For Better or For Worse: How Personal Tragedies Can Change Your Relationship

For Better or Worse - How Personal Tragedies Can Change Your Relationship

Whether you’ve been together for one year or 20 years, somewhere along the way you’ve endured a personal tragedy that has affected you and your partner. These can range from small tragedies, such as not getting that promotion at work, to big tragedies, such as a life-altering accident or even the loss of a child.

The little tragedies can be a test, especially at the beginning of a relationship. How does each person react to the tragedy? Then, how does each support the other? As a couple, we learn and grow with each other, and this includes all of life’s ups and downs. How we support each other, even while enduring a tragedy ourselves, shows a lot about our personal character as well as our how we value the other person’s feelings.

When the big tragedies come along, they can change us and our relationships. After a horrific accident, a death in the family, or some other type of loss, things will never be the same – for each person and for the relationship. The important thing is to get through it together, as a couple. Support each other, and love each other. You never know what the future holds, but if you are there for each other, you can both lean on each other and get through it together.

Some things to think about if you and your partner have endured a tragedy.

  1. We all deal with tragedy differently.

    It’s important to understand and expect that we all grieve differently. Even in entire families or cultures, a full outpouring of emotions is normal and expected. For example, in some cultures it is traditional for families to cry openly and spend as much time possible at a funeral (including services, burial and viewing) mourning the loved one who has died.

    Other cultures, on the other hand, grieve more privately. It is the same with people. Even in one household, each partner may be different. One may not cry openly or want to talk about the tragedy at all; but the other may want to talk about it all the time. No one way is wrong and no one way is right. They are just different.

    The hard part comes when both partners are grieving in their own way for the same tragedy. Find a way to support your partner in the way he or she needs to grieve while your way of grieving is supported. Try to find some common ground so you can communicate our feelings about what is taking place. It’s ok to grieve the way your own family or culture does, and it’s also ok to change how you grieve. Grief isn’t right or wrong. Allow your partner to grieve in their own way, and support the healing process.

  2. Grief doesn’t have a deadline.

    After a tragedy or loss, grief can take time. For some, they seem to get over it quickly, but for others the grief stays around. If one person is still grieving while the other seems to not be, try not to be angry or resentful. Just because someone took less time or more time doesn’t mean they are stronger or weaker. Grief has no deadline. It can go on for years and years, and it can be triggered by obvious and not so obvious things. A relationship can be affected negatively if one partner tries to hurry the other’s grieving process. Don’t do it. Don’t give grief a deadline.

  3. How to support your partner.

    Listening and loving are the two best things you can do for your partner during a tragedy. Many times, there isn’t anything you can do to take the pain away. But you can be there—even if it’s just to hold each other. Listening without judgment will be required on an almost daily basis for some time. It is normal for each of you to feel anger, resentment, extreme sadness, a loss of interest in daily activities, and other reactions sometime during the grieving process. Sometimes you’ll be experiencing these big emotions at the same time and sometimes not.

    When a partner directs his or her anger towards you, try not to take it personally. They may not have been taught how to deal with it in a healthy way. Just listen and hold your partner. Help them direct their anger in another way, where it won’t hurt you.

    The biggest thing anyone can do, besides being there, is to not lose hope. A person who has gone through tragedy may start to feel as if all hope is lost and that nothing is worthwhile any longer. It can become a spiral of negativity that can be hard to come out of. Always listen to their concerns, but offer hope. Healing will eventually come out of hope.

    One 2010 study from professors at the University of Georgia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (U.S. National Library of Medicine) showed that parents who had lost children had more depressive symptoms overall and some even had health issues. But one thing they did find was that that for married couples who had lost a child, having a life purpose after the loss helped them greatly to heal. The study went on to say that intervention of a grieving spouse is vital in helping them get past the tragedy.

  4. Is Divorce or Separation Imminent?

    Unfortunately, when tragedy occurs, sometimes couples grow apart. They let big and small things get between them. Perhaps they want to grieve alone, or life just seems too hard and they are longer motivated to deal with life, and so they simply stop communicating. This can drag on for months or years, until finally there is no connection left. Or just seeing the other reminds them of something they have lost. Other times, they are negative or offer no support. The unsupported partner feels lost and alone, and seeks solace elsewhere.

