Laugh or Cry: The Trauma Legacy

Many of the couples I see know the pain of trauma.

Trauma in the context of a relationship is in a league of its own. If the trauma happened outside the relationship, like combat trauma, then the resulting impact can be cause one partner to feel completely displaced from the other's private, tortured world. If trauma occurred within the relationship, like domestic violence, then partners can be terrorized by the desire for intimacy and the fear of it.

So, I understand how trauma tears at couple relationships, and my goal as a relationship therapist is to help couples look at trauma and heal despite their circumstances.

This week, however, it seems like no matter how much reslience I try to encourage, I am relentlessly reminded of how traumatic and scary this world can be. One man, whose empathic humor may be responsible for saving lives, tragically ended in a lost battle with depression. Another young man, whose young life rang with the promise of an upcoming college education, was unexplainably killed by the very forces intended to provide safety and peace. 

The responses to both situations are heart-breaking.

I cannot fathom how Robin Williams' spouse and family must feel after such a devastating loss, and although I see the impact of Michael Brown's death, I still cannot comprehend how those who loved him are feeling. When these kinds of things happen, and others look to me to bring words of hope, the only thing I can do is sit with my hands folded in my lap and shake my head. I don't understand it either. I don't get it, and I don't know how to make sense of it. I don't think I can explain how or why someone was not able to get to Williams before he felt like he had no other choice, except to say that depression takes people very dark, lonely, and secret places. I cannot possibly begin to explain why Brown was killed. These are the questions that trauma brings to the table. Trauma makes us ask questions we don't think about until we know there's no way we can find an answer. That's part of the reason why it hurts so much.

Here's one thing I do know:

The world's capacity to traumatize is astounding. But despite my bitterness toward my own and our collective helplessness when it comes to preventing trauma, I will be forever grateful to Robin Williams. I'll be grateful because he knew the world's indifference. He knew its loneliness. He knew its subtle and indifferent cruelty, and still he laughed. I'm going to try not to focus on how he died. Rather, I'm going to focus on how Williams laughed. I'm going to remember how despite his intimate knowledge with the world's cruelty, he laughed while he lived. He laughed because even in the midst of pain, it is sometimes all you can do.

When I work with couples, we often arrive at a crucial point where all the anger and bitterness that trauma creates is stripped away leaving only a tenuous and unfamiliar intimacy that is absolutely necessary to heal. It is at this tender moment that I prompt the person who is really feeling it to describe what's going on with them. I'm no longer surprised when they laugh, saying, "I'm either going to laugh or cry." 

I invite you to do both, and I invite you not to hide from either. To me, laughter and tears are the same currency in couple therapy. They invite the same intimacy if you know what's beneath the surface. Laughter is better than letting the world's trauma keep us from connection, intimacy, and closeness. When you strip away all the madness the world imposes, what else is there?

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