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Testifying When Your Terrified

I have yet to work with a client that is excited about the opportunity to testify in court--or to be cross examined by opposing counsel. You don't have to be an expert on trauma to understand why it would be a terrifying experience, just based on the abuse factor alone. But now add a very broken family court system, as well as judges that are jaded and have zero understanding of what trauma and abuse can look like in a marriage--when one partner is displaying abusive or personality disordered behaviors and the other just "goes along". (You've gone along all this time, why is it suddenly such a problem that your kids shouldn't spend half their time with him?).

It is a tricky, tricky dance. You've got to present to the court as reasonable--not part of the conflict. Don't be too emotional, but don't appear cold and emotionless. Don't call your partner abusive or insinuate that your child(ren) should never be around the other parent unsupervised (he was never physically abusive after all). Don't get angry when the false and insane allegations start flying. Demonstrate that you're a good coparent and that you can get along (even though if that were the case you probably wouldn't be here in the first place). It's simple perfect. Respond perfectly. And there's a chance that in the end, none of it will even matter.

Unfortunately, our family court system doesn't understand trauma. They'll have the abuser and the abused sit down at a table for mediation--come to an agreement or else go to court and the judge isn't going to be happy because you two can't "be grown-ups" and figure it out. It's all such a triggering and traumatic experience for the healthy parent trying to leave an abusive marriage. And more often than not, they are penalized for their trauma responses because they don't "make sense" to someone who isn't trauma informed.

This is one of the key components of the work that I do with my clients. I can help with strategies like what color to wear (pink), how to respond to ridiculous or absurd accusations, how to control the pace of the cross examination, etc. But the one thing I can't do is remove those trauma responses. That will be a process that unravels for years as you get further away from your abuser and start to unpack all that you've gone through.

It is however, one of the things that I believe can have the most positive impact on your case. Knowing and being able to recognize your own triggers and trauma responses. Do you shut down? Do you cry, or shake uncontrollably? Having those responses on the stand could help support your abusers claim that you are unstable or unfit to have custody.

How does recognizing the triggers and responses help? It gives you the space to change the response. It gives you time to practice different responses, or even to just acknowledge the traumatic response, but move quickly away from it, rather than getting stuck in a loop. It is taking the power away from those triggers (and your abuser). It does take time and will likely be a lifelong practice, but it can have massive impact on how you impact your own court case.

I don't want to close this out without offering some advice on how to start taking the steps to identify and change your trauma responses (in the family court setting). If you're finding yourself facing a court date with your abuser, perhaps sitting down and making a list of the things you expect they will say about you in court is a good first step. You know this person and you know the buttons they will try to push. Write them all in a list and then read them out loud, as if they are being said by your abuser (if you really want to add to the exposure therapy part, look at a picture of them while you read it). How does it make you feel? Let yourself feel all the things--notice your body--are you shaking, are you suddenly warm, tingly? Are you on the verge of a crying meltdown? Read those things until you can read them without the responses and then, read them back to that person but with your truth. If they said "You are a neglectful and selfish parent", perhaps what you say (out loud) is "I am a nurturing and giving parent".

If you're finding yourself facing mediation, a custody trial, or anything that's going to put you on the stage of our family court system, face-to-face with your abuser, I absolutely can help you with some specific strategies. We will work together to put together a profile of your abuser and work on documentation, communication, and all the things that can work in your favor and have your abuser show their own true colors in family court. But those trauma triggers and responses...those are yours I'm afraid.

Recognizing your triggers and responses isn't going to change everything overnight. But I promise you, it will be the foundation and open the door for your healing journey.

If you are currently in this situation, or will be soon, please reach out for a free 20 min consultation. You don't have to go it alone.

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