Have you experienced this? You’re having a normal calm conversation with your partner and suddenly one of you gets triggered into an extreme reaction. There may be a volcanic emotional explosion, or a demand of an apology, an unfair accusation – or aggressive tones and hostile words.
Or one of you might disappear into a cold withdrawal, shutting down communication or stonewalling. You might try to get cared for, but your partner doesn’t show any sign of caring. Does this feel familiar?
I call this “Sudden Reaction Syndrome.” It can occur during a simple discussion about a bill to be paid, a chore to be done, an upcoming event, or another person. Without warning or reason, an intense argument can become riddled with demeaning judgements or insults escalating out of control. There may be unfair blaming or shaming, gaslighting, or aggressive accusations such as “You started it!”
A more productive inquiry is: “Why does this keep happening? And what can we do to prevent it from happening again?”
To heal the nature of repetitive and vicious communication cycles, it’s important to understand the impact of unresolved trauma, which is usually at the core of Sudden Reaction Syndrome (SRS).
Sudden reactions can occur in a wide range – from mild annoyance to moderate frustration to severe emotional explosions of rage and disdain.
The reactions fall into two major categories, depending on where the reaction is directed:
Outward-directed traumatic reactions towards the other include:
Threatening facial expressions or body movements.
Momentary or sustained violence (verbal, emotional, mental, physical).
Outbursts in language or tone.
Verbal or physical domination and control over others.
Inward-directed traumatic reactions towards the self include:
Feeling extremely out of control with overwhelming feelings.
Inability to get emotional relief, even after expressing one’s feelings.
Rapid withdrawal from relationships (energetically or physically).
Addictive numbing out with work, alcohol, drugs, shopping, etc.
It is normal for all couples to get reactive from time to time. The SRS distinction is when extreme emotional blow-ups happen frequently, and they don’t get resolved.
Sudden reactions usually originate from unresolved past traumatic experiences, especially in childhood. When trauma happens and is not resolved, it can be subconsciously stored in memory.
That memory can be triggered by anything that looks, sounds, or feels similar to the traumatic incident. When that happens, the suppressed feelings suddenly unleash and the unprocessed response to those early feelings come out in a whirlwind of out-of-control behaviors that feel overbearing to the other person.
In the landmark research by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, ACES, more than 17,000 people were surveyed to measure the impact of childhood trauma and stress on later adult health. The results are both disturbing and illuminating. The number of people who experienced some type of abuse or neglect in their childhood is remarkably high.
The study revealed, “63% of people in the population had experienced at least one category of childhood trauma. More than 20% had experienced three or more categories of adverse childhood experiences.”
In their descriptions of the types of traumatic events that can happen to children, you may recognize your own experience, as well as that of your partner:
28% of participants experienced physical abuse.
27% grew up with someone using alcohol and/or drugs.
23% lost a parent due to separation, divorce or death.
21% experienced sexual abuse.
19% grew up with a mentally ill person in the household.
15% experienced emotional neglect.
13% witnessed their mother being treated violently.
10% experienced physical neglect.
11% experienced emotional abuse.
…and there are many additional categories.
The study concluded that the more trauma a child experiences, the more likely they could have mental health issues or stress disorders (such as depression and anxiety) in adulthood. In clinical literature, severe trauma is often called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In addition, several decades of research on attachment reveal that unresolved childhood traumas, especially those caused by a parent (or primary attachment figure), can impact one’s adult relationship dynamics. Insecure- traumatic attachment behaviors can influence the bond with romantic partners.
Childhood traumas can range from very mild to very severe. Trauma is not always a deliberate act of violation. It can be caused by normal life circumstances (such as hearing parents fight or talk about divorce) that leaves the child feeling threatened.
Even the most caring parents can unintentionally cause a trauma pattern in their children. The parent may simply be overwhelmed with other challenges or hardships in their life, unaware the child is feeling insecure and needing more attention.
For example, a harsh tone of voice or demeaning comment can trigger the memory of a raging, frightening parent. Your partner’s rolling of their eyes may trigger the feeling of an indifferent parent who ignored you or rejected your pleas for help.
For many, these trauma-based dynamics are healable if one does the required inner work. If abrupt reactions occur frequently in your relationship, there may be unresolved trauma lurking in your subconscious memory. Until they’re resolved, Sudden Reaction Syndrome can easily disrupt the harmony and security in your relationship.
If Sudden Reaction Syndrome is causing suffering in your relationship, and you don’t know how to break the cycle, I strongly recommend reaching out for help from a professional trauma and attachment specialist. They can assess the impact that past traumas are having on you and your relationship.
Whether you or your partner is the one who usually reacts first, you can educate yourselves about how to keep from being co-triggered. You can learn how to repair the ruptures between you if both partners want to do the healing work.
You’re not alone. Approximately two-thirds of the people around you have at least one type of trauma in their past. The good news is, with the right support, you can learn to rewire your brain toward a safe and secure relationship.
Author: Carista Luminare, Ph.D.