As you gain more understanding of traumatic reactions, your understanding of how they affect your relationship will increase. Gradually your perceptions are likely to change. You may begin to take each other's reactions less personally and with less pain. For example, if you know your partner is not sleeping much, seeing his irritability as fatigue rather than dissatisfaction with you may reduce your own defensive anger and increase your tolerance. If he understands your withdrawal and unwillingness to talk about the recent tragedy as a mode of self-protection and an attempt to feel less vulnerable, then he will be less likely to feel rejected. These shifts in perception may assist each of you in being a more compassionate presence for the other.

~ When Carl returned from his eighteen-month assignment in the military, he seemed cautious and distant. He stayed awake long after Maria said good night and seemed unapproachable when she just wanted to talk or spend time together. She was relieved that Carl had decided to speak to someone at the local readjustment center, which provided counseling for combat veterans, but she felt personally helpless and feared that their relationship would never be the same. Feeling like she needed more information, she started attending programs offered at that same center for spouses of combat vets. Hearing other wives talk about the reactions of their newly returned husbands and reading through the material reduced some of her fears that there might be something wrong with her and Carl. She saw that many couples were also facing readjustments to married and family life. Understanding more about trauma changed her actions. Her ability to understand hyper-arousal and the triggers of traumatic memory as well as the healing and recovery process helped her feel less worried and improved her relationship with Carl in a number of ways.

~ One of the ways was her ability to recognize the effects of trauma triggers on Carl. When she heard a car backfire one day, Maria saw Carl brace himself and look away. When he looked back at her with some embarrassment, Maria reached out and touched his hand. She said, “You know, at the center they were talking about how common it is to react to noises. It makes sense.” Carl was quiet, and then he said, “Yeah, a lot of guys talk about it.” This happened a few times, and finally Carl said, “It is just not easy to forget.” Maria just responded, “Yeah, I’m glad you are home.” Maria began to understand why even some of the normal sounds of life with three children in a small house were difficult and disturbing for Carl. Though she was not about to ask the children to stop having fun, shut off the music, or turn friends away, she explained to him that she could understand his reactions. She let him know that she recognized, when he spent time in his workroom, that it was not necessarily to get away from her but to get some quiet, safe time. This expression of understanding got them talking more and improved the feeling between them.

~ Another way Maria’s changed perceptions helped their relationship was in the area of allowing time for healing. She felt like she had been turning down invitations to socialize with friends for such a long time, but she knew from Carl’s hesitation that he was still not ready to socialize much with their group of neighbors and friends. She admitted to herself how much she missed the social aspect of their life together, but she knew that he was working on this at the readjustment center. She could see small changes that allowed her to hope that what they were facing would not last forever. By seeing this as a trauma-related situation, Maria and Carl were able to discuss social invitations with less anger and resentment. There was less pressure and more flexibility in their decisions about whether both or one of them would attend. Accepting a realistic time period for healing lowered the tension as they worked their way back to a social life they both could enjoy.

People often protect themselves by assuming the worst. This is one of the traps that couples fall into after trauma. Negative perceptions often escalate a spiral of negative assumptions that create the very thing that is feared. In other words, if you assume that your partner is rejecting you rather than using time and space to lower anxiety, then you may react to your assumption and spark the rejection you fear.

Instead of perceiving your partner’s behavior in a negative light, consider saying to yourself, “I’m not sure what my partner is feeling.” Assuming that you don’t know is a valuable stop sign for negative projections and predictions. It is often the first step toward actually knowing what your partner feels.

Take into account that you are both experiencing the emotional fallout of a traumatic event. The behaviors you observe in each other are most likely related to what you have faced. This does not mean that they are not upsetting or that you should ignore them. Putting them into context, however, is likely to alter the way you feel and how you address them. The examples of couples handling common trauma reactions in chapter
I provide an insider view of this type of situation.

Instead of asking why your partner looks depressed or upset, suggest you both take a quick ride for a cup of coffee or walk the dog together. The more experience you have as a couple in informal, positive, everyday exchanges, the more you will have a chance to recapture familiar feelings as well as take some new steps beyond the trauma.

Remind yourself, as Maria did in the last example, that healing and recovery take place in small steps over time.

Excerpt from: HEALING TOGETHER: A Couple's Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress (New Harbinger Publications).

Author's Bio: 

SUZANNE B. PHILLIPS, Psy.D., ABPP, is adjunct professor of clinical psychology in the clinical doctoral program of Long Island University. She is on the faculty of the postdoctoral programs of the Derner Institute of Adelphi University and the Suffolk Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. A program co-written by Phillips’s coauthor Dianne Kane was implemented by the New York City Fire Department to help support more than 300 department employees.

DIANNE KANE, DSW, is assistant director of the counseling unit of the New York Fire Department. She was responsible for developing and implementing trauma recovery services after 9/11 to a workforce of approximately 16,000 employees of the Fire Department. She is an adjunct associate professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work of the City University of New York.