A traumatic event can change any relationship in a split second. It could be a sickness, death of a loved one, or memories of abusive sex. The damage can take its toll over the course of years, tearing apart trust and intimacy, unless the couple knows how to handle the situation.
The dynamics of any traumatic, life changing experience are outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross as following a course of steps, beginning with denial, then anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance and healing. There is no time-line to these stages, so each can last anywhere from days to years depending on the events and the person dealing with them.
1. Open Up
While it may feel most comfortable to avoid the topic completely, after a traumatic event has occurred, at some point many counselors recommend opening up to your partner, even if it’s just sharing how uncomfortable you are. This helps break the silence, giving permission for either partner to share their thoughts and feelings. They may want to talk, they may not, but the important thing is that you have taken the first step towards showing them you are there when they’re ready.
2. Encourage Them to Talk
While it is understandable that a changed partner may resist talking about certain events, there is evidence that sharing these with a loved one in a safe environment can help promote closure. Trauma expert Judith Herman has concluded that when a trauma victim tells their story as if they were a character, rather than reliving the events as they happened in their mind, the memories slowly disassociate themselves with the actual occurrence. The safety of their partner becomes a buffer to minimize the traumatic processing of details.
3. Wear a Thick Skin
One of the more difficult parts of helping a partner through trauma is dealing with the mental and verbal carnage. Traumatic stress makes people say and do things they normally wouldn’t, especially during the angry stage, and a partner might need a pretty thick skin to get through it. Therapists recommend encouraging your partner to have an imaginary conversation with the person responsible for the event (assailant, deceased, cheating partner, etc.), giving them the opportunity to work through bottled up frustration, anger, and regret.
4. Share Your Own Story
While the victim may be having the most difficult time handling their emotions, it is important for them to realize their loved ones are suffering too. Ask for permission to share your own haunting images, which may include a call about the accident, making a call to 911, riding in an ambulance, hearing the sirens, or driving to the hospital. The loved ones of victims are victims themselves, and need the opportunity to tell their own story. In the end both partners will understand each other better.
5. Coax Them Towards New Experiences
Bessel Van Der Kolk, a clinician for post-traumatic stress, recommends keeping the victim busy with new experiences and sensations. After a traumatic event, one of the reasons people change is they are constantly reminded of the event every time they feel a similar sensation. The body remembers, or “keeps score,” as Van Der Kolk would say. Anxious moments that cause the heartbeat to flutter or temperature to rise, can serve as painful reminders. Allowing your partner to experience these sensations through joyous events can change the body’s memory of these sensations, allowing them to feel more normal again.
6. Resilience and Patience
While the initial moments of inviting your partner to partake in activities may seem anti-productive, it is important to note that the body is designed to defend itself from emotional injury. This means that any moments you create of connection, good health, and laughter may be countered by their body’s need to stay alert towards danger, illness, and/or loss. Don’t hurry their healing process, or put their grievance on a timetable (“You should be over this by now”). Hang in there, as each new happy memory will have a way of countering the bad ones from the past.
While you may not be your partner’s therapist, and should not take the place of one, your partners greatest chance of settling back into a normal life (normal relationships), is through your own strength, stamina, encouragement, resilience, and courage.