Working with separation and divorce issues from a body-mind psychotherapy approach
This article looks at how separation and divorce issues for young people and adults can be transformed. The first part of the article includes observing how a young person can grieve the loss of a parent through an illness that results in a family breakup, and the concerns that arise for a person adjusting to a stepfamily. The remaining article explores psychotherapy working with adults that are survivors of a childhood divorce. It is important to note that people faced with a separation or divorce often undergo a period of grieving as they are sad about the loss of their family unit and familiar family home.
Young people that commence therapy for reasons of being socially withdrawn and emotionally depressed often withdraw more if an adult asks them too many questions. One of my primary skills is helping clients feel safe enough to tell their story. The skills I use are respect and genuineness, being visibly tuned into the client, listening to the client as storyteller, and to my own somatic responses to the client. Having basic empathy is a relationship builder and a conversational lubricant used to validate the client’s experience by letting them know I understand what it is like to feel afraid for example. Another way to convey empathy is to contact the client’s feelings by saying short and simple words, such as, ‘some sadness’, or ‘painful’ in response to their story and the tears that follow. I also need to track the client for the impressions I may be making on them with my contacting, listening and responding to avoid being intrusive or making assumptions about them.
Working with a young person I provide a variety of media to choose from so their interest is already perked. Some people choose to act out an event or circumstance that confused or troubled them. They may name the film they are about to act in. The story of the film could be about family separation and an experience of death. Some clients enjoy this method of therapy because they can be spontaneous and act from their body experience rather than having to think about what to say verbally.
The client can gain some distance and objectivity from acting out their story. This is confirmed for me when spontaneously a person feels safe and is ready to tell their story and the information organically emerges without needing to ask questions. From witnessing and safely contacting a client’s experience they can become clearer about what issues they are struggling with. For example a person in therapy could be dealing with the grieving of the loss of a parent and the adjustment to their stepfamily. Sometimes the remaining birth parent can appear distant from the client because they too are grieving and need time to get to know their new partner and step children. A young person in this circumstance can feel lonely and afraid if the communication between them and their birth parent has changed. In this instance a client is likely to feel comforted and less alone when they are able to tell their story and have a professional hear and support them. It is useful to also let the client know and understand that their parent still loves them, but is also struggling with some similar difficulties and may be unable to communicate their feelings at the present time.
It is useful to be present and to contact a client’s wounded parts, including any younger hurt parts that are hidden from their consciousness. Young people and adults both have younger parts within them, and it is healing to sense these younger parts and reassure them. For example I may say to the 5 year old part within the person aged 13, “is it ok if I talk to the 5 year old that is scared?” If I hear a yes, and I have checked how they know it is a yes from inside their body, I can then proceed slowly. I may say to the client notice inside any feelings, thoughts or memories, as I say the words “I can support you”. The client could feel some relief or they may disbelieve my words. The experiment is successful with whatever naturally emerges. I could then contact the client and say, “feels good to be supported in this unknown place”. Hakomi trainer and psychotherapist Dave Cole says he likes the use of parts language because using parts increases the “capacity for separation between the client’s consciousness and their present experience” (Cole, D. Summer 2006). Here the client is able to witness their experience from an objective stance and to both feel their feelings and know what they are feeling.
Young people respond well to using paints as well as talking, to express their feelings. This technique of projecting our emotions or problem situations onto objects is called gestalt therapy. It encourages people to use their imagination which indirectly brings out what is hidden or avoided (Geldard, K. & Geldard, D. 1999). This technique is beneficial to the client because it allows the parts of themselves that they have unconsciously pushed away or disowned to be communicated again. As Ron Kurtz wrote, when a dialogue takes place within a context of safety and concern, such as a client-therapist relationship, then these disowned parts can be integrated to form a whole. For Kurtz the wholeness is the healing.
I find introducing the ‘Bear Family Cards’ another tool to help clients externalize their emotions. Again clients can become interested when they see the bears with their variety of bodily expressions that display human emotions. For example when a young person grieves the loss of their family unit and the death of a parent they can explore their feelings through the medium of the Bear Family Cards. Sometimes clients relate to the faces and the colours of the bears. A client could say I relate to the shy, scared and sad bear because that’s how I feel.
