A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma & Post- Traumatic Stress
Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP & Dianne Kane, Ph.D.
You may have suffered the sudden and tragic loss of your child, witnessed the devastation of your home in a natural disaster, reeled from the impact of military deployment, struggled to conceive a child, or faced serious illness. Trauma, whether it happens to one or both partners, affects relationships. It disconnects you from your partner and often leaves you wondering how to find your way back to the safety of the relationship you once shared.
This book is a couple’s guide for recovering from trauma. It is based on the recognition that, although couples naturally try to support each other, trauma can greatly strain and often disrupt the bond between them. Traumatic events are unexpected and often unimaginable. They always involve loss. They assault your sense of self, your beliefs, and your view of the world as you knew it. Trauma robs you of a sense of safety because it suddenly alters what is familiar, including your connection with your partner. When you or your partner is hurt, grieving, having nightmares, unable to relax, too numb to feel, too angry to speak, or too sad to hope, both partners struggle and suffer. What you thought you knew about each other seems shaken, maybe lost. Blaming yourself or your partner, you may be unable to find the connection, the “we” that made you a couple.
The Goal of This Book
This book can help you recover and reconnect. It is based on the belief that, when trauma hits, a couple’s relationship can be both the locus of pain and the source of support and recovery. Accordingly, this book is not simply a guide to a happier relationship. Nor is it just a book about trauma. It is a guide for recovery after you or your partner has suffered some type of trauma and is feeling its impact on your relationship.
This book will tell you what the experts know about the impact of and recovery from trauma in a way that is specifically relevant to and usable by couples. It will help you and your partner make sense of what you are experiencing in a way that reduces anxiety and makes you feel less helpless. Understanding what has happened will make you both feel that you have more control over your lives and your future. You will be guided as you adopt new coping skills and identify and use the strength and resiliency you have both always drawn upon.
A Word About Us
In our work with couples for over twenty-five years and with more than three hundred couples who worked in rescue and recovery in the aftermath of 9/11, we have found that in the months and even years after trauma, couples often feel helpless, angry, bereft, and isolated from each other. Many are embarrassed that they are having trouble and are reluctant to talk about it or seek help. Many privately fear that, in addition to all they have lost, they might also lose their relationship. This book is based upon our observation that demystifying trauma and recovery for couples and offering strategies to enhance the safety, trust, and intimacy of their bond are powerful tools for recovery.
How to Use This Book
The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 offers an understanding of trauma and how it looks by inviting you to consider trauma through the eyes of different couples. Chapter 2 defines and teaches a couple’s version of psychological first aid, a natural and informal system that partners can use to help lower the impact of trauma on one another.
In chapter 3, we will discuss the relationship between anger and trauma and the ways in which anger masks feelings like helplessness, shame, and loss. We’ll look at issues such as “the fight worth having,” behaviors that serve to fuel the fight, anger management for couples, and the role of forgiveness. Chapter 4 offers ways to recapture and reclaim your intimacy and sexual connection. We’ll address the impact of sexual and nonsexual trauma on sexual desire and functioning and offer strategies for dealing with the fallout from post-traumatic stress symptoms. We’ll clarify the concepts of desire and receptivity, the meaning of saying yes and saying no, capturing and keeping the romantic moment, and dealing with pornography. Chapter 5 helps you find a place for the trauma. It guides you toward understanding and helps you work together to integrate traumatic memories, utilize dreams, and rescript nightmares. Chapter 6 invites you to recognize and enhance your resilience as a couple as you move into your future. We’ll discover how to use that resilience for healing in connection with your personal attributes, hardiness, positive outlