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Addressing Intergenerational Trauma in Your Relationship Through Couple Therapy Based on Family Constellations


Addressing Intergenerational Trauma in Your Relationship Through Couple Therapy Based on Family Constellations

In the field of mental health and therapy, the study of intergenerational trauma has shed light on how unresolved traumas of one generation can profoundly affect the lives and relationships of future generations. This concept is particularly poignant in the context of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. The third generation of Holocaust survivors often carries the weight of their grandparents' experiences, sometimes without realizing it. These inherited traumas can manifest in various aspects of life, including marital dynamics. Understanding the nature of these traumas and how they affect relationships is critical. This article focuses on the use of family constellation therapy, a therapeutic approach designed to uncover and treat these hidden influences within the family system.

Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma refers to the transfer of emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical effects from those who directly experienced a traumatic event to future generations. This phenomenon indicates that trauma can leave a mark not only on those who lived through it but also on their children and grandchildren, affecting their behaviors, feelings, and even their mental health.

The mechanisms through which intergenerational trauma operates are complex and multifaceted. One path is through the behaviors and emotional expressions of those who have directly experienced trauma. For example, a parent's unresolved trauma may manifest in their parenting style and affect the emotional development of their children. Children may grow up in environments characterized by anxiety, depression, or emotional detachment, which can stem from the traumatic experiences of their parents. These emotional and behavioral patterns can, in turn, be passed on to the next generation, perpetuating a cycle of trauma.

Another path is through the stories, silences, and cultural expressions within a family or community. Trauma can be transmitted through the shared narratives about the past or through the avoidance of certain topics, teaching the younger generations to navigate the world with the same fears and anxieties that their ancestors faced. Furthermore, cultural practices, rituals, and commemorative events can also embed historical traumas within a group's collective identity, influencing how people perceive themselves and their place in the world.

Recent studies also point to biological mechanisms, such as epigenetic changes, which imply that the effects of trauma can be passed on through genetic inheritance. Studies, including those conducted on the offspring of Holocaust survivors, have indicated that trauma can lead to changes in gene expression, which can be passed on to offspring, potentially increasing their susceptibility to stress-related disorders.

In the case of the third generation of Holocaust survivors, the shadow of historical trauma hovers. Although they may not have experienced the events of the Holocaust directly, the trauma experienced by their grandparents can affect their perceptions, behavior, and emotional well-being. Recognizing this intergenerational transmission of trauma is the first step toward addressing its impact on individuals and families, paving the way for healing and resolution.

The Third Generation of Holocaust Survivors

The third generation of Holocaust survivors occupies a unique position in the narrative of intergenerational trauma. While they are further removed from the direct experiences of the Holocaust, this generation is still dealing with its legacy. Their connection to the Holocaust is mediated by family stories, cultural memory, and sometimes the unspoken emotional residue that seeps into their family environment.

This generation faces the challenge of understanding and integrating a traumatic history that they did not experience directly but still significantly affects their identity and emotional world. For many, the Holocaust is a major historical event that shapes their family's narrative, affects their values, their fears, and even the way they approach relationships and community.

One of the most profound ways in which the third generation experiences the impact of the Holocaust is through the lens of family relationships. The trauma experienced by their grandparents can lead to specific patterns within the family, such as overprotection, difficulty expressing emotions, or an intense focus on security and survival. These patterns, although rooted in the past, can affect the emotional development and interpersonal dynamics of the third generation and are often reflected in their most intimate relationships with their spouses and children.

Additionally, the third generation often carries a sense of responsibility to remember and honor the experiences of their grandparents. This responsibility can be a source of strength, providing a deep sense of belonging to their heritage and history. However, it can also be a source of stress, as the desire to bear witness to the past can sometimes conflict with the need to create their own identity and path in life.

Marital Dynamics and Intergenerational Trauma

The lasting effects of intergenerational trauma extend far beyond the individual, penetrating the most intimate corners of human relationships. Relationship dynamics can become a complex dance of historical pain, unspoken fears, and inherited coping mechanisms, often without partners fully understanding the underlying causes. This is especially true for couples where one or both partners are descendants of trauma survivors, such as the generation of grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Their marital relationships can be significantly affected by the trauma their grandparents went through, expressed in patterns of distress that, if left untreated, can challenge the foundations of the partnership.

