Seeing your spouse suffer is a terrible thing. You want to make things better. You want to take away the hurt.
So much of the time, though, you can’t. Or at least not fast enough, and not to the degree you’d like.
A recent post on Marriage Gems references the book HEALING TOGETHER: A COUPLE’S GUIDE TO COPING WITH TRAUMA AND POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS. Marriage Gems quotes the authors of the book as saying, “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.”
God, can I relate.
I haven’t read HEALING TOGETHER (I did just find out about it, after all), but what attracts me to the book is the couple-centric approach the authors take.
They acknowledge that a traumatic event that one spouse lives through has a profound effect on the other. They recognize that the marriage itself is affected, and that unless the couple can work through the trauma together, it can end up tearing them apart.
Oddly enough, right before I read the Marriage Gems post on HEALING TOGETHER, I watched an episode of Private Practice, which this season has focused on the aftermath of a rape. The show has, of course, explored the victim’s feelings about it, but in last week’s episode, it also examined the impact of the attack on Cooper, the victim’s fiancé.
Although he wasn’t the one who was assaulted, we see that Cooper is just as frozen in Charlotte’s traumatic event as she is:
My girlfriend gets attacked. She wants to go home, I take her home. She wants to go to work, I drive her. I find out she wasn’t just attacked, she was raped. She tells me she doesn’t want to ID the guy, I say, ‘Okay, don’t ID the guy.’ I’m cheerful, I’m attentive, I make breakfast for her every morning. My job right now is Good Man in the Storm. I get that, I’m good with that, I want that.
But the Charlotte I fell in love with is gone. She doesn’t exist anymore. The laughing, the sharing of the good and bad of the day, holding each other—that’s all over. It’s like she’s dead.
Charlotte is dead and I have the Good Man in the Storm role. I’m the fiancé of the victim.
My job is to hold up the corpse of the woman who was once Charlotte and smile.
I’ve never had to cope with a partner’s rape, but my husband’s bout with psychosis left me struggling with many of the same feelings: Will he get better? Will he trust me again? Can I handle it if our future doesn’t unfold in the way I’d imagined? Can I handle it if he’s never the same again?
A friend’s husband walked out on her while she in the midst of an episode of major depression. Like Cooper, like me, he was afraid that she’d never recover, or that if she did, she’d be forever changed.
Trauma does change people, but so does life. When you’re married, you find ways to get through hard times together, to help each other heal. It’s rare that the person who’s suffered the traumatic event is “gone for good.” HEALING TOGETHER notes that many of the immediate symptoms of trauma tend to clear up after a month.
For spouses dealing with mental illness, it can take much longer, since an episode of the illness often persists for several months. As my Twelve Step sponsor is fond of saying, “It took a long time to walk into the woods, and it takes a long time to walk back out.”
So don’t expect a miracle. Give each other time.
For a while, I felt guilty about my ambivalent feelings, about the fact that, sometimes, I didn’t want to be the Good Man in the Storm. What I came to realize, though, is that those feelings were part of my healing process, and that was okay—as his partner in marriage, John’s experience had had a profound effect on me, too.
I also knew, however, that sometimes “healing together” means healing on your own. It wouldn’t have been fair to saddle John with my fears and doubts and uncertainties on top of all the fallout he was dealing with. There were some things I had to process on my own in order to be there for him and our marriage.
Unlike my friend’s ex-husband, I dealt with my fears and uncertainties without walking out the door. Coming to terms with these issues on an individual basis allowed me to move forward and truly “heal together” with John.
At first, “healing together” meant helping John recover. It meant being there for him in a non-judgmental manner while he processed the horror of having his mind, as he described it, “ripped apart.”
The safest place for him to process his experiences was in therapy. I was scared to discuss certain events without a mental health professional present in case our conversations triggered paranoia, delusions, or depression. Pretty much as soon as he came home from the hospital, we found him an individual therapist as well as a great couples counselor whom we still see today.
Once he began to recover from his trauma, I began to reveal mine so that he could support me, too. I talked about how frightening it had been to see him so out of touch with reality, how horrible it had been when he hadn’t allowed the doctors to talk to me, and how nerve-wracking it had been dealing with his health insurance company and thinking we’d end with $30,000 in debt.
In the immediate aftermath of the psychosis, I’d worried that he’d never be able to handle the stress of these revelations, and that I’d have to hold him up and smile for the rest of our lives.
Those fears were unfounded. Again, it just took time.
One of my big takeaways from therapy—and from the Marriage Gems post, which outlines the recovery steps in more detail—is that you have to revisit a traumatic event in order to recover from it, and you have to be able to grieve what you’ve lost.
As a couple, when you make the space for the two of you to do that, both as individuals and as a team, you don’t stay stuck forever.
Together, you find a way to move forward. You find a way to move on.