Often spontaneously their imagination may be activated by the visual sight of the pictures of the bears and comment on the colours. I may say if the colours could speak what would they say? A response could be, the blue says ‘I am alone and frightened’, while the red colour ‘reminds me that my heart hurts’. Young people are often good at letting me know when they have had enough of a particular experiment by folding their arms or looking away. Sometime tears are shed or even silence and a sense of sadness is felt. I gently contact the sadness without having a preference for an outcome. It is good to complete with a stabilizing therapy exercise after accessing deep emotions.
Strength cards are useful in helping a young person anchor themselves by becoming conscious of their strengths that enable them to cope at difficult times. When the client trusts the therapy and enjoys working together this often yields a transformative outcome.
Along with any grieving, anger is another strong emotion that is expressed. Parents may report that their children are having sudden outbursts of anger. At these moments it is necessary to provide psycho-education with the client outlining the boundaries in which they can express their anger safely. For example letting them know that it is not ok to hurt anyone with their words or their actions. Helping a young person make their own ‘anger ball’ out of paper can be healing. I can then model for them how to use the ball by throwing it at a wall and if a sound from my mouth wants to come to allow it to be expressed. Child and family counsellor Violet Oaklander says that one of the most effective techniques for helping children through their blocks is modeling (Oaklander, 1990). Depending on the individual, some young people feel shy and are slow to warming up to the idea of using the anger ball, while others are ready and willing to proceed early on in their therapy as their feelings demand.
I can suggest to a young person that they write a poem about a past event or one thing they like about being in their family. For example a person may write about something constraining them and wanting to move towards something that gives them freedom. In this process clients can become confused about the details of their struggles in a separation and divorce situation.
It is helpful when the therapist clarifies the details of the client’s story. I provide a summary using short sentences of what I have heard the client say by maintaining a slow, thoughtful pace and attending to the client’s ability to regulate their emotional or physical activation (Ogden, P., Pain, C., Minton, K.). Often the young person becomes more alert and mindful in the present moment as they feel inwardly touched by the content of their own story. The therapy progresses easily when the therapist contacts the most meaningful part of the client’s story. I may contact the client’s grief about the loss of their parent by saying the words, ‘there is something important about dying in your story.’ These words can spontaneously access the client’s confusion about their story. They may then ask the therapist a question such as, “people don’t die with their eyes open do they?” Here a younger part of the client which feels responsible or scared about their experience needs some reassurance from the therapist. The client has felt safe enough to deepen their therapy in the present moment. It is essential to let the young person know that it was not their fault if they lost a parent, and also explain that people can die with their eyes open or closed. It is also good to let the other birth parent know of their child’s fears and concerns and have the parent speak directly with their child to remove any confusion about the death or separation of a parent. This helps a young person to drop any self-blame about their family separation and loss of a family member. Young people need to be able to feel that they can get on with their lives and adjust to their new home that consists of a blended family with new routines.
It is healing for a young person to know that their birth parent will take care of them and spend quality time together. This includes the parent being able to share appropriately their thoughts and feelings about the family separation and new family structure. This lets the young person know they are valued. Like adults, young people need to feel secure and to be able to embrace their self-identity and continue with their lives.
In the earlier discussion I expressed ways I work with young people. The following section of this article talks about how I work with adults. When an adult seeks therapy their current difficulties can be caused by unresolved early childhood experiences. For example someone struggling with communicating with work colleagues or a partner may have had interpersonal difficulties growing up in their family of origin. They could have observed their parents struggling with conflict that resulted in a divorce. Separation or divorce issues can be overwhelming for all concerned particularly if there are step-parents and step-siblings involved. If domestic violence such as verbal, physical or sexual abuse is present this can add to complications in a divorce. There may be issues of the misuse of alcohol or drugs, or inappropriate control over money. Domestic violence if persistent and chronic can cause a person to suffer from complex trauma.
At the core of domestic violence is the inappropriate use of boundaries. A boundary is a point, edge, or line beyond which something cannot or may not proceed (Oxford Dictionary, 1993). A person needs safe physical contact in order to define themselves. Therefore for people to feel healthy they need to have clear physical and emotional boundaries that they adhere to and others respect. If the person as a child did not have an adult that modeled what it is like to set healthy boundaries they may have missed learning how to set effective boundaries. Setting boundaries is something humans continue to learn throughout their lives. This includes being able to be flexible enough to lower a boundary or raise a boundary enabling one to choose what to let in and what to keep out. Without this skill a person may be confused about how to work through every day conflict at work or at home. The next few paragraphs explain how an adult that has undergone a traumatic divorce can have problematic adult relationships.
