Early on in my training as a trauma counsellor, my supervisor of the time said many things that stayed with me.
One of them was this: If you must judge people judge them on the quality of their relationships.
I liked how this acknowledged that judging others was a tricky process, and how it humbly offered a criterion that might help us judge human behaviour in a way that wasn’t necessarily self-serving.
The trauma of divorce does not technically qualify as Post Traumatic Stress simply because it’s not directly life threatening or physically damaging.
However, I have had divorce cases with psychometric scores that do indicate severe post-traumatic stress symptoms. Furthermore some studies have shown the effects of divorce do in fact physically affect the body in terms of illness and mortality.
A recent study on loneliness (a fate of the many with relationship trauma) shows that a lack of social relationships is as bad for your life expectancy as smoking! Perhaps this means we should take the potential effects of divorce as a seriously as some carcinogens.
Trauma Divorce – a case study
Giovanni came to see me for what had been a very acrimonious divorce.
It was finally over after two years of court battles including a final hearing. Since the initial incident of his wife throwing him out of the house he’d lived in with his children for over 20 years, he just hadn’t been the same.
He couldn’t take risks in relationships anymore and was seriously considering giving up on them all together.
“Tell me the whole story.” I asked in earnest. I first learnt to ask this for the more complex ‘long term’ trauma cases.
The past two years had clearly been a very long rollercoaster ride. A traumatic experience that lasts that amount of time can become hard to quantify, hard to get your head around.
To sum up what ‘the whole story’ was, can bring new perspective and often some closure. It helps us identify what is the past and what is no longer part of the present.
One of the most prominent aspects of trauma is that we feel it is still happening to us, as though it didn’t end yet. Psychologically speaking, anything that ended really badly, didn’t really end yet. Our minds cannot let go of it until we have fully accepted it for what it was.
“I can’t believe she threw me out like that…we’d been together for 25 years.” he continued, “I can’t understand how the person you’ve been closest to can treat you like that”…“she had had affairs too.”
“I felt so angry…I tried to teach her a lesson in court…it didn’t go my way in the end…courts are biased against fathers.” “Then I just felt lost and empty, sometimes even suicidal.” He concluded, “…I can see that episode of my life is over now”.
It took over two hours to answer that one simple five-word question. Having such a thorough overview of his two years of relationship horror, we were well poised to choose what aspects he struggled with the most.
We made a list: My wife confronting me about the long term affair, being thrown out of my own house, The final hearing, Losing 60% of my wealth, The rejection, Co-parenting with ‘that woman’. There were others too but one stood out as much more painful than any of the others.
“It’s the rejection that really does me in…I don’t think I could survive it a second time.”
“Describe how that rejection feels in your body?” I asked.
“It’s a kind of choking feeling.”
Next we used a technique for opening up this inner fear of rejection. Sometimes what we run from is where we need to go.
“Find an incident containing a feeling of choking rejection.” I asked.
Then I asked him to re-experience multiple times the chosen incident. The repetition is a way of processing what happened. His face reddened as the emotion intensified. He remembered more and more clearly how his wife had looked at him with such disdain, but there were other incidents containing a ‘choking rejection’.
He had also felt it at the end of the relationship prior to meeting his wife. He felt it as a teenager when the first girl he ever asked out turned him down. Then he hit a much earlier incident. To his surprise it was even more emotionally charged than the break up incident with his wife.
He recalled in more and more detail, a time when his Father had put his hands around his throat to stop him crying, when he was around four years old. He couldn’t breathe. He felt it meant his parents didn’t want him and this had crystallised into a belief that no one could really want him.
After going over this memory eight times describing it in detail each time, the choking rejection feeling no longer troubled him. His attention shifted to the epiphany of how this early experience had affected all of his close relationships.
He saw the choking feeling as an ancient relic of his past.
At the next session his whole demeanour had a deeper confidence:
“My whole life I’ve run away from rejection. I’d even judge others in order to try and not get hurt which didn’t work very well. I was probably about to spend the rest of my life alone but now I feel more eager to be with someone than ever.
I think I’ll be more confident, more forgiving and even less needy in a relationship now.
I know that what my Father did to me all those years ago can no longer hurt me. He was a pretty good father most of the time. He didn’t mean to make me feel so unloved. Thank you for helping me see beyond my fears.”
Henry set up Mindfulness Training Ltd in 2006.
His research interests include the theoretical and practical integration of mindfulness with cognitive behavioural theories, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy processes and in case-formulated applications of mindfulness.
After 4 years as a trauma specialist for Victim Support Lambeth, Henry is now conducting empirical research for City and Hackney Mind, investigating the process of values within different approaches to trauma counselling.
He also works in private pratice, and teaches widely on the subject of Mindfulness-consistent therapies.