Understanding how trauma and conflict intertwine potentially exacerbating differences within a family system are key to the client and their family’s success. When we address a client’s concerns in the context of past and present trauma they become better prepared before entering into triggering and upsetting situations. My team uses the factors that comprise trauma to best understand our client’s needs. This information becomes indispensable when we are engaged in working on a case together.
How do we define trauma in the context of family law cases? When an individual has endured a traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, sexual abuse, incest, substance, alcohol, verbal or many other types of abuse, these experiences get internalized. Other factors can include multigenerational and collective trauma. Multigenerational trauma is the cause of many unwanted life situations. History repeats itself unless we are able to address and transmute the underlying causes of trauma. My clients all have an instinctual resilience and coping capacity. People are generally effective at being able to continue to function in the real world even after having experienced serious life-threatening conditions. Though our rising homeless population might disagree with this theorem.
A recent client who we will call Sharon shared with me that her mom and dad had divorced when she was ten years old. Her mother had an affair, and her dad left the mother, paid her nothing in the settlement/divorce, and their lives carried on. The challenge here is that the young girl, now an adult woman in her fifties with two grown children, learns that her husband was having an affair. Does she play out the same pattern that her father did, and expel her husband from her life as her father responded to her mother? Thankfully, Sharon had enough self-awareness to realize that her husband was a vital player in her adult children’s life, and that completely alienating him would not help anyone. The story illustrates that our patterns and behaviors formed at earlier stages in life help shape our current attitudes and beliefs.
When a client has experienced a recent traumatic experience—we view that it has a potential stacking quality with events occurring in the present day. When a client discusses a new experience that could be seen as an abusive act, the client or you and me, become numb. It is like an iceberg, every time we add another experience that could be viewed as painful, it stacks itself, like another layer of ice on top of the older layers. If we can identify those earlier experiences that contain a roadmap of how we were victimized and how we have learned to separate ourselves from our feelings, we might be able to begin creating a new narrative and some real healing.
By taking on this task of deep understanding of these earlier narratives, clients hold the possibility for these prior harmful experiences to no longer play a detrimental role in their health and wellbeing. This results in a sense of purpose, renewal and hope manifesting from the depths of traumatic experiences that were previously frozen. Our goal as counsel and yours as a family member uncovering these frozen events in our lives, not as therapy, but as an essential act to be present in the moment and generate the best possible results in your case. In our discussions we can bring awareness to these earlier traumas. By recognizing it, we simply bring some thoughtfulness when working with a client of trauma. We can label it, identify it, and not judge it. We can also support the family member in not blaming themselves for what’s occurred.
In Sharon’s case it would be easy to fall into the victim role as her father did. Studies show that a childhood trauma can convey through the DNA to a second or third generation. Not only do I believe that Sharon had a sense of responsibility for her own welfare but also that of her adult children in not repeating the mistakes of her parents. Family systems may be one area in our lives where this pattern plays out the strongest.
Trauma victims become a bit paralyzed, even freeze or lose their power when they are in a conference with the abuser. I find this often with my clients, largely with women, where they come to me searching for their voice and somehow their voice has been stuffed away because of the stacking of negative experiences of abuse. We want to bring more awareness to those experiences in recognizing that that individual, the client, is not responsible at all for the abuse. It is a circumstance they’re living in or have just separated from, or maybe it was as a family of origin, and it’s impacting their intimate relations today. We want to just name it, bring awareness and attention to it. In doing so the client can metabolize those earlier experiences, then move on.
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