When a divorce is occurring and parents and step-parents are faced with domestic violence, their children can often feel confused about what is ‘going on’. Children may feel abandoned as their parents are unable to be emotionally and physically present with them. As Hakomi psychotherapist Karuna Fluhart-Negrete says this kind of trauma can extinguish a person’s resources. She wrote “trauma can scramble any sense of wholeness. It strips away confidence. Sometimes trauma can be so harsh that it separates people from themselves, their relations and communities … – (a feeling of insecurity) of being uprooted, and a sense of homelessness” (Fluhart-Negrete. K., Summer 2007). This can cause a child to have an anxious and insecure attachment to people they are emotionally close to, and cause them to struggle as an adult with mature relationships. For example they may have difficulty trusting others, creating and keeping relationships, and dealing with conflict resolution.
It is not uncommon for young people to use self-harm as a means to overcome distressing emotions particularly within the period of the separation. Self-harm can be a way of communicating the need for help, managing emotional pain, and it can be a symptom of depression or suicidal thoughts. Some people who self-harm may be unable to communicate to people about their feelings and they gain a sense of control over their pain when they self-harm, such as cutting themselves. People that are more at risk of self-harm, include survivors of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, individuals coping with a highly critical family environment and suffering from a mental illness (www.headspace.org.au).
In early childhood, crying, tantrums or clinginess are healthy reactions to a separation and are commonly felt during a divorce. This can become a separation anxiety disorder when the child’s anxiety is excessive enough to interfere with their normal activities like school and friendships, and lasts for months rather than days. This may include a disinterest in attending school, reluctance in going to sleep, complaining about a physical illness and overly clingy behavior towards a parent. The child may have anxiety due to feelings and thoughts that fear something bad could happen to a loved one. There are ways to ease their fear by developing a ‘good bye ritual’ with the parent, and keeping familiar surroundings and making new surroundings familiar. A separation anxiety disorder usually fades before the person transitions into adulthood (Management of Mental Disorders).
Adults can become aware of childhood issues as they sit in therapy and notice a body tension for instance. For example they become aware of a band of tension forming across their shoulder blades. I invite the person to become mindful of their physical tension in the present moment. As Kurts wrote “we search for signs of something simple, something learned early and stored in the shadow world of the implicit memory. Our most important and delicate task is to gently bring the light of consciousness to that shadowy world” (Kurtz, R., Update Handbook on the Refined Hakomi Method, 2007).
The client can become conscious of a memory as they feel into the tension in their back. I ask for their reports about what kind of tension they sense. I can ask questions that deepen their experience of the tension that they are witnessing. Questions such as, is the tension a contraction, is there heat in the tension and is it more on the left or the right side of the back? I then suggest to a client we do an experiment that involves a psychotherapy technique called ‘taking over’. This is an effective tool that can assist a person in becoming aware of hidden memories, beliefs and emotions. It is essential first to get the permission from the client, as they ask themselves inwardly whether they wish to proceed with the experiment. I can create more safety for the client by avoiding my direct physical touch on a person’s body, such as their back by using a towel to hold the tension. Kurtz wrote, “when she relaxed and let me do that, the experience that she was keeping outside her consciousness immediately emerged within her whole being. It surprised me how easily the feared experience could be brought into consciousness” (Kurtz, R., Hakomi Method of Mindfulness Based Body Psychotherapy Readings August 2004). For example a person with the tension in their back can have this tension ‘taken over’ by wrapping a towel around their back to hold the tension. The towel is twirled in a circular motion to create a soft rope effect before placing it around the client’s back and holding it there.
The therapist checks in with the client moment by moment how the contact is with the towel, whether it is the correct tension that matches the tension felt in their back. With this precise yet delicate method of doing for the client what they do for themselves unconsciously, they can become conscious of their present moment experience. The client effortlessly becomes aware of their emotions and the thoughts of a recent event. For example, a person may feel sad and fearful about being away from their spouse. While staying with this memory an earlier memory of a similar situation that holds the original trauma memory for the person unfolds, such as their parents divorcing and them feeling isolated. This can be a powerful moment towards transformation for a client in therapy when they make the connection with the earlier trauma.
