Our Deepest Roots: Navigating Past Trauma to Build Healthier Queer Relationships | An Interview with Dr. Jen Towns

by | Apr 14, 2024 | Therapy, Queer, Trauma, Relationships, Mental Health, Partner/s

The below conversation is a transcript from a video-based interview with Dr. Jen Towns, therapist, educator, and author of Our Deepest Roots.

Zoe Stoller (ZS): Hello, QueerPsych community! So excited to be here with you today. My name is Zoe Stoller, my pronouns are they, she, or he, and I work with QueerPsych. And I’m here with Dr. Jennifer Towns, who is one of our QueerPsych founding community members. We’re going to be chatting a little bit about her work today. Thank you so much for being here!

Dr. Jen Towns (JT): Hi! Thank you!

ZS: So I’ll start with just asking you to share a little bit about yourself, your work, and how you got started being a therapist that works with the LGBTQ+ community.

 

Tell us about yourself and your journey to becoming a therapist & working with the LGBTQ+ community.

 

JT: Sure, absolutely. You know, I got my undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology; I loved hearing the stories of people that would come in and recognized really quickly that I wanted to get my master’s degree so that I can go into therapy. And then I worked in a very rural area of northern Michigan, and as I was going through my personal coming out process, my public coming out process, I recognized that there weren’t a lot of options for m the queer population as far as therapists were concerned, and a lot of resources out there in general, so I started making that really my focus of the the work that I do. I’m a trauma therapist that’s really, you know, my foundation is trauma therapy but then also I do a lot of treatment with the LGBTQIA+ or queer population. My wife and I own a private practice – we moved away from the rural area; now we’re down in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area – and so we own a private practice. She does that full time (she’s a trauma therapist as well), and I am in higher education. I teach at a few area colleges around here, and that’s my full time gig, and then I also see clients as well, particularly relationship counseling within the queer population. 

ZS: That is so awesome. Sounds like you do really, really interesting work, and a wide range. And I know you also share some content on social media as well, which can be a full time job in and of itself. So I would love to know what kind of content you share, and also how do you balance doing that with all the other amazing things that you do?

 

How do you integrate social media into your work as a therapist? Is it challenging to find a balance between your work as a therapist and your work sharing content & developing a brand on social media?

 

JT: It’s an excellent question! Getting into more social media content is newer for me because I tend to be more clinically based and just see my little clientele over here, or more educationally based and see my students over here. And so when that really came about in trying to do some more promotion around my book and recognize I really needed to also just get content out there and information out there to the greater population more so than I could with my clientele or with my students. And so trying to focus a little in shifting gears on providing that content on a social media platform is wild. It’s been interesting. It’s not something that I ever thought I would get into and it’s something that has been a very new journey for me, but I really have fun with it. Balancing is tough because again, like my primary focuses are my students and my clients, and my family, so I have to carve out some time, you know, to do that very intentionally. But it’s been an interesting ride for sure.

ZS: That’s super awesome! Yes, you definitely have to be intentional about making space and time for all the amazing things that you’re doing. But I love that you are doing social media because it really is so wonderful to be able to spread your content and information – such important information – to a wider population. So on top of all the amazing things that you do, I know you also have written a book, Our Deepest Roots. So tell us a little bit about that book and what it discusses.

Tell us a little about your book, Our Deepest Roots, and the topics you discuss. What inspired you to write your book? Was it based at all in any of the common needs you see when working with queer people in therapy?

 

JT: Yeah, absolutely. Kind of going off the same idea as my social media platform was getting a resource out there to the greater population. As I mentioned, my wife and I are both trauma therapists, and we would come across the need to have a resource to be able to direct our clients to when they were struggling in a relationship. And we searched and searched and searched, and there’s a ton of mainstream options out there for very kind of like… they have heteronormative messages, or for couplings or partnerships that are more monogamous based and not necessarily polyamory based. And so it was really difficult to find a resource that spoke to our population that we were really trying to focus on. And, you know, she said to me one day, she’s like, “Babe, you just need to write one. You’ve got the knowledge, you’ve got the experience, you have the platform and ability to. You need to write one.”

And so the idea was born for Our Deepest Roots to create a resource for the queer population specifically. So that, you know, they were at the center of the storyline, and not have to carve out just a little bits and pieces from more of those heteronormative options. And so that’s been really a fun adventure, as well as just finding out, like giving a voice and giving a resource to this population. And it talks a lot about…the basic premise is one or more partners have a history of trauma and that really impacts your current relationships even though they may be very healthy relationships or very supportive and loving relationships. It still is going to impact you because your past impacts your present. And so the idea is that we can shift and change things within us, understand ourselves better so that our past doesn’t have to inform our future as much, related to relationships. We talk about attachment. We talk about trauma in the body. We talk about those cycles that we see a lot of times. And it’s all through a queer lens.

ZS: I love all of that, yes. I love that, you know, when there’s a gap you can just fill it. That’s so good. So I know that you mentioned that some of the kind of inspiration with the book was born out of, you know, seeing all these common themes with people that you were working with, and there wasn’t really a resource for that. I’d love to know, what are some of those kinds of common themes or biggest challenges that you see in queer relationships where one or more partners has a history of individual trauma?

