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Can Trauma Inform How We Divorce?

Can Trauma Inform How We Divorce?

trauma is any experience, or ongoing experiences, beyond what a particular person's coping system can handle.

{4 minutes to read}  During the disruption and disappointment of divorce, painful emotions can disable a person, cause physical symptoms, and overwhelm coping mechanisms. Individuals embattled in divorce can be distracted, hypervigilant, unfocused, fixated, and challenged to meet their typical work and personal commitments. Someone experiencing the effects of ongoing trauma may feel anxious at baseline, suffer chest and stomach pain, chronic insomnia, social anxiety, exaggerated self-consciousness, and be overall ill at ease in the world. Whether we agree that divorce qualifies as a traumatic event, or that it stirs past traumas, is not the main concern. Symptoms of divorce look a lot like symptoms of trauma.  Ergo, what is helpful for those experiencing trauma can also aid individuals enduring divorce. 

Trauma can be tricky. If we get lost in which events qualify as traumatic, we lose the point. Today, a better working definition of trauma is any experience, or ongoing experiences, beyond what a particular person's coping system can handle. A traumatic experience is beyond an individual’s capacity to manage or integrate into a coherent self and world narrative. What we now know about big “T” Trauma and small “t” trauma can help with divorce.

Trauma Informed Divorce: Validation, Recognition, and Honoring an Individual’s Experience.

Divorce hurls people into painful feelings, helplessness, and isolation. Old injuries of abandonment, loss, insecurity, un-belonging, and powerlessness can all be activated. Change is often perceived as threatening. Divorce is change, supersized.  It is an unimaginable disruption, requiring people to make multiple adaptations at once.

Recognizing that a divorcing person, like a trauma survivor, may be significantly affected in ways that limit his functionality, regardless of whether or not another person would be similarly affected. It validates an individual’s experience and can help him heal. When someone is in a traumatized state, they are anticipating immediate danger and in a fearful state that is incapacitating. Their nerves are rattled, and they are on edge — less likely to parent patiently, and less likely to engage in thoughtful analysis requiring calm, integrated functioning. 

One important step in healing is validating the person — that their experience had a particular effect on them, and their reaction is neither “maladaptive” nor even fully volitional. With a new understanding of how trauma interferes with the brain and overall biological development, as well as how it affects us in the moment, we might be more able to appreciate one another’s best attempts at managing his trauma as positively imaginative, brave and skillful. 

When abuses are unrecognized — because they are misappropriated as not trauma-worthy or ”nothing to get excited about,” a secondary, often worse abuse is inflicted on the victim — an invalidation of his experience that is gaslighting and dividing. Abuses unmet with compassion and comfort often become open-wound, embedded trauma.

Human interaction is sacrosanct, and when it is treated as such, people heal. When safety is attended to in human interactions, people can establish a stronger sense of themselves as separate and connected at once.

When people are closely attended to, when their words and body language and nonverbal/no-word utterances are given gentle attention, they regain their footing and sense of value. Under the right conditions, in connection to attuned others, healing happens.

There is no harm in treating everyone as if they have been traumatized by something, at some time. Most of us have. Such an approach can only foster compassion, which is always in too short supply and always welcome.


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