A person can be freed from their current sadness and fear when an old memory surfaces and is integrated with understanding. Body-mind psychotherapy is immediate and effective. As the tears come, and the pressure is taken over with the use of the towel the person feels less weighed down. Then the thought of the current separation comes and a more adult thought says the words, “it’s ok my partner will be returning home when he’s completed his business trip.” The childhood memory had been contributing to a nervous system activation of an anxious unease of possibly losing something significant. This activation in their body came from the earlier trauma memory of losing a family unit when a parent left their home initially for work reasons and then returned home to file for a divorce.
When reflecting on divorce and separation issues it is important to know that adult survivors of a childhood experience of a divorce may still be affected by the divorce in their adult lives if a parent ignored their emotional needs. It helps to create a safe space for people to talk about their feelings, remaining calm and open. In this instance they may not have had adequate emotional mirroring of their true self-identity from a parent and can develop a harsh inner critic and self-saboteur. The inner critic and self-saboteur can block a person’s potential in succeeding in relationships or any activity that involves taking action. Emotional mirroring is part of a parent’s healthy behavior, and includes parents echoing the pride, delight and happiness of a child. These responses show a child what they feel. The function of mirroring provides the child with having their own experience of what it is like to feel solid and real. The healing for the client can happen when the therapist imaginatively grasps and understands the client through simply and gently contacting their experience (Mears, R., 1993). When a therapist accurately contacts a client’s experience this helps to regulate a client’s emotional state.
Sometimes an adult client that has current relationship struggles are reminded by a similar wounding that occurred as a child as mentioned earlier. An important aspect of healing emotional neglect that stems from a childhood divorce experience is to learn about self-care, and this includes setting healthy boundaries. The person healing a childhood wound can begin to place a boundary around the earlier divorce experience from a current relationship struggle. As they understand the earlier event was from a child’s perspective and the current situation is now them as an adult. They can grieve the forgotten memory that unknowingly had been causing them to feel anxious in their current relationship.
Kurtz wrote “experiments like this reveal the connections between beliefs, memories and habitual behaviours” (Kurtz, R., Update Handbook on the Refined Hakomi Method, 2007). With mindfulness a person is able to access their unconscious material and learn about memories of formative events that shaped their thinking and other habit patterns. It is in the participation of an experiment that a client discovers new knowledge about themselves and can transform and integrate their original wound. It is also good to remember that for therapy to move effortlessly, the timing and pacing that the therapist offers with their therapeutic presence create safety for the client, thus helping them make a gradual reconnection with their internal body-mind experience. This experience of body-mind psychotherapy is what makes it an effective method in coming to terms with separation and divorce concerns for both children and adults.
1. Fluhart-Negrete, K., (Summer 2007) The Power of Presence in Trauma Work: An Elemental Embrace.
2. Geldard, K., & Geldard, D., (1999) Counselling Children a Practical Introduction.
4. Heckler, R., & Johanson, G., found in Theory & Practice of Body-Psychotherapy. Enhancing the Immediacy and Intimacy of the Therapeutic Relationship Through the Somatic Dimension.
6. Johanson, G., The Birth & Death of Meaning Selective Implications of Linguistics for Psychotherapy.
7. Kurtz, R., (1990) Body-Centered Psychotherapy, the Hakomi Method.
8. Kurtz, R., Describing the Method Science, Spirit & Psychotherapy.
9. Kurtz, R., (2007) Update Handbook on the Refined Hakomi Method.
10. Kurtz, R., (2004) Hakomi Method of Mindfulness Based Body Psychotherapy. Readings August 2004, Papers & Notes.
11. Management of Mental Disorders (2004) Volume 1 & 2, Treatment Protocol Project.
12. Meares, R., (1993) The Metaphor of Play Disruption and Restoration in the Borderline Experience.
13. Oaklander, V., (1988) Windows to Our Children: a Gestalt Therapy Approach to Children & Adolescents.
14. Ogden, P., Pain, C., Minton, K., & Fisher, J., Including the Body in Mainstream Psychotherapy for Traumatised Individuals.
15. Oxford Dictionary of Current English (1993).
You helped me stay with myself and feel comfortable with who I am.
I’m really enjoying the group processes. Your facilitation of the group is very gentle and you have created a safe space in a short amount of time.
Thank you for being a compassionate and supportive therapist. You were there for me at a point in my life where I really needed someone to understand and support me.