Replicated trauma : understanding how trauma is carried in the family

The following is part verbatim excerpt from Chapter Three : The Family Mind of It Didn’t Start With You, part is a summary I have made using some of Mark Wolynn’s text.   The earlier part of this chapter addressed interruptions in the mother – child bond.  I will share that in another post.  This one shows different ways traumas can imprint and play out across generations.

The repetition of trauma is not always an exact replica of the original event.  In a family in which someone has committed a crime, for example, someone born in a later generation could atone for that crime without realising that he or she is doing so.  A man named John came to see me shortly after being released from prison.  He had served three years for embezzlement – a crime he claimed he did not commit.  At trial, John had pleaded not guilty, but because of the weight of the evidence against him – a false accusation made by his former business associate – he was advised by his attorney to accept a plea bargain.  The moment he entered my office, John appeared agitated.  His jaw was clenched, and he flung his coat against the back of the chair.  He revealed that he had been framed, and was now obsessed with thoughts of revenge.  As we discussed his family situation, it came to light that a generation back in the 1960s, his father had been accused of murdering his business partner, but had been acquitted at trial on a technicality.  Everyone in the family knew that the father was guilty, but they never spoke about it.  Given my experience with inherited family trauma, it wasnt surprising to learn that John was the same age his father was when he went to trial.  Justice was finally served, but the wrong person paid the price.

Bert Hellinger (a renowned German psychotherapist who developed what is called Family Constellation Therapy) believes that the mechanism behind these repetitions is unconscious loyalty, and views (this) as the cause of much suffering in families.  Unable to identify the source of their symptoms as belonging to an earlier generation, people often assume that the source of their problem is their own life experience, and are left helpless to find a solution.  Hellinger teaches that everyone has the same right to belong in a family system, and that no one can be excluded for any reason.  This includes the alcoholic grandfather who left our grandmother impoverished, the stillborn brother whose death broke our mother’s heart, and even the neighbor child our father accidentally killed as he backed out of the driveway  – they all belong in our family.  The list goes on.

Even people we wouldn’t normally include in your family system must be included.  If someone harmed or murdered or took advantage of a member of our family, that person must be included.  Likewise, if somebody in our family harmed or murdered or took advantage of someone, the victim would also need to be included….

Earlier partners of our parents and grandparents also belong.  By their dying or leaving or having been left, an opening is created that allows for our mother, father, or grandfather to enter the system, and ultimately allows for us to be born.

Hellinger has observed that when someone is rejected or left out of the family system, that person can be represented by a later member of the system.  The later person might share or repeat the earlier person’s fate by behaving similarly or by repeating some aspect of the excluded person’s suffering.  If, for example, your grandfather is rejected in the family because of his drinking, gambling and philandering, it is possible that one or more of these behaviors will be adopted by one of his descendants.  In this way, family suffering continues into subsequent generations.

…Hellinger stresses that we must each carry our own fate, regardless of its severity.  No one can attempt to take on the fate of a parent, grandparent, sibling, uncle, or aunt without some type of suffering ensuing.  Hellinger uses the word “entanglement” to describe this kind of suffering.  When entangled, you unconsciously carry the feelings, symptoms, behaviors, or hardships of an earlier member of your family system as if they were your own.

(Wolynn goes on to explain in subsequent paragraphs how each child in the same family can inherit different trauma regardless of similarities in upbringing.  The first born is likely to carry unresolved father wounds, the first born daughter what is unresolved with the mother.  The reverse can also be true.  Later children are likely to carry different traumas, or elements of the grandparent’s traumas.

Eg a woman who is first born marries an emotionally unavailable controlling man – similar to how she sees her father- and so shares the dynamic with her mother.  The second daughter may carry the unexpressed anger of her mother.  The trauma is the same but each carry different aspects of it.  One daughter may reject the father the other does not (this happened in my own family with my great great grandfather younger siblings embraced him despite his addiction and PTSD my own great grandmother got as far away as she could with her daughter, my grandmother.   That separation pattern in my family has continued down 3 generations.)

Later children can carry unresolved traumas of the grandparents.  In the same family, either the third or fourth daughter might never marry, fearing she will be controlled by a man she does not love.

With a break in the mother child bond among siblings, each child might express his or her disconnection in different ways.  One becomes a people pleaser (fearing separation and rejection for making waves) another feeling trying to connect is useless pushes people away.  Another child might isolate and have little contact with the family.

Wolynn writes that he has seem that when several siblings have a break in the mother bond they often express anger or jealousy, or feel disconnected from each other.  The older child resents the younger when seeing them given what they cannot remember they got (early holding and bonding) because they were then too young to remember.  The older may then blame the younger or be mean or abusive or rejecting to them.

Wolynn adds that some children are lucky enough to escape, carrying very little of the trauma of the past.  Some get more of what they need (bonding, attention, affection and love) while others miss out due to different things happening in the family when they are born and being raised and having a different kind of connection with each parent.  There are no hard and fast rules, says Wolynn and explorations needs to take place to uncover what trauma we may be carrying.

One becomes disentangled from such traumas through becoming aware of past family hisotry, by learning to self soothe, and use healing imagery and sentences, gaining insight into wounds, entanglements and blocks and giving back the burden to whom it belongs.    I will share some of these strategies in later posts and share also more of the next chapter which addresses the power of language in addressing trauma.

5 thoughts on “Replicated trauma : understanding how trauma is carried in the family

    1. I am passionate about this work. I want to get the info from Wolynn’s book out to as many readers as I can, in case they cannot afford to get this book. It really resonates with me.

    1. Thanks so much. There is so much of this book i would love to share but as you will see there is a lot in it. I am so glad your library has a copy. I really find what he writes is what i have experienced in my own family. Its so hard to see people struggle with diagnoses they could change if they only knew the full story.

      Thanks so much for reading and enjoying my blog. Love Deborah

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s