Patterns of Distress in Marital Relationships

1. Anxiety and Hypervigilance:

One of the most common manifestations of intergenerational trauma within marital dynamics is an overall feeling of anxiety and hypervigilance. This can be attributed to the survival mechanisms adopted by their ancestors who experienced the Holocaust. Such anxiety can lead to conflict avoidance, where one or both partners may avoid addressing issues directly for fear of causing further damage or disruption. Alternatively, it can result in overprotection, with one partner taking on an overly caring role, blurring the lines between support and control.

2. Communication Breakdown:

Communication breakdown is another significant pattern resulting from intergenerational trauma. Couples may struggle to express feelings or needs effectively, a result of inherited silences or emotional suppression in their families of origin. This can lead to feelings of isolation and a lack of understanding within the relationship, as partners struggle to connect on a deeper emotional level.

3. Trust Issues:

Trust issues may also surface, rooted in the fear of betrayal or loss experienced by their ancestors. This can manifest as jealousy, possessiveness, or difficulty relying on the partner, which affects the ability to create a safe and supportive relationship.

The Effect on Couple Dynamics

The effects of these patterns of distress on couple dynamics can be profound. They may lead to a cycle of conflict and disconnection, where unresolved issues accumulate over time, eroding the foundations of trust and intimacy that healthy relationships require. Additionally, these patterns of distress may affect parenting styles, with the trauma manifesting in the way parents interact with their children, potentially perpetuating the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

However, it is important to recognize that the effect of intergenerational trauma on marital relationships is not solely negative. For some couples, the shared history of trauma, whether direct or inherited, can foster a deep sense of understanding and solidarity. It can become a source of strength, motivating them to build resilience and a solid support system within their relationship.

Navigating Marital Challenges Through Understanding

The key to dealing with the challenges posed by intergenerational trauma in marital relationships lies in understanding and recognition. Acknowledging the historical and emotional baggage that the couple brings into the relationship can pave the way for empathy, patience, and open communication. It's about creating a safe space where fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities can be shared without judgment, allowing both partners to work together towards healing and growth.

Couples therapy, especially approaches that focus on intergenerational trauma such as family constellation therapy, can be a central tool in this process. It helps couples uncover the hidden dynamics and historical traumas affecting their relationship and provides them with the tools to deal with these issues constructively. By bringing these underlying factors to light, couples can begin to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma, fostering a healthier and more supportive couple dynamic.

Couples therapy based on family constellations

Couples therapy based on family constellations offers a unique perspective for understanding and treating relationship problems, especially when considering the impact of intergenerational trauma. This approach allows both partners to explore the hidden dynamics and historical traumas affecting their relationship, providing a path to understanding, healing, and change.

Revealing hidden dynamics

At its core, family constellations-based couples therapy operates on the principle that people are part of a larger system, influenced not only by their immediate relationships but also by the generations that preceded them. This approach helps the couple see how their behaviors, beliefs, and emotional responses may be rooted in the experiences and traumas of their fathers. It brings to light the often invisible forces that shape their interactions and their reactions to each other.

By establishing constellations - representative arrays of family members or elements of a person's life - couples can visually and emotionally perceive the effects that their families and past traumas have on their relationship. This experiential process can reveal the source of patterns such as communication failures, trust issues and conflict avoidance, and offers insights not always accessible through traditional speech therapy.

Healing through understanding

The discoveries that family constellation-based couple therapy brings can be deeply healing. By identifying the sources of distress and their patterns, couples can begin to separate their personal dynamics from the historical and systemic problems that plague them. This understanding fosters empathy, both for themselves and for each other, and creates a basis for more compassionate and effective communication.

Couples therapy based on family constellations can help couples break free from the cycle of intergenerational trauma. By recognizing and addressing these deep issues, couples can work not only on healing their relationship, but also on preventing the trauma from being passed on to future generations. The process is empowering and offers a feeling of release from the burden of the past and a clearer path forward.


Intergenerational trauma, especially among the third generation of Holocaust survivors, poses unique challenges within the couple dynamics. The patterns of distress that emerge—rooted in the traumas experienced by the grandmothers and grandfathers—can significantly affect the quality of these intimate relationships. Family constellation-based couple therapy offers a deep approach to couple therapy, which allows the couple to explore and understand the impact of their family past on their current relationship.


Sivan Avni - couples therapy based on family constellations.


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