 

What are some of the biggest challenges you see queer individuals and couples facing — both with and without individual histories of trauma?

 

JT: Absolutely. So, it’s very nuanced and complex. But there are themes related to, you know, what kind of trauma did you have? Did you have trauma related to coming out and lack of support, maybe even hostility towards that? And then that impacts how you know yourself, your concept about relationships, and safety. That was a big thing that we saw a lot of. So a lot of things related to the attachment dynamics of individuals who have experienced trauma in their past and how that impacts their ability to communicate their needs and how that, you know, they may instead brush their needs under the rug so that they maintain the relationship.

That’s a big one that we’ve seen a lot of, is that individuals work so hard to come out and that process can be so difficult for some individuals, depending on their families of origin, their friend group, and their environment. And then they feel the need that they have to, like, stick in that relationship and maintain that relationship even if it’s not a great relationship because they have gone through that struggle, that battle, that trauma of coming out. And now they’re like, “Well, now I have to stick with it, and I have to give and give and give and plow over my boundaries.” And, you know, that can be really hard too. So recognizing you can maintain a level of authenticity and maintain a level of boundary within your relationship and still create a very happy and healthy relationship – that is so, so, so important. 

ZS: Yes. So for people who do struggle with that, do you have any suggestions for how to move past the effects of previous trauma, and show up more fully in a healthier relationship in the present? 

 

What advice do you have for queer people looking to be in healthy relationships?

 

JT: In a nutshell, mainly creating a place of safety. Oftentimes, past trauma is recognized and held in our body as present-day lack of safety. We get triggered by things that happen, by things that we hear, by even relational dynamics. Again, even in happy, healthy relationships, sometimes relational dynamics can trigger this stuff from our past and lead us to feeling unsafe in our body, unsafe in our environment, unsafe in relationships. And so developing ways that we can create safety, and maintain safety in our bodies, in our environment, and in our relationships are really, really just the center of everything.

ZS: Yes, I love that advice. Thank you so much for sharing that! So for those who are watching, Dr. Jen and I also posted an infographic on Instagram that dealt with this topic deeply, if you haven’t already seen that definitely visit @ZoeStoller and @Your.Queer.Therapist to check that out. And on that graphic, some people had some wonderful questions and topics that they wanted to delve into further. So one person asked what should queer people do if they feel “pigeon-holed”: into a dynamic that they set at the very beginning of a relationship, and then it no longer works for them? So I’d love to discuss that further with you.

 

What should queer people do if they feel “pigeon-holed” into a dynamic set at the very beginning & it no longer works for them? 

 

JT: First, when we enter a relationship, there are so many factors at play, right? There are what I expect of myself, what I expect of my partners, what I expect of, well, you know, my friends and family. And then we create this dynamic, and it could be a dynamic of over and underperforming. I see that a lot, where one partner will be like, “You know, I know that you have a huge history of trauma. I know these things are triggering for you, so I’m going to back off on my boundaries or my needs so that I can be there for you and help you get through this crisis of XYZ.” But that starts to become the dynamic, and the partner that is backing away and giving up needs starts to develop into the expectation that that’s what they will do all the time, and the other partner just kind of goes with that and provides this opportunity or lack of opportunity for the individual to really share their needs, to share their feelings. And then they get stuck in that over and underperforming.

What you can do in that scenario is really, there’s a lot of gentle call-outs that need to happen, there’s an establishment of boundaries that need to happen, and then you can work your way into trying to grow together. So many times, there’s a worry with individuals who have a past history of trauma that growing means potential relational disruption or dysregulation, and it’s scary because there’s, “I don’t know what to expect. We have this dynamic, it’s worked or not worked for us, but it’s the dynamic I know.” And so shifting and changing that dynamic can be really, really scary for individuals that have a past history of trauma where their environment was so uncertain, unstable, and it can be very almost triggering to them, like, “Wait, you’re healing or you’re growing or you’re getting better,” or, you know, whatever “getting better,” so that might be triggering for an individual with a trauma history.

And so the key is to really grow together and to figure out how you can do that while maintaining safety. And just talking about that, using communication to say, “You know, I’m going to therapy and I’m learning this, and these are the things I’m working on. I want you to know, I want to communicate that to you. I want you to know that we’re safe, that we’re good, that we’re gonna be okay.” A big red flag is when an individual starts to get angry about growth and sees that someone else’s or partner’s growth as a threat, as a direct threat. And then, you know, that might be a red flag if they’re not willing to work on that or talk about that. If your partner keeps trying to hold you back or restrict you from growing, or tries to keep you in an environment that does not feel safe for you anymore, or happy or healthy, and they’re not willing to work on that or explore why they feel that way, it’s a big red flag.

ZS: Yes, totally. Thank you so, so much. I can relate to a lot of what you shared; I’ve been in challenging situations like that, and I know that a lot of people who viewed our awesome post could relate as well. So thank you so much for sharing all that amazing information. Shifting here a little bit, I know that there’s a lot of common stereotypes within the LGBTQ+ community that are very normalized but might also be challenging, such as, you know, the concept of u-hauling and people moving kind of too quickly, but that being totally normal in the context of a lot of queer relationships. So I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that, and, you know, how to kind of combat those things that are normal, but that might not be the most helpful?