    Remember that you can’t control how your partner behaves. If your partner chooses to grieve away from you, try to give them space, but always keep the door open for them to return to you. At some point, if your partner decides that the marriage will not work in their new life after tragedy, it will be a hard time for both of you.  Try to work through it and exhaust all avenues. Never give up hope, though realize that sometimes despite your best efforts, some relationships do not survive harsh tragedies.

  5. Go to a grief counselor and/or go to relationship counseling.

    If a tragedy in your life has caused you or your partner (or both) to develop anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue, then go see a therapist. If the tragedy is causing issues in your relationship and you aren’t sure how to resolve them, go to relationship counseling.

    Some couples may feel there is a stigma of going to relationship therapy—as if something is wrong with their relationship. Relationship therapy is simply a tool to help people resolve issues and move forward. It can help you face tragedy in a constructive way, offer tools to help deal with it in everyday life, and also offer advice for partners on how to give support.

A final word.

Tragedy is a hard thing for anyone, single or in a relationship. For couples, it brings a new dynamic into your relationship. You may feel as if there was a life before, and now there is a different life after. The best thing you can do is be there for each other and get the help that you need in order to weather the storm.


About the Author: Malini Bhatia

Malini BhatiaMalini Bhatia is the founder of Marriage.com, a website dedicated to providing value in every marriage. Marriage.com provides resources, information and a community that supports healthy, happy marriages. Malini has global experience in international management and communications, and lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 11 years and two daughters. 

Read more from Malini on her website, Marriage.comFacebook, and Twitter,.

 

21 Comments

Josh

I lost my dad very suddenly over the summer, and have been in somewhat of a daze since then just trying to move on through the fall semester (I’m a sophomore in college). This weekend my girlfriend broke up with me, which also felt very sudden. She said she doesn’t feel the same connection with me as she did last year, and that even though we love each other she doesn’t feel like this relationship is what she wants now. I’ve realized since this happened that we have been somewhat distant, and I haven’t really been communicating with anyone about feelings and emotions I’ve been having. I really don’t want to lose her, but at this point I don’t know if it’s been too long for me to change and reconnect with her.

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Tracy P

Same issue here.
My boyfriend of five years recently lost his twenty two year old son unexpectedly.
His twenty year old daughter seems to need him to come bye or includes her mother (his x) in their plans.
I feel like she thinks it drew them close again after a bitter divorce.
She never even got over it after 15 yrs.
Even the house was exactly the same.
I feel disrespected bye them and wish he would address it.
Iv been there for him day one thick and thin.
We rebuild from the bottom together I’d like him to speak up is that too much to ask?

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BB

I’m grieving terribly for my 7-year-old Saint Bernard whom we euthanized on Thursday as she had bone cancer. Everyone in the family loved her, but she was my soulmate dog, always at my side. She was more like a daughter to me and had many special qualities. For example, she called me “Mom Mom,” and she’d wake me up each morning, calling me as she brushed me with her soft fur.

I’m finding it very difficult to live without her. Through the years, we’ve lost many pets, but this is the absolute worst for me.

My husband and I have been at odds. I want to talk about my grief and feelings about her, whereas he has been “keeping busy,” working on house and hobby projects. When I tried to explain my grief last night, he interrupted and started talking about his train set. Angry and feeling invalidated, I stormed out of the room.

To me, it seems like he’s not dealing with his grief. I’ve never seen him cry for her. I, on the other hand, have cried every day since she was diagnosed in August. What’s more, he doesn’t talk about her. For him, life is seemingly back to normal. He’s even going into work tonight though his boss said he could have a few days off. The only outward sign of grief he has shown is difficulty sleeping.

I feel somewhat resentful about his seemingly lack of grief for her and concern about my feelings.

This morning, we got into an argument about it, making everything worse. He claimed that this is how he deals with grief. I know we all grieve differently, but he’s not supporting me in the way I need.

