I recently came across a glossary of key terms related to Relational-Cultural theory put out by the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI). One of them, “Traumatic Disconnection”, really stood out to me. Here is their definition:
Disconnections that occur when what might be an acute disconnection triggers someone (often suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder) into a place of reactivity (the amygdala hijack) where she or he becomes unavailable to relational repair. The person cannot come back into connection because of a heightened sense of danger. Until safety can be reestablished, the therapist must honor the client’s dramatic return to strategies of disconnection. Ironically, these traumatic disconnections sometimes follow an increase in closeness, a relinquishing of strategies of disconnection. In those moments the client feels increased vulnerability and may have to resort to old ways of self-protection.
What struck me the most about this is how salient this particular experience has been for myself and other members of our system as we’ve gone through therapy. Looking back, I can very clearly see this pattern in our behaviors. In fact, when I re-examine the very last session I had with Zooey before she terminated treatment, I can see how it was essentially dominated by this feeling of traumatic disconnection. Here is how I described that experience to her in my termination letter: