, with good-paying jobs and no children, Jen and Cary planned to travel, cook, entertain friends, and enjoy their freedom for the years to come . . . until something happened that disrupted the whole mirage.
One day as Jen cleaned the guest-room closet, she found a box of unlabeled DVD containers. Curious, she dumped the contents of the box onto the floor and began opening the plastic jackets. The first disk had, “Hot Mamas,” written in red marker across one side. Another said, “Susie Meets the Fleet,” and another, “Come Here Little Red.” A sick feeling in her stomach, Jen carried the disks to the DVD player and started with the first one. The shock froze Jen to a spot on the floor in front of the TV screen as she saw images of nude women writhing around on lounge chairs, running ice cubes over each other’s bodies.
When Cary got home that evening, the entire stack of porn movies sat on the kitchen table, where he normally tossed his keys. Jen cried alone in the dark living room.
“How could you?!” she said when Cary reluctantly went in to face her.
This event started a downward spiral of unresolvable arguments that lasted for six months. “I thought you loved me!” Jen said. “I do love you!” Cary said. “Then why do you need them?” Jen said. “I don’t need them! I just never got rid of those old DVDs,” Cary said. Jen felt rejected and betrayed. Cary felt worthless and ashamed. They slept in separate rooms for a few weeks. He tried to placate her, apologize, offer gifts. She tried to submerge her anger, but she couldn’t stop thinking about those women and picturing Cary pleasuring himself with their screen images. Does he think about them when we’re making love? Does he wish I looked more like them? Am I not good enough for him?
By the time Jen and Cary made it in to my office, they barely acknowledged one another. Cary looked deeply miserable and kept his eyes down. Jen could not stop the flow of tears.
This event marked the first significant trauma in the life of their relationship. Here’s what we did to address the trauma and help Jen and Cary repair their attachment.
First, EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy with both Jen and Cary , separately. I worked with Jen on the horrifying worst moment of discovery – the picture of those women with the ice cubes. EMDR allowed her to reprocess that memory and the associated belief, “I’m not good enough.” Turns out, Jen had more of that feeling in her background. She grew up in a family where she felt she could never measure up to her gorgeous older sisters who won popularity contests and had good-looking boyfriends. Jen believed she was plain in comparison – and her shyness reinforced this belief, as other people overlooked her quiet beauty and intellect.
EMDR allowed Cary to reprocess the image of Jen’s face when she revealed her deep shock and disappointment with him. The belief he connected with this image was, “I’m a failure.” Cary’s early life experiences set him up for this kind of scenario. Raised by a prominent surgeon father who seemed remote and uninterested in children, Cary remembered, even as a boy of nine or ten, feeling he could never do well enough at his own pursuits to match his father’s expectations. When he chose music as his college major, he perceived disdain in his father’s blank facial expression and lack of comment.
When Jen and Cary felt calmer about the event that had burst their newlywed bubble, we met for what I call, “Couples EMDR.” In this phase, we use the EMDR process in a slightly different way: instead of reprocessing traumatic events, we tap in positive resources for the couple. We use the bilateral stimulation (eye-movements, tactile pulses, and/or auditory signal) for calming that helps partners reconnect through eye contact, words of comfort and love, memories of happy moments together.
And it works.
Yes, Jen and Cary have more conversations ahead of them. They need to establish boundaries around porn (although as it turned out, Cary was ready to shed this old habit). They need to talk about Jen’s expressions that trigger Cary’s old shame. They have lots to discover about each other and the backstories that led them to this moment in time. But Jen and Cary have now jump-started their nervous systems to metabolize old hurts. They’ve developed a protective tool for calming and reconnecting. And thanks to the permanence of EMDR’s benefits, these happy changes will only lead to more positive benefits in the future.