“Trauma and its psychological wounds often destroy relationships, families, and communities, even claiming lives.”
From Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic
Picture this: A happy family dinner – Dad is dishing out the sides while Mom carries in the roast. The kids (two twin boys, age 8 – hers, and a girl, 13, his) are laughing at a joke one of the boys has told.
Dad says he hopes the roast is not overdone, and makes a remark in jest about a hockey puck, and he’s chuckling. Mom sets the roast down, and runs out of the room, crying. Mom has been triggered, and she is beyond upset. This “kidding” remark brings her right back to her own family, and to a childhood spent hearing her mother being mercilessly verbally abused.
“The challenges in a relationship where both individuals carry unresolved trauma can be illustrated by considering the challenges in blending a step-family. As in a marriage between two individuals with children from other relationships, each individual may bring personal difficulties into the relationship that have nothing to do with their new partner, family member, or loved-one. These painful issues may express themselves in a variety of negative or undesirable symptoms and behaviors.
Putting it briefly, two key ingredients in significant relationships are intimacy and dependency. For traumatized individuals, intimacy and dependency are very substantial challenges in themselves. The experience of trauma—whether prolonged developmental trauma or events of shock trauma—frequently, if not always, damages an individual’s ability to trust and feel safe in the world. Healthy intimacy and dependency require some ability to trust, and the willingness to allow that trust to grow and deepen. Individuals must be able to feel some essential element of safety in the relationship and be willing to help create a safe place for their partners and loved-ones.”
Despite commitment, love and dedication, creating a new blended family is a huge challenge. A new primary partnership, along with the addition of children from one or both parties, brings endless complication and sometimes even potential chaos to the table.
The ending of a marriage, engagement or death of a spouse alone can be traumatic and damaging to both adults and children. The new marriage may bring an additional host of insecurities as children joust for position and parents reach for unity upon which to base their new blended family. Deep seated pain, anger, anxiety and fear can hijack seemingly ordinary interactions at a moment’s notice as family members are triggered.
Childhood trauma can set the stage for a lifetime of destructive, painful and unfulfilling relationships and a seeming endless procession of similar dysfunctional patterns. When we find a new partner, our fondest wish is to overcome the patterns that rule us when we are triggered, and to create a safe place for our children to come home to.
Each parent in the relationship may know something about their own troubling issues. Each individual may also have some awareness of the emotional difficulties their new partner struggles with. Often, however, this awareness is not easy to grasp and use as a tool. The reason is that trauma is not encoded and contained in the thinking parts of our brain, but in the hidden biological systems in our body. When we are triggered, our “fight or flight” responses will overtake our rational mind, and we may find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown meltdown.
Trauma can arise from a myriad of sources in a blended family. Each partner can bring family-of-origin issues, trauma from past relationships or key events. Children may bring bad memories of arguing parents, a divorce, bullying in school, or negative experiences with people their parents have dated along the way.
When we are triggered by trauma, the emotions are often so powerful that we act immediately out of our heightened states without thinking. Our mood might change suddenly and our heart rate increases as fear, anger or anxiety overtake us. These negative responses are related to mostly irrational conclusions and thus beliefs from our childhood or a past relationship or event. Each of these incidents has the potential to drive our loved ones further from us, and weaken relationships with our partner and the children we want to blend into our family and bind to us in trust.
As adults, we may know generally what our deep-seated issues from our core family are, but each of us also has a set of emotional triggers connected with specific experiences we haven’t fully processed yet. Our strong and emotional reactions to people or situations may arise suddenly once we’re in a new marriage complicated by the addition of children.
Just knowing in advance that triggers will happen for everyone can help parents cope when confronted with the surprise of drama. But for extra assurance, competent, skilled counseling can help parents sort through their own triggers, and get tips from a professional therapist on how to ease the transition for children.
“Community is about sharing my life; about allowing the chaos of another’s circumstances to infringe on mine; about permitting myself to be known without constraint; about resigning myself to needing others.”
― Sandy Oshiro Rosen, Bare: The Misplaced Art of Grieving and Dancing
Will the changes be large or small for each child? The smaller the changes, the more easily the child will be able to adapt. If the changes are large, you’ll want to consider making the changes gradually before blending your families full-time so each child will have the fewest obstacles to overcome in making the blended family a success for them, too.
No matter how carefully you plan or how easy you try to make the transition, it’s really normal for the kids to have different plans. These different plans are usually based on confusion and fear. It’s also normal for kids to feel jealous of their bonus family members. And it’s fairly typical for kids to feel angry about your remarriage because it messes up their dream of Mom and Dad getting back together again.
The five best things you can do to help all the kids involved are:
- Be clear about expectations and boundaries
- Communicate regularly as a family about family issues and with each child about what they’re feeling and what’s going on in their lives
- Let each child know you support them in loving their birth parent and that your new spouse is their bonus parent
- Take time every day to spend time one-on-one with each of your children and offer the same to each of your bonus kids
- Do fun things as a family
For the parents in the family, Drs. John and Julie Gottman have created a tool that can help identify the triggers that spiral emotions beyond control. They use this tool for couples to process a fight or conflict, but it is useful in exploring the source of triggers that can derail positive communications as well. They suggest that you ask your self what triggered you, and give you this guide to explore and name your feelings:
They recommend that after doing this you:
- Rewind the story of your life in your mind. Stop at an incident you remember from your childhood or your past in general (not in this relationship) in which you got triggered in the same way or had some of these very same feelings.
- Tell the story of that incident, how it happened, what you felt. Listen to your partner’s story with empathy.
With time, care and attention, each member of the family, whether parent or child, can have their vulnerabilities acknowledged, respected and understood. And the trust from commitment to this process will go a long way to creating a safe and loving blended family.