Rebuilding Intimacy after Tragedy: How to Help Your Partner Cope
By Lindsay Larson
There is nothing sadder than when a loved one suffers from a personal tragedy. Our heart goes out to them and all we want is to be there for them. However tragedy, which can vary from the loss of a close relative to surviving a rape, has a traumatic impact on an individual. It often leaves him or her withdrawn and in a state of distress; altered from the person you know and love. How do you reach out to this person? How can you understand what they are going through? How can you help them get through this experience?
There are some “do’s and don’ts” that will help you help your partner. These are derived from a training manual used by counselors treating rape survivors, but they are equally relevant in caring for other sufferers of tragedy.
When reaching out to someone who is suffering from the trauma of tragedy:
DO show affection and warmth.
DO NOT feel rejected if they avoid physical contact or need to move slowly with intimacy.
DO validate their feelings.
DO NOT minimize or dismiss their feelings with phrases like “forget it” or “get back to normal” even if a significant amount of time has passed since the tragedy.
DO allow them to have alone time.
DO NOT discourage them from going out on their own.
DO NOT take over tasks that they can do for themselves.
DO NOT expect this grieving person to give you the support or comfort you need.
In digging deeper into the psychological implications of tragedy, we find that the experience of pain undermines altruism due to the survivor’s pressing need to devote limited resources inward. Although you may feel rejected by your partner if they suddenly become introverted, forcing them to talk about and process feelings that they aren’t ready to share will only cause them to push you further away.
While you may be tempted to take on all of your partner’s responsibilities in order to alleviate outside stress, this will only free up more time for your partner to dwell inside his/her own head. Interestingly enough, preoccupation with familiar tasks can help reestablish a routine for the grieving individual which can be very comforting during a time of emotional instability.
Although you may be hesitant to let your partner venture out on their own, solitary outings provide your partner with a chance to clear their head without feeling burdened by the social pressure to maintain small talk. By visibly or verbally expressing your acceptance of these outings, you will convey to your partner that you think he/she is strong enough to make good choices. In turn, this solidifies their belief in their own strength.
It is important to remember that with someone who is dealing with tragedy, certain stimuli can trigger an intense emotional reaction years after the incident. While these flare ups become less and less frequent over time, this behavior is normal. You may feel helpless in these situations or even upset, but try not to transfer your own emotions to your partner and instead, simply validate their feelings.
And finally, DO NOT underestimate the effects of vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma is a direct byproduct of treating someone suffering from trauma. Gradually, the helper’s outlook becomes pessimistic and their trust that they are making a difference is undermined. This reaction impacts a caregiver’s commitment to their work. It is offset by participation in positive activities and stress alleviators such as meditation. If you feel that you might be falling prey to vicarious trauma syndrome, here are some signs and symptoms to watch out for:
1. Taking on a cynical attitude
2. Becoming disconnected from loved ones
3. Not accepting social invitations
4. Feeling hopeless or unhelpful
5. Recurring nightmares or restless sleep
The bottom line is your partner is not expecting you to solve their problems. Rather, you are there to offer your support and to accompany them, as they work through their pain. By providing your partner with prolonged comfort and concern, you can successfully help him or her rebuild the life you shared and reestablish the intimacy in your relationship.
Lindsay Larson is a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara majoring in psychology and minoring in professional business writing. Lindsay is actively involved in research conducted in UCSB’s social relations lab and plans to pursue a Master’s in Public Health. In addition, Lindsay volunteers at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center where she completed 80 hours of training to become certified as a counselor for long-term patients.