Thursday, September 29, 2016

Our Marriage & Complex Trauma

Matt and I met under serendipitous circumstances. During our first encounter, he awkwardly avoided eye-contact with me while conversing freely with my roommate.

Two months later, he was secretly learning Sign Language from the outdated VHS tapes he repeatedly checked from his local library. He hadn’t yet asked me out, but he knew I worked at a Deaf school and he wanted to be prepared.

He drew a map of my neighborhood and reviewed it with me prior to our first date so he wouldn’t get lost on his way to pick me up.

Twelve months after that first date, we were married.

And we have no regrets.

For the first couple of years after our children came home through adoption, Matt and I even commented that parenting our children with intense needs was bringing us closer to together, rather than driving us apart.

For almost six years now, our entire family has been impacted by the unique needs that accompany complex developmental trauma. Because we now realize our children often communicate through their behavior, we are continual “interpreters” between two of our children and the rest of the world so they are better understood, have opportunities for personal growth, and aren’t criminalized.

Our family’s lifestyle generates stares that remind us the specific supports we provide for each of our individual children are largely misunderstood. Our relationships with each member of our family is dramatically impacted by the needs of each of the other members. Two of our children need intense structure and scaffolding to succeed developmentally and emotionally. The routine we provide them with lowers their stress level so they can enjoy life and learn, and eventually, become more flexible. All the while, we must constantly problem solve so we can give our two biological children the specific attention they need to be nurtured in the wake of childhood trauma, which is no small thing.

Due to very real attachment needs, we are not able to just drop our children off with a trustworthy babysitter during their waking hours. Because two of our children are still learning to trust us and it takes a long time for them to trust other adults, either Matt or I are “on” at all times. Even when they’re sleeping, “hiring a sitter” involves divulging sensitive information for our children’s safety. It’s exhausting to brainstorm whom would be both capable of watching our sleeping children and will not exploit them with the information we must share.

We hear it’s best to put our marriage first.

We just aren’t sure how to put our marriage first... without our family falling apart.

The stakes are so high.

Two of our children go to school. For them, school is their safe place to learn and their most consistent opportunity to build relationships with trustworthy adults other than their parents.

For our two children who are home during school hours, they need to be home with a parent so they can process trauma and have space to enjoy a healthy childhood.

We are privileged to have the opportunity to so specifically care for our four children’s complex needs. Yet, beyond school, we are the only supports they have. We meet needs seen and unseen. Constantly. There aren’t predictable breaks for us. There are no retreats for mom and dad together.

And we acknowledge that if our children’s needs were not so unique and intense, we wouldn’t be desperate for respite. At one point I was homeschooling one of our children who came into our family as an older child. I explained to Matt how overwhelmed I was because I was convinced that if there were ten of me I still wouldn’t have the ability meet his specific needs. All ten of me would be overwhelmed. Matt nodded in agreement. He got it. And we found a way to keep on until he got into a school that was safe for him.

It feels as if Matt and I have been on an aircraft that’s lost cabin pressure for six years and we’ve only had one oxygen mask for the both of us.

After almost six years of struggling for oxygen and waiting our turn to breathe, it’s easy to begin to resent the other’s need for oxygen.

It’s not logical.

It’s not gracious.

We’re beyond logic and grace.

We’re desperate and we need all of our energy to survive.

His need for oxygen is a threat to my very existence.

My need for oxygen is a threat to his.

We love each other.

We belong together.

And we’re barely hanging on.

Can you relate? Join the Conversation, here,
on Facebook, and on Twitter.

FYI: I should have mentioned that Matt and I read this post together and were both excited about me posting it. In fact, processing our experience together has been helpful for us to work through our individual experiences.


  1. We love you guys so much. Children are hard on marriage when you have two functioning oxygen masks; inexplicably more so when you're sharing one out of sheer necessity.


    1. Thanks, Amanda! You know Matt and I want to grow up and be the kind of parents you and J are! Somehow I think you two would be doing much better than we're doing.

  2. Yes, I can so relate! We don't get breaks either because it is simply impossible to find someone who can understand all our childrens complex needs. We have spent years learning to understand our children, their trauma and what triggers them, the list is impossible to share and in the end our children suffer. Going to share this post on my FB page Tales From Our House Blog, you did an excellent job portraying what I didn't have words to explain!

    1. Yes, Sandra! I feel bad, often, because wonderful people who are gifted with children offer to help with ours and I don't even know how to take them up on it without compromising our children's felt safety. You get it. I'm glad to know we aren't alone.

  3. I so love the way you see the world, Nicole, in all its complexities. It's refreshing that even though you "know" in your head what the issue is, you also show how hard it is to find a solution.

    Yes. I can relate. No, I have no additional insights. The oxygen analogy is so spot on.

    1. Thank you, Lori! It is always good to know we're not alone.

      Writing this post was actually very good for both of us. When we know where our resentments start, it's easier to prevent them by naming our true frustrations.

  4. Nicole your strength continues to astound me. Sharing your struggles and how and your husband are coping as parents is the most admirable thing to me. People are often afraid to admit that parenting and having an ideal marriage is difficult. They hide it, pretend it doesn't happen, or just deny it. The fact that you're documenting it here already tells me that you and Matt are stronger together. Parenting is hard all around--no matter what circumstance, so no you're not alone in this. Please know that although it may seem like you are all alone, you're not. Trust me, there are others out there that can relate, myself included.

    Thank you for sharing this with us at #shibebloghop, Nicole!

  5. Brilliant! I sometimes think that us focusing so much on keeping our boys above water is a detriment to our marriage but really it does bring us closer. We are the only two who truly knows what it's like to deal with our 3 boys' intense needs and traumatic pasts. Our family is bonded so tightly because we are all trying to move to healing. I laugh when people offer to babysit - especially when people offer their teenage daughters. They truly don't understand what they'd be in for! And we'd pay for it for weeks. We have been able to do a couple date nights after the boys go to bed. And my parents are great with taking one kid at a time- very helpful for us!! Now they have joined Awana so we get an hour and a half every week together. Hooray! Oh... until we got a call from Awana saying we needed to stay at the church now to help deal with behaviors. Boo! It can be a weary ride but I'm so glad to hear you two are figuring out this difficult balancing act. We are trying as well!


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