Love is what everyone wants. And yet when those who are supposed to love us do just the opposite, the effects ripple throughout our lives, in both our relationships with others and our relationships with ourselves.
In Baffled By Love: Stories of the lasting Impact of Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones, author Laurie Kahn dives deep into the lives of the many who have been traumatized, confused, and terrified by love. And ultimately, healed by it too.
“Even gifted clinicians quickly discover that what they learned in school does not suffice in practice,” writes Laurie Kahn, who is a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment. Trauma goes beyond what many can imagine, shattering core beliefs and assumptions about the world, people around us, ourselves and especially of love itself.
Trauma simply leaves us unraveled, like Kristi, who we meet in the first section of Kahn’s book.
Kristi is a young mother of three who finds herself overwhelmed and unable to face her children. After driving herself to the hospital one morning, Kristi discovers something: she likes the people in the hospital because they are real and honest, and no one is hiding anything. Growing up with an abusive father and a mother who turned a blind eye, Kristi had never before felt cared for.
“Allowing someone to care about her would be like choosing to play in traffic with a truck heading right toward her,” Kahn writes of Kristi’s experience.
Betrayals can be soul-crushing, and can leave us wondering if relationships can ever be a source of soothing. Because love has been interlocked with pain and hurt, therapy is a source of fear, not comfort for those like Kristi. And yet, while the challenge for her is to tolerate the therapeutic relationship, the challenge for the therapist is to be tolerant of her resistance to closeness and soothing.
Betrayal trauma – the term first coined by Jennifer Freyd for trauma resulting from betrayal – can also leave us blind. In what Freyd calls, “betrayal blindness,” our ability to recognize abuse, or the extent of the harm being done is taken over by our need to maintain our relationship with our caretaker.
“Betrayal blindness is a way of not knowing that shields a child from an unbearable conflict,” writes Kahn.
Much of the reason betrayal blindness affects us so strongly is because, unlike our capacity to detect injustices, detecting betrayal threatens our innate desire to be loved, or at least to maintain the image that we are lovable.
We can dissociate, developing what is called, “traumatic amnesia” as a way to simply avoid seeing what is so painful and emotionally overwhelming. We can also experience a dual awareness, sort of a knowing and not knowing, remembering and not remembering, as a way to split off that part of ourselves that is painful, and keep it out of reach.
And betrayal blindness distorts a child’s ability to accurately perceive danger in relationships, which makes them more vulnerable to abuse by partners and lovers as adults. Kahn writes, “One of the cruelest truths about childhood trauma is the way it revisits its victims when they adults. People who are victimized as children are more likely to be victims of domestic violence or to be sexually assaulted as adults.”
When trauma is not healed, it remains out of our cognitive reach, and outside of our awareness, driving us to recreate situations that are familiar, although again traumatizing. Yet sometimes these conditions can happen in therapy.
Kahn tells the story of Elizabeth, a woman who suffered sexual abuse by her father at a young age. After making considerable progress in therapy, Kahn asks Elizabeth if she could include parts of her story – with her identity protected – in an upcoming journal article. Elizabeth responds that she feels as if she has to say yes, because saying no would jeopardize her relationship with Kahn, and yet saying yes also means that she will go home and hurt herself.
Kahn tells her that it is her choice, although she will be disappointed if she says no. When Elizabeth reacts very strongly, stating that she “doesn’t know if she can continue in therapy, and that her past is now off limits for discussion,” Kahn realizes that they are in a therapeutic reenactment of the excruciating bind she felt as a child. “She wanted to please her perpetrator, the person she was dependent on and who was supposed to love and protect her, but when she pleased him, she felt complicit in her abuse,” she writes.
Later, when Kahn and Elizabeth are able to repair the relationship and discuss how betrayed Elizabeth felt by Kahn, Elizabeth tells her, “I never knew about the kind of relationships where someone really cares about you, where you can work through a conflict without destroying each other…I don’t think I will trust anyone until we have our first fight and successfully work it through.”
Filled with touching stories, poignant moments, and brilliant therapeutic insights, Baffled By Love, should be required reading for any clinician – new or seasoned.
Baffled By Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones
She Writes Press (2017)