Trauma can be emotionally very debilitating, whether it stems from a tragic personal event, an accident, a natural disaster, or witnessing violence. Over the years, I have come to know of several incidents that have had deep emotional impacts on my patients, leading to trauma. Among them are loss of a loved one, serious accidents, experiencing physical or emotional violence, facing military combat, and surviving natural or human-made disasters.
After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel anxious, detached, frightened or depressed. In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, a person is either in a state of shock where they feel dazed and cut off from their surroundings, or in denial where they are unable to accept what has happened. I have always maintained that trauma takes time to heal, and it is best to recognise and accept this, as no matter what, the healing process should not be rushed. But if the painful memories constantly resurface, or the feeling of anxiety persists, it might be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].
How trauma affects relationships
There is no right or wrong way to feel and the best thing to do is not bottle up feelings. There is no shame, no embarrassment. It’s best to understand that the after-effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder often include distressed relationships and estrangement. While it is true that experiencing trauma does lead to an intense desire for protectiveness and empathetic intimacy, it can also shake the feeling of trust and security which forms the basis of attachment. If you have a partner undergoing trauma, it can be very difficult watching them go through a post-traumatic response.
Suresh and Niharika had a seemingly functional marriage; they were connected despite not being very communicative. However, things took a turn when Niharika experienced a traumatic event: she was robbed. Suresh started noticing marked behavioural differences in her, from volatile outbursts to signs of depression and found it difficult to cope with her general irritability and angry outbursts directed at him. In turn, he started reacting negatively towards her as well, being unable to understand her trauma and being critical in response to her. Over a period of time, instead of being a source of comfort to one another, they found their marriage giving them both a lot of stress and tension, compounding Niharika’s spiral into depression as well.
Coping with a partner experiencing PTSD
It is difficult coping with PTSD because it affects many parts of a person’s life on a daily basis. Your partner may seem distracted and less focussed on work, leading to poor performance at work and a negative impact on their occupational functioning. Many people struggling with PTSD feel alienated and prefer to isolate themselves from other people. Those who previously enjoyed social gatherings prefer staying home, alone. If your partner feels anxious and distressed, it is bound to affect you and your relationship as well. Often activities which usually have a calming effect such as lovemaking or simple confiding in one another can feel like a source of threat, and in the worst case, even resurface trauma. Emotional availability also gets deeply strained because for the person going through distress, withdrawal is a natural tendency.
After suffering a stroke, Mihir had been left deeply traumatised. It was a difficult time for him as well as his spouse, Chitra. But she proved to be a pillar of strength to him by being a strong emotional support along with being there physically for him. She also helped him feel more in control by asking him to help her in different situations and not enabling his dependency.
A good marital relationship is always a key influence in the recovery process. So be accessible and responsive to your partner, because a supportive relationship can help survivors regulate negative feelings. If your partner can turn to you for solace, they will be less likely to indulge in self-harming activities. An environment of safety is therefore crucial for the wellbeing of a survivor, as it helps them be more receptive to healing experiences. Providing a sense of safety also helps build a strong bond between partners, which helps prevent re-traumatisation.
What you can do to help your partner
- Create a safe space. Trauma challenges a person’s sense of safety. Ask your partner what they need from you and the home environment to feel safe again. Be there for your partner when they turn to you in the event of a flashback or during any anxiety related symptoms.
- Be patient. Do not force your partner to talk, get over it or move on. Give them space and time. Even if you feel frustrated or helpless, remember your loving presence is more healing than trying to talk your partner out of their traumatic reaction.
- Give your partner autonomy. As opposed to popular belief, you do not need to baby your partner after a traumatic event. Give them independence if they desire it. If you have fears about your partner’s safety or feel vicarious traumatic stress, talk to a psychotherapist on how you can deal with secondary trauma.
- Focus on the present. Ask your partner, “How are you doing today?” as opposed to a more generic “How are you doing?” as this helps them focus on the present moment rather than do a global assessment of their life which can be difficult.
- Encourage counselling. Talk to your partner about seeking professional help and accompany them to appointments if required. But keep in mind that initially they might not be very open to it. At first, you might meet with resistance and reluctance. Nonetheless, it could prove to be effective not only for your marriage but also for your partner’s own personal growth.
- Inspire a healthy lifestyle. Encourage your partner to sleep, eat, and practise self-care. Meeting friends, pampering themselves, taking up a hobby does a world of good. You could even take up a class together, which will additionally help heal your relationship.
- Acceptance. There is no need to pretend that the trauma faced by your partner did not impact you. It’s okay to process the trauma together.
Remember to take care of yourself
Please do remember that your own welfare and safety is of great importance. More than anything else, you should take care of yourself so that you can help your partner.
- Be well-rested, eat nutritious food and take good care of your health as your physical wellbeing plays a key role in your emotional wellbeing as well. One of my clients, Vikram, helped his wife through cancer by joining her on detoxification retreats and meditation classes to give her support.
- Above all, don’t forget to do things that make you happy. It’s all right if you get involved in a hobby or some sport that will energise you, because you should always know that you don’t need to feel guilty for having fun. Care for your partner and be there for them, but also live your life in a positive way as this will also encourage your partner to live a life of hope and happiness. You can invite your partner along too and create a space where you both can engage in a fun activity together. My advice is usually to plan “dates” around activities your partner enjoys.
- Don’t hesitate in seeking help from a counsellor or support group if you are finding it difficult to remain positive.
This was first published in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.