For couples, suffering a horrific event like the loss of the child results in trauma, which can lead to divorce, infidelity, or both sides mentally and emotionally checking out of the relationship. Here are ways for couples to handle shared trauma so their partnership thrives instead of dies.
The first phase is awareness. Often you’re not aware that you went through a traumatic event. Many people are good at brushing things off of their shoulders—laughing away hurt or distracting themselves with food, alcohol, or entertainment. However, it’s not until you’re alone that you become aware of how an event traumatized you. You feel the pain and anger and want to curl up into a tiny ball and hide.
You are often numb during the initial phases of a traumatic incident, not feeling anything or just going through the motions. It can be a coping strategy. When I played college football, I had so many injuries I didn’t feel until the following day, and then it was like waking up feeling like a truck ran over me.
Unfortunately, a lot of us stay in this numb state, not wanting to feel. It’s why so many people are perpetually on painkillers. Without awareness of the pain or trauma, you can’t grow and learn. Couples need to be aware of their trauma that’s both individual and shared. A therapist can help you explore those issues in a safe environment.
Face the Trauma
When facing trauma, you can go through the numb state at different speeds. Some people stay there longer than others so they may appear cold, distant, and unaffected. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who hurt the most may numb the most.
It’s a reminder to respect each other’s process and know that everyone grieves differently. So while your partner may grieve by burying themselves in work and you prefer extra rest and sleep, you can acknowledge these differences by sitting down and talking about them.
One way to face trauma is to discover where you feel it in your body. Some may feel it in their chest or stomach. Others may feel it in their head and neck. Some store trauma in their extremities. Talk to each other about this. You may be surprised to learn that your partner feels trauma in a different way than you do.
Couples facing trauma who work together on the remedy may experience post-traumatic growth.
I’ve found that the best way to move through the numbness and bring awareness is through movement. That could be dancing, yoga, or cooking—anything that gets you moving. These are also activities that you can do together. For us, we’re able to tap into and become aware of so many emotions when we hike. There is something about being in nature that allows us to connect to ourselves and get to the essence of what’s bothering us.
Learn to Accept
The next phase of couples facing trauma is acceptance. What you resist, persists. So if you don’t accept what has happened, then you don’t grow from it. You lose intimacy and connection between the two of you.
Not accepting trauma also erodes trust. If you become defensive or critical when in conversations about trauma, your partner may begin to believe that they can’t trust you with their emotions, thoughts, and feelings. They can’t trust you to hold space for them.
If you went to the doctor and didn’t accept the diagnosis, then you’re not going to treat it. You’ll waste your time and money on procedures and tests that aren’t effective. Your sleep, diet, exercise, and outlook on the world have all been affected.
Work on the Remedy
Once you’ve moved through all these phases, then you can work on the last phase, which is the antidote.
Couples facing trauma who work together on the remedy, although challenging, will experience post-traumatic growth. This means that it is likely that you will heal from your trauma and be stronger as a result of it. When Michael Jordan broke his ankle, it actually healed stronger. There are animals that become stronger after being attacked. There are countries that have become stronger after a war.
The remedy to trauma is to feel all of your feelings. You may notice conflicting feelings of hurt and optimism. Pain and excitement. Despair and enthusiasm. Shame and pride. It’s normal. Feel all of your feelings. Share them with each other. You can tell your partner, “Hey, this morning I actually felt hopeful. Last night I felt discouraged.”
Then, channel that emotional energy into purpose. For example, couples who have lost a child to drunk driving may start a “don’t drink and drive” campaign. A couple who lost their house in a fire may talk to others about how to fireproof their homes.
The trauma is not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of a new one.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Gottman Institute’s blog and was reposted with permission.