Trauma Responses to Divorce and Custody Cases

Posted on Sep 1, 2022 by Katie Carter

Divorce is a trauma. It’s a trauma for you, and, in many cases, it’s a trauma for your children, too.

But, then again, probably many of the events leading up to your divorce and/or custody case were pretty traumatic, too. It’s not like you just showed up at a divorce attorney’s office unscathed, and suddenly the divorce itself starts traumatizing you.

No. In almost every case I’ve seen, the trauma has already begun – sometimes, many, many years before a prospective client finds herself in my office. Though the divorce itself can feel traumatic, in many ways, it’s just a continuation of existing trauma.

Especially in challenging cases, like where one of the parties is a narcissist, or where they’re suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, where they’re physically or emotionally abusive, where protective orders or criminal charges are involved, there are a lot of traumas involved.

The silver lining? There’s an end point. There’s a point at which your final divorce decree is signed, and the bulk of the issues are addressed.

Of course, custody, visitation, and child support are modifiable based on a material change in circumstances, so if you have children in common some form of litigation can continue up until your children turn 19 or graduate high school (because that’s when child support stops). But a lot of the issues will be resolved and – the big part – you won’t be married to him anymore when your final decree is entered. At that point, you can start working through your trauma and heading towards a healthier mental point.

But you’re not there yet, which means there’s still some trauma to be experienced, probably. If your husband is particularly difficult, chances are good that the divorce process itself won’t change him. He’s going to be difficult, and he’ll likely hire an attorney who is as difficult as he is, too.

And, if you’re like any traumatized person, you’ll likely find this difficult to deal with. It’s almost MORE difficult, once you start to assert your independence, too. Narcissists, after all, don’t give up control easily. Most abusive people will try even harder to sink their teeth into you before they let you go. And you, meanwhile, have spent years dealing with this alternate reality where his worldview dominates, so it’s not like you’re in your strongest, healthiest mental place, either.

I don’t say any of this to be discouraging. Quite the opposite, actually. I mostly say it to raise awareness; to help you see that the way you’re thinking may or may not be entirely accurate. I want to encourage you to doubt yourself, to feel comfortable asking experts (though, ethically, divorce attorneys aren’t allowed to call themselves experts – myself included) or leaders in a particular field, whether law, medicine, or psychology, and to use the wisdom you gain to come up with solutions.

A friend of mine is getting a divorce. Just like for everyone else, this happens with some frequency. It’s actually her who inspired me to write this because, even though I spent hours and hours talking to her, I’d find that she’d say one thing to me (which led me to think she was on the right path), and then she’d fall apart behind the scenes.

Then, she was embarrassed to talk to me, to admit she’d dropped the ball. I imagine that, if I was in her shoes, I’d feel the same way. I don’t like to tell my doctor that I decided not to follow their advice, either, after all.

But the thing is that, when it comes to a really traumatized person, it’s not so much a case of deliberate insubordination. Sure, she probably knows better, deep down, but at the same time, she was physically unable to do anything else about it at the time. She literally could not help herself.

It’s a challenging position to be in, as a friend and as a lawyer (which is to say nothing of the difficulty she faced, going through this mess) because I talked to her, gave her the advice, and thought she understood. I didn’t see her in her weak moments, when she was sent discovery that she didn’t respond to, when she received a questionnaire from the Guardian ad litem that she didn’t complete, or when her attorney filed a motion to withdraw because she wouldn’t communicate. When she talked to me, she was fine – she felt good, and she had the best of intentions.

But mental state is like that. It ebbs and flows. There’s highs and lows, especially when you’re coming out of an already abusive relationship and you’re dealing with all the trauma that comes with it.

As an attorney (and as a friend), I try to ask questions to get a better state of my client’s (and friend’s) mental state, so that I know better when things like this might happen. After all, my advice, however good, doesn’t do much good if the person I’m telling it to is in no position to receive it or act on it.

As a client (or a friend), you have to try to do your bit, too. Tell your friend, your attorney, your doctor, or your therapist what you need. Tell them when you haven’t followed through, or when you need something else from them. Don’t be ashamed that your trauma caused you to behave in a way that looks counterproductive to your goals. Don’t let that keep you from reaching back out and doing everything in your power to get back on the right track.

If we all work together, we can work to overcome your trauma, and put you on a path towards healing. It’s going to take a concerted effort on both of our parts – especially in terms of how honest we are with each other – but it’s absolutely possible to get there.

Trauma responses are real, and they can take all sorts of different forms. Opening your eyes to the fact that (1) you’re dealing with trauma, that (2) all people deal with trauma differently, and recognizing that (3) experienced professionals dealing with traumatized women are not there to judge you or shame you or make you feel bad for being traumatized will help a lot.

You didn’t follow my advice? Things are worse? You don’t know where to turn? You’re overwhelmed and terrified and you can’t sleep at night? This isn’t the first time?

I’m so glad you trusted me with that. Now, let’s have some tea (or coffee, or a glass of wine – though not when I’m at work, sorry – rules, and stuff like that) and talk about what we can do to get you back where you need to be.

Deep breaths. We’ve got this. For more information, to schedule a consultation or to register to attend our monthly divorce seminar, give us a call at 757-425-5200 or visit our website at