 

Do you have suggestions for how people can avoid challenges in relationships such as trauma bonding, moving too quickly, and/or ignoring their needs? 

 

JT: Sure. You know, some of those things are said very normally. Is normal always healthy? Or is normal just something that we do all the time? Is normal very healthy, and something that’s just different because it’s a different relational dynamic? So we gotta set all that stuff out with the concept of “u-hauling.” That’s what I get questioned about all the time, because it’s a very common thing. It’s an assumption, stereotype, and it’s also something that happens quite frequently, and that can be because of a few different dynamics that play there. One thing, it can be – if it’s trauma-centered – it can be because we’re moving really fast, because there is this, like, almost this bonding through trauma of like, it’s a scary world out there to be queer. I’ve had to, you know, fight tooth and nail for my identity and for my relationship, etcetera.

And so when you find it in another person, it can almost be mistaken for emotional intimacy. And so, again, that just grows really, really fast and you go really fast together. And so then it’s, instead of being true emotional intimacy, it’s about bonding to your trauma and this feeling of like, “Oh my gosh, you get it, like, yes, you’re right there with me, I feel like we’ve known each other for years, move in with me, you know, in the next week” kind of a thing. Now, what happens with that though, is that if you stay in that pattern, all there is to go is reflecting backwards in the present connection. There’s not a growing forward together. So then we get in those situations where we get stuck in those dynamics that we created at the very beginning, and we don’t know how to get out of it. However, sometimes we just move quicker because we have a tendency to communicate about boundaries, needs, desires, attractions right away.

Especially if we’ve been in relationships before, if we’ve been out for a while, that’s something that is much more common to communicate in the queer community than in the heterosexual community. And so you’ll meet a person and be like, “Yep, this is what I need, this is what I like, this is what I want, this is what I don’t want, you know, what are your standards, what are your needs, what are your boundaries?” And you go through them and then you’re like, “Okay, let’s go, let’s move forward.” And that, that can be a very, very healthy thing, you know, where you’re very communicative and you’re recognizing right up front what you want and don’t want. And then you can move quicker sometimes than the more cis-hetero population that has a tendency to take more time to discuss those things, or they’re not as normalized discussions in the cis-hetero population. It’s much more, it’s a different culture, and so sometimes it can cause our queer population to move a little quicker. But that is a very natural and normal process when those boundaries and those desires are already discussed.

ZS: Yes, that’s so true. Thank you so much for sharing that very nuanced approach. I love that. So, overall what are you hoping that people will get out of your book, Our Deepest Roots?

 

What are you hoping people will get out of your book, Our Deepest Roots?

 

JT: Oh, great question. I am really hoping, you know… – and I’ve been asked this question before, and I never wrote Our Deepest Roots for any sort of like fame, fortune, accolades and recognition – like if I could have written it under a pen name, I probably would have going back, because it’s not about me; I don’t want it to be about me; I want it to be about a resource for a population, something that’s that’s missing and watch um someone to be able to pick it up and read it and be like, “oh my gosh I’ve never, you know– I haven’t been able to find something like this. I feel like this book speaks to me. I feel seen. I feel heard. I feel like I’m not alone. I feel like there’s hope in my relationship where it is historically, maybe I have just not had good luck in relationships, or I’ve repeated patterns in relationships and didn’t know why. I feel like it’s a language, you know, for me that I didn’t have before.” So I really just want it to be a resource that’s gonna help bolster confidence and belief in hope in our community.

ZS: I love that. Thank you so, so much for that. Do you have any other projects that you’re working on?

 

Are there any other projects that you’re working on?

 

JT: Oh goodness. Um, breathing haha. The school year has just started back up for me, because I teach in higher education, and so that’s been kind of a whirlwind. But I am trying to work on a workbook that will go in conjunction with the book (Our Deepest Roots) that helps people just kind of dig a little bit deeper, explore their own personal patterns, and things like that as it relates to them and their relationships. So that is something I’m working on  and hoping to get that out by early spring! 

ZS: Oh, that’s so exciting! I’ll definitely keep an eye out for that! I love that. So where can people find your work, and where should people go to get your book?

 

Where can people find you and your work?

 

JT: Yeah, absolutely! My book, Our Deepest Roots, is available on Amazon. Here I’ll show you a little copy of it. There we go! It’s available on Amazon – Our Deepest Roots – and it’s also available at things like BarnesAndNoble.com. Or you can also um order it through a lot of your local bookstores; they can just purchase it that way. If you are wanting to follow me, it’s @your.queer.therapist on Instagram. I also have a website – yourqueertherapist.net or drjentowns.com – it goes to the same site. If anybody has any follow up questions or anyone wants to follow for any extra content that’s gonna be out and about, or is interested in buying the book.

ZS: Amazing. Thank you so, so, so much for being here with us today!

JT: Thank you so much for having me.

ZS: Hope you have a great rest of your day! 

JT: Thanks. Take care!

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