On the bright side, we have a 7-month-old Saint puppy, and I hope she brings our hearts healing. I’ve not developed a close bond with her as I was so busy caring for the sick one. I’m hoping that will improve in the weeks ahead.

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Roderick

Hi. My wife recently lost her favourite aunt suddenly. They were very close. To make things worse she died on our son’s birthday. I put my all into trying to be there for her. Reading up things I should do and should not do. When she asked for space I gave her. I handled the chores and schoolwork with my son. I checked on her asking if she needed anything. Sent messages while she was out to let her know I care. Only for her to tell me one week after the death that other people were there for her more than I was. This has left me devastated. I really thought I was doing what was needed to be done in the situation. Now I have no idea what to do going forward.

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Felicia

My husbands daughter died a tragic unexpected death. At the time we were living seperately (about three hours apart). He and the childs mother have been spending a lot of time together, even sleeping in the same house. They both say they just find comfort being around each other and their is nothing going on. Should I be concerned???

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Chad H

Felicia, I would be very concerned that they are engaged, at the very least, in an emotional affair, regardless of how they would label it. That being said, on the surface, their living situation has been the setting for countless tales of infidelity, so don’t play the role of the fool. Find out for sure one way or another and address it appropriately.

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Bennie

I have a girlfriend who lost a brother unexpectedly and she is still grieving and in depression we have not seen each other for 6 weeks we text maybe two times a day she will not answer the phone will not call me I am very concerned about her and I relationship don’t know what to do or say anymore but hopefully y’all can help thank you very much

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Naomi

Hi Bennie,

It’s hard to know what she’ll be feeling because we all grieve differently. I don’t know if she has a big family and they’re all just taking time to keep to themselves or of she’s on her own and just needs space to deal with things.

I lost my Mum a month ago and it was expected, she had cancer and I don’t know which is worse: the prolonged, slow crash of a terminal illness or not when death just sneaks up on you – both have their positives, I guess.

Personally I feel love from every message I get from someone but I don’t always reply. Sometimes I forget to and sometimes I don’t have the strength which sounds weird I know but grief is tiring, physically and emotionally.

Keep letting her know you are there. If you can visit maybe do that? But again, that’s just me projecting what I’d want.

Also, grief doesn’t come in fixed stages, it really is like a rollercoaster. I feel like I want my boyfriend around me but when he is, everything he says and does is irritating me. I’m so angry a lot of the time but simultaneously I feel like a machine, a robot and a bit dead inside. Crying happens a lot. It doesn’t help that I just moved to a new town and have no friends here. Or a job yet and it’s a blessing in some ways as I’d have had to take so much unpaid time off but then the distraction would really help. Hopefully she’s busy with stuff, doesn’t have too much time on her hands?

The idea of being sociable again terrifies me. I am not the same person anymore and I feel like I have to pretend to be normal and I hate that! I used to love going out.

I criticise my boyfriend for not understanding what I’m going through but the thing is, he can’t. I would tell you to read all the advice you can find online for ways to support her and if you’ve got some one you can tell then that’s good too because it must be stressful for too.

My aim is to book some therapy because I definitely think it would help.

Is there something that she likes to do or used to enjoy? Maybe you can write to her and invite her to do something, to give her something to look forward to or try and take her mind of this, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time? Does she like to write? Maybe get her a notebook to spill or draw all these feelings in to.

Being outside is really therapeutic, too.

All is not lost. Good luck to you and her and everyone else going through this.

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Cindy

I moved to Canada (Im from the US) My husband of 4 months was in a motorcycle accident and lost his left leg amongst other injuries 16 months ago. I had NO ONE there to support me, while he laid in a coma for a week. I been caring for him, and his eldery mother (who lived with us). He has become so angry and bitter, and is angry that I “didnt just let him die”. I left after 6 months of verbal abuse. We are trying to work things out but im not feeling very optomistic. I feel that he will never accept what has happened and the verbal abuse and accusations will continue.

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Sharon

My father just recently died and all I received from my husband of 31 yrs was a text that said “I’m sorry”. He didn’t come home from work when he learned the news , nor did he call off the next evening. He went on as if nothing happened and I didn’t need anybody. He works midnights and sleeps during the day, so he want there for me at all. I honestly don’t know what is hurting me more now, the loss of my father or the lack of support given to me by my husband. I can’t stop crying now.

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Me

I know how you feel my mom passed away last month and my husband didn’t even go to her funeral with me.. he said he couldn’t leave our dog even though I told him that he would be fine at my dads or my sisters not to mention my husband’s mom also lives in the same town that we had her funeral… his reply was no I don’t want him tearing peoples stuff up… he will be fine they all have small dogs plus we can take his cage! I’m not gonna make him stay in that cage all day.. why would he have to stay in the cage all day I just meant if he starts trying to tear something up we can put him time out for a minute and while we are gone to the service he can stay in it… he said you know that won’t work.. I couldn’t even respond.. and why would I do he could come up with another excuse.. it was obvious he did not want to go and to me is what I heard was.. I don’t care how you feel or if you need me Yogi is more important to me and I love our dog more than I love you and I don’t even feel bad about it! And when his father passed 2 years ago I opened our home up and took care of him on hospice and was with him through everything

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joseph

There is nothing more horrible and tragic when you lose your love, your spouse, your wife and worse when murder/death occurs in front of your eyes. There are no books or words how to describe the pain in your heart and in your soul , it is deep so painful that yourself feel the dagger into your chest slowly inching into your chest but you cannot see the blood. There are no preachers, no counselors, friends that understand the tragedy is there. I suffered and I continue suffering asking why?

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Karen Young

Joseph I’m sorry for what you have been through. The pain sounds unimaginable and so deep. I wish I could take the pain away, even just a little, and I wish there was a way to make sense of this but there isn’t. There are no words that can make losing your love in this way, or losing your love at all feel less painful and less traumatic. All I can do is wish hard for your pain to ease soon, and send you love and strength.

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Beth

I went through a lot in a short space of time: death of a close relative while expecting second child, then discovered I had kidney cancer, and my mother had an operation the year after. My husband was brilliant through all of this. Sometime later he retired, and I had a second operation relating to the earlier one. My husband was fantastic again, but looking back now I feel I got overwhelmed by everything and down on things, and hubby was lost in his thoughts like I was. I thought I had a good friend to chat to to in between for extra support. Wrong! Found out too late how toxic she was – and jealous and it had created a wedge between me and hubby. She really embarrassed us in front of neighbours and we ended up divorcing. I was at my lowest for ages. I have never felt that way, always a strong person. I had lost myself completely and have even had sessions with a counsellor. I love him alot. It took a little while to get talking again – I had had an accident and he wanted to know if I was ok. We get on great now, and see each other daily (he helps me with my part time job and other things). He’s always been so caring and thoughtful. I have wanted to talk about things, but find it awkward. I am frightened of pushing him away, even though I sense he wants to say things, too. We have been such a good team and just gel together, until this person started her agenda. We thought she was ok and even chose her to be godmother to our first child.

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E. Jones

How awful… it is good that you got rid of her when you found out she was toxic.
I do not understand people that are jealous.
Jealousy people can cause havoc.
Hopefully you & your husband can get together & be a family again. Sounds like you guys are both taking steps towards a reconciliation.

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Melinda Dreiling

This is exactly what happened to my marriage. We had been marriage 20 years when my then husband had a 6 way heart bypass. At the age of 40! He went into surgery a loving husband, father, uncle and friend, he woke up 24 hrs later an angry man that unfortunately never chsnged. He said and did hurtful things…he would not take his depression meds because” there is nothing wrong with me”. He drove our son to suicide attempts, and then me….I’m out and I’m healing…but he is not and will never be capable of a relationship until he gets help.

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Donna

Where is there family councilling in southampton.my parents have got my son. I don’t See them – there behaviour is unacknowledgeable .i dont see my son very much. They don’t seem to realise how devastating to my life that is and that i feel i can’t move on.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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