October 19, 2019
Often, when a relationship gets to the other side of shared trauma and tough times, you will find that your bond has become even stronger.
Relationships Often Grow Stronger Through Shared Trauma
By Mark D. Diehl
Shared trauma and tough times can hold couples together more strongly than religion, nationality, culture…
If you plan on being in a long-term relationship, you’re going to go through tough times — really tough times — with your partner. Every couple does. Life and aging bring challenges we’re never adequately prepared to face: job losses, difficult illnesses, financial woes. Sometimes, you may even experience trauma together: perhaps the death of a mutual longtime friend, or possibly you and your partner are both marginalized by the culture in which you live.
Even though these facts of life are incredibly painful, maybe there is also a silver lining:
When you get to the other side of shared trauma, you will find that your bond has become even stronger.
This was what my wife, Jennifer, and I experienced when we met and fell in love in Taegu, South Korea. We are from opposite sides of the globe — Jennifer is from Taegu, while I am from Iowa City, Iowa. I grew up wild, running around my small American town without much parental oversight at all. Jennifer’s entire life had been mapped out and watched over by her parents to ensure that she would one day marry “well,” thus enhancing her family’s respected social status.
When we met in 1993, we were both teaching English in Taegu. I was a 23-year-old college graduate with no money, looking for business opportunities that might arise as the Korean economy grew. Jennifer was 22, still living with her influential and controlling local family, and when we met, I was initially put off by her obvious wealth and social status. Her parents were allowing her to teach English only to build her “wedding resume.”
We shared almost nothing in common, or so it seemed. We did not share a religion, nationality, or culture. We had no mutual points of influence, such as going to college or grad school together or being long-term colleagues, all of which can also help cement long-term bonds.
Yet Jennifer and I had a different type of shared formative experience — one that transcends religion, language, college or the workplace to shape our respective psyches at a level that was just as deep, if not more so.
In our particular case, this experience was that of separate and different, though equally neglectful and damaging, childhoods. I write about this in my memoir Stealing Cinderella: How I Became an International Fugitive for Love.
Both Jennifer and I had experienced painful abandonment by our families and the sting of our parents’ arbitrary, bewildering, and often violent behavior toward us. My earliest memories include feeling unwelcome at my father’s house and completely random scenes of screaming and violence with my mother. I grew up angry, distrustful, and ready to fight. By the time I graduated from college and met Jennifer, I was nothing but chaos and explosive energy. There was no way I was going to bond with a girl over benign hobbies and aw-shucks first encounters.
Neither was Jennifer. Her scars from being viewed and treated by her family as a disappointment from birth, useful only as a bargaining chip in the matchmaking game for her siblings, were equally deep. She grew up like Cinderella. Before she was of marrying age, her parents dressed her like a boy or in her older sister’s discarded clothing; only when it came time to present her to prospective husbands did they buy her nice clothes, shoes, and handbags. She was reminded of her inferior status constantly, including through her parents’ coercive and punitive behavior. After a lifetime of forced sacrifice to an unforgiving social structure, Jennifer, too, was angry, distrustful, and ready to fight. She was a powerful reagent that had been sealed away, and I was lucky enough to be her spark.
We also had multiple significant shared trauma together, which repeatedly tested our relationship just within our first year together. South Korea was isolated and suspicious of foreigners, so even our very first platonic outings together brought angry stares, taunts, and threats. Slowly we grew closer, spending more and more time together. Our employer forbade us from seeing each other, but we continued in secret for a year. We were harassed by my landlady, who would let herself into my apartment and report to our company if she saw us together. Taxis ignored us. Restaurants refused us service. Koreans I’d come to think of as friends told me that spending so much time with Jennifer was wrong. We were insulted every day on the street for a year, but, afraid I would attack someone, Jennifer kept it to herself.
One day, Jennifer’s family doubted her story and had her followed, discovering she was with me. They beat her up, locked her in a room, and told her they were arranging a marriage to save the family name. She escaped. The chief of police was part of her family, and they quickly became involved. After days of violence and hiding, we abandoned everything and fled to Hong Kong, where we got married, but still became stranded for weeks by U.S. immigration policy and nearly starved to death.
Every one of these complications was a shared trauma, but also a shared milestone. With each new struggle, we proved that the relationship was more important than avoiding whatever unpleasantness Korea was dishing out. We were disrespected, marginalized, belittled, and made afraid, not just of physical violence and harassment, but also of the real possibility that the societal machinery that enforced obedience would literally end our lives.
When Jennifer and I got married in Hong Kong more than 24 years ago, I didn’t have the frameworks to explain what I now know to be true: the trauma we endured together strengthened our relationship and continues to strengthen our marriage today.
When tough times hit, consider them a new building block in your relationship. And if you sometimes look at your partner and wonder what you fundamentally have in common, ask:
What deep-rooted experiences that transcend labels and community allegiances do we connect over?
Now, looking back at all the amazing years I’ve shared with the best partner I could ever have imagined, our secret bonding agent is clear: the difficulties and shared trauma we encountered, harrowing though they were, showed us who the other really was, and helped us rely on one another. Over the years, that initial trust has grown ever stronger, and I can say with real certainty: together, we can overcome just about anything.
About the Author
Mark D. Diehl has been homeless in Japan, practiced law with a major multinational firm in Chicago, studied in Singapore, fled South Korea as a fugitive, and been stranded in Hong Kong. After spending most of his youth running around with hoods and thugs, he eventually earned his doctorate in law at the University of Iowa and did graduate work in creative writing at the University of Chicago. The first book in his Seventeen Trilogy won the Maine Literary Award for Speculative Fiction. Mark currently lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. markddiehl.com