Helping a Partner Heal from Loss or Trauma

While December is a time of joy for many, the holidays can also increase a sense of loneliness or depression for those who have experienced trauma or loss of a loved one. If you or your spouse—or both of you—are experiencing a difficult season, the following tips may help you. The good news is that research says having a spouse by your side while coping with the aftermath of a life disaster can be quite helpful with long-term healing.

The book Healing Together: A couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma & Post-Traumatic Stress has a wealth of insight for spouses who have experienced a natural disaster, a serious injury or accident, violence, loss of a loved one, war service, or other kids of trauma. It also provides some guidance on when professional assistance may be needed. If you’re doing well this season, keep an eye out for neighbors or friends who may be hurting, and perhaps recommend the book.

I’ve interviewed enough couples to know it isn’t rare to experience a crisis or loss in one’s marriage. It can be almost unbearable to watch a partner experience a terrible loss or tragedy. Sometimes both partners are suffering and grieving in their own way, such as with the loss of a child. It’s difficult to know how to help a partner cope, even when both spouses are are suffering from the same loss. That is because each person will experience different emotions and thoughts about the event. It’s important to support one another and express your commitment, concern and acceptance.

Any kind of trauma will affect our relationships, say co-authors Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., and Dianne Kane. “Trauma puts up a wall that for a time locks a couple out of their familiar world and leaves them frozen in the traumatic event. Suddenly there is no past, and the future feels impossible.” Sometimes we experience trauma as individuals—as when a violent act is committed against one person—and sometimes the loss is shared. In both cases, by virtue of being married, both partners as well as the marriage itself are affected.

Avoidance, withdrawal, numbness and hyperarousal are common symptoms of trauma, but most of these symptoms are resolved to a large degree within about a month, say the authors, adding that flare-ups are common for some time. A persistent pattern of symptoms may mean the person has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While the book provides insights on how and why the events affect relationships, I will focus on some of the tips I gleaned. However, I strongly recommend the book for a greater understanding as well as lots of helpful examples of how couples effectively managed various crises.

Recovery steps:

  • Remembering and mourning the event helps individuals to move it into their history, rather than their present.
  • Slowly the couple can begin to revisit the trauma to make sense of it. A spouse has an important role in listening to the partner’s feelings, memories, thoughts, and dreams.
  • The act of reconstructing an event to someone in a safe and protected relationship has been shown in research to produce changes in the way the brain processes a traumatic memory—helping a person move it to a part of their life story without the traumatic feelings associated.
  • Mourning the loss as a couple allows both spouses to slowly face and redefine the loss while supporting one another.
  • Even when a group of people experiences the same event, trauma disconnects people from those they trust and leaves them feeling isolated with their feelings, for example, blame, loss, shame or despair.  The authors say reconnection is the final and most crucial state of recovery from trauma, and state that the presence of a caring partner can be very helpful in establishing this reconnection.

In the first hours and weeks after a traumatic event, the authors say offering psychological first aid is important. This involves providing human connection, safety, basic needs, information and support. Partners often have the most soothing effect due to the compassion, long-term support and empathy they have built in their relationship.

The four principles of couples’ psychological first aid, according to Healing Together, are:

  1. Be a compassionate presence for each other—The physical presence of someone we find to be compassionate can reduce stress and hyperarousal after a traumatic event. Just being there when words do not suffice, and listening when words finally come, can be healing.
  2. Establish physical and psychological safety—A 2005 study showed if a person feels supported and cared for by others in the early hours after the event, there was a greater likelihood he or she would seek connection in the following days and months. Help the affected person to feel safe and secure, as well as accepted no matter what.
  3. Identify and respond to needs—Ensure your partner is sleeping and eating adequately, because their body may be so stressed as to neglect their basic needs. But don’t enforce solutions. Instead, simply ask how they are doing and offer to help. Try to reduce stress. The person suffering should try to use “I words” to express their needs, and perhaps suggest a solution. For example, “I feel lonely. I need to be with someone.” Needs that are not expressed or met, can over time lead to resentment.
  4. Offer practical assistance. For instance, you or another family member may offer to help with bill paying, errands or cooking meals.

Unfortunately, recovery from a traumatic event isn’t as simple as following a few tips or steps. Unexpected feelings, such as anger, depression or resentment, can enter the relationship. In fact, anger and hostility are associated with PTSD as a common response to trauma. And depression is a “common sequel” to the experience of trauma. Men may express depression by showing fatigue, irritability, and anger, according to a 2005 study by the National Institute of Mental Health. I found it reassuring to read that the expression of anger is not damaging in itself; it is simply a human emotion. However, anger can become part of a destructive path if not managed well.

The authors say, “We believe that anger can be managed effectively within a relationship if partners have a mutual commitment to respect and protect each other from destructive anger, use preventive steps and communication to control the escalation of anger, and take on the challenge of couple anger management.” Again, the book has many more specifics on how to respond to difficulties associated with trauma.

Next week, I will provide information to help couples recognize when professional help may be needed, as well as the importance of sharing dreams (the sleeping kind), and factors of resilience.

Is this a topic that hits close to home for you? Do you have experience recovering from a personal crisis? What words of experience do you have for those suffering from loss this holiday season?

Photo Credit: ©Stanisa Martinovic/

6 responses to “Helping a Partner Heal from Loss or Trauma

  1. Wow, this is an amazing post, and “Healing Together” sounds like an amazing book. Almost exactly two years, my husband had a psychotic breakdown and ended up in the hospital for quite some time. It was extremely traumatic for both of us, and it took a long time to start to recover.

    Going to a couples counselor has been really beneficial for us, for many of the reasons outlined in the “recovery steps” above. It gave us a safe space to revisit the trauma, process it together (and see it from the other person’s side), and express our grief.

    Today, we’re both doing well, and our marriage is stronger than ever. If you’re not sure how to help your spouse deal with trauma, my advice would absolutely be to seek professional help.

    • Thank you so much, and yes, I think the book is quite amazing. I came across it online and ordered it on a whim hoping it would have helpful information. I will definitely keep a copy on hand for friends in need. Thank you also for sharing what must have been a horrific experience for you both. I’m so glad you have recovered and strengthened your relationship and that professionals were able to assist you. I hope that is the worst you have to endure and that the rest of your days are blissful! All the best,

  2. Pingback: Surviving Trauma in Your Marriage « Jumbling Towers

  3. Heather, great perspective and thank you for sharing the link. You offer hope for couples in the midst of crisis that they can make it out of the crisis and be better for it. Best,

  4. Pingback: Best Tweets for Trauma Survivors (week ending 12/10/10) « Third of a Lifetime

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