Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Fractured Families
Breaches, Fissures and Canyons
Gary Reece, Ph.d

I took a trip recently with my family to Mammoth Lakes, California. We had been there before and always enjoyed its scenic beauty and serenity. It is a place of wonder: full of all kinds of geological activity and evidence of the earth’s forces at work. I stopped at an earth quake fault; several feet across and several feet deep. The earth had split open, imagine the forces at work to create these beautiful artifacts of nature at work. Each time it fills me with wonder and awe. There are many visible reminders that beneath the surface there is a cauldron of lava continually churning. The Devil’s Postpile is evidence of this activity: I marvel at the beautifully stacked octagonal columns of lava, valleys scooped out by glacial activities, chaos, upheaval, scarring of the earth all the natural forces on display that produced this masterpiece. Being the psychologist that I am, I observed to myself that it is not unlike the human psyche: scarring, breaches, chaos, beauty, conflicting forces at work, producing fractured individuals as well as families.

This has been on my mind recently: family chaos, violent encounters, murder, suicide, and kidnappings. These are evidence of unconscious factors at work which break out with catastrophic results. This is when witnesses stand around and wonder why such a “nice guy” would “suddenly kill his wife and children,” a pilot would deliberately fly his plane into a mountain, taking his life as well as the lives of 149 others with him. Madness, chaos, terrorism and violence abounds. The nightly news is a litany of human beings at their worst: this is the ugly catastrophe of dysfunctional dynamics at their worst.

Like geological forces, these psychological eruptions began a long time ago, in the first fragile years of infancy. Allan Schore gives us this core idea with regard to the formation of the implicit self.
The regulatory process of affect synchrony, which creates states of positive arousal, and affective repair, which modulates states of negative arousal, are the fundamental building blocks of attachment and its associated emotions; and resilience in the face of stress and novelty is an ultimate indicator of attachment security. (Through sequences of attunement, mis-attunement, and re-attunement an infant becomes a person, achieving a “psychological birth.” This preverbal matrix forms the core of the implicit self. (Affect Regulation and Disorders of the Self, p. 32)

This explains how individuals develop and some become fractured, but what about the family? Why so many divorces and people living miserable lives, living with people they have grown to hate? There are of course many reasons; there is seldom a single cause for anything psychological in nature. Individuals with attachment problems of course have difficulty maintaining intimacy and being able to deal with emotional conflict and repairing damaged relationships. They also carry with them the “attachment paradigm;” the model of how relationships work. So, early attachment problems are one reason. Another problem closely related to the first is that individuals uncannily, unconsciously seem to find themselves attracted to others with similar problems. Therefore when two dysfunctional individuals marry they tend to carry on the madness and pass it on to their children. These relationships are usually chaotic and deeply painful.

Another reason is difficult to clearly understand, but it has to do with the complex field of neurology and genetics. I have worked with several individuals who came from family trees who had many different forms of mental illness. These include Schizophrenia and Bi-polar Disorder as well as Depression, drug and alcohol problems and Abuse. These often combine to produce unique forms of dysfunction. People from these families ask if there is such a thing as an “Ozzie and Harriet” family, as if there were some ideal “normal” family living somewhere behind a white picket fence, with two cars in the garage and a dog. The answer is no, only on television.

Besides the above causes of family dysfunction there are still other causes, as if these were not enough. Let’s assume two “normal” individuals find each other and fall in love and get married. What happens to them, why can’t they make it work? Where does the love go? I am often asked. George Bach wrote a book several years ago, it’s called “The Intimate Enemy” his theory is that the death of intimacy is caused by the inability of couples to deal with the irritation, frustration, anger and resentment of daily living. In more modern language, “Attunement Repair.” In other words, everyone gets frustrated, lashes out, gets angry and often harbors resentment for years. This is where the love goes. If we can’t keep our relationships free from toxic emotions and process our hurt and anger on a daily basis (attunement repair), distance will grow, we can’t be close and trusting with someone we are angry with. Attunement repair basically means to be sensitive to the other and be aware of when we hurt them or they hurt us and talk about it, this creates more intimacy. Bach found that most people are conflict phobic. So they avoid the conflict they fear.

Finally, there is also the daily variety of stress and traumatic stress which can create fractures in relationships which if not repaired also lead to damaging the relationship. Deaths, miscarriages, job loss, work overload, these all contribute to taking an emotional toll on the partners in a relationship. Given all of the above factors, it is a wonder that people manage to maintain long term relationships. My friends who have been successful tell me it is because they have managed to remain good friends over the years.

The family is the context, the matrix where the processes by which the self is formed and deformed and turned into a twisted image of human beings. Like a lava flow, an adult is the end product of the attachment process: the process by which maternal care is given. Since not all of us are perfectly attuned to each other there are times of mis-attunement where we fail to be aware of the needs of the other, when these occur, the result is a breach or a small fissure which leaves the infant anxious. When the repair occurs, the infant then relaxes and is comforted. Rupture is a break in attunement either with others or ourselves. Repair is an active effort to acknowledge the rupture and renew attunement which re-establishes compassionate connection. Sources of inner rupture may result in self-directed hostility-blame-hatred. If this cycle of attunement failure and repair fails, it ends in traumatic damage to the developing self. I documented the effects of such trauma in my book: Broken Systems/Shattered lives. In effect, the most significant event of infancy and childhood is the attainment of an attachment bond of emotional communication and compassionate connection/ a bond of emotion represents the key event in infancy. If this does not occur the result is not only fractured individuals, but also fractured families. It is a vicious cycle, fractured families produce fractured individuals etc.

Rupture without repair leads to chronic mistrust, deadened connections, distance and distrust in relationships and families. This applies to children who are separated at birth or abused as well as “normal families’ who failed in the attunement process and were never able to regain attunement. We see these in the classic Holiday Films depicting catastrophic family reunions where everyone hates the other and dreads being together, and of course, when they do have a “family reunion” chaos ensues. These may be stereotypes of dysfunctional families, but they bring to light some basic truths about unhealed wounds and festering conflicts which have not been resolved. These reflect the picture of families divided by canyons with no bridges.

For the individual unhealed attunement failures may lead to the self feeling defective regardless of external evidence. It is a belief that “I will never be loved.” It is typified by chronic feelings of being bad at the core. This unconsciously held belief is called a shame state. Shame devalues the self in order to prevent abandonment. Better to be filled with shame than lose all hope of being safe and secure. This fear of humiliation (shaming) leads to defensive responses which shields the self from further injury. Isolation preserves the self in a state of guarded mistrust. Hence we have a fissure within the self which leads to isolation and guardedness which then results in a ravine, or small chasm between the self and others. These splits, gaps, and spaces in our relationships are the result of not being tuned into each other, but also of failure to redress the wound when it occurred. It is like an unacknowledged wound which neither is willing to address: the proverbial elephant in the room.

John Bowlby the father of modern attachment theory once remarked about the lasting effects of loss on infants separated from their mothers:
Let us turn to the data that originally gave rise to this study, observations of how a young child between the ages of about twelve months and three years responds when removed from mother –figures to whom he is attached and is placed with strangers in a strange place. His initial response . . . . is one of protest and urgent effort to recover his lost mother. He will often cry loudly, shake his cot, throw himself about and look eagerly towards any sight or sound which might prove to be his missing mother. This may with ups and downs continue for as long as a week or more. Throughout it the child seems buoyed up in his efforts by the hope and expectation that his mother will return.
Sooner or later, however, despair sets in. The longing for mother’s return does not diminish, but the hope of its being realized fades. Unfortunately the restless noisy demands cease: he becomes apathetic and withdrawn, a despair broken only perhaps by an intermittent and monotonous wail. He is in a state of unalterable misery. (Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, Pg. 9)

Erik Erikson has also noted that this sort of maternal deprivation leads to a “loss of a sense of Hallowed presence which leads to a life of perpetual mourning. This often leads to children in the foster care system spending their lives in pursuit of the lost parent in a quest to find the origins of their identity which leads to lives spent wandering in a wilderness of bureaucratic dead ends. These are the ones who have failed to find and connect with family. They do not get to experience the many benefits of connecting, belonging, and feeling the secure attachment of those who truly care for them; perpetual grief and mourning haunts them their whole lives. There are others of course, who having felt maternal deprivation and marry with the expectation of “finally finding someone to fill the hole in their psyche, only to be perpetually disappointed.

In my family of origin we were not close. I was shamed and abused by my father and big brother, I left for college and never went back. I compensated for this lack of attachment with academic success and hard work. I had infrequent contact with my parents and dreaded what encounters we did have. I was too busy working to “notice what I had missed.” No closeness as a child resulted in distance as adults. I have an older brother with whom I have not spoken to in years. He sends me meaningless Christmas Cards and signs his name. My parents missed having all the benefits of having a close and loving relationship with an adult son and his family. This was an unbridgeable gap which was never repaired.

Healing fractures is very hard work; it entails dealing with pain, grief, shame, and overcoming self-hatred to finally get to a place of acceptance. It also entailed making amends to those in my family I had wounded as I thrashed about in my life. With my own family we have worked hard to repair the failures of attunement, my lack of presence and preoccupation with my own wounds. My ex-wife demonstrated great compassion and character when she forgave my many trespasses. My son and daughter suffered as I spent 10 years wandering lost in the wasteland of depression. And several more confusing years as I tried to restore order in my life. Now, our family gatherings are more pleasant and friendly encounters, the fruit of healing old wounds and reaping the fruit of forgiveness. It is hard to express the joy I feel when we are together as we sit around a fire and tell stories; laugh and reminisce. It is a feeling of belonging, being cared for and accepted in spite of myself. Mutual affection permeates our interactions, it is the synonym for a loving family, one which has been wounded, healed, and appreciates the history of this process. For me it is like sitting on a ridge at Mammoth Lakes looking over a valley and appreciating the beauty of all the forces still alive and at work. Fissures, fractures, and ravines form the landscape of the psyche, navigating them takes work, patience, kindness, awareness and compassion which can lead to wholeness and integration.

Attunement failures not repaired lead to fissures, fractures, and ultimately explosions and catastrophic episodes of violence, rage and wasted lives. Healing fractured families takes considerable work, but I believe it begins with each individual owning their part in the fracture and together trying to bridge the gaps and heal their collective wounds.

For those of you still searching and struggling, keep working, the journey is the very process which creates healing, there is hope in the strength you gain through the struggle. You become the hero in your own story. The wasteland, the wilderness, the landscape of your own life has beauty, if you stop and look at where you have been in your journey of self-discovery and determine where you want to take the healing steps. It is often uncharted, the pathless way: gaining self-knowledge is a life-long process. It requires building bridges, crossing deeply painful fissures, and learning to care and trust by reaching out and overcoming fear, shame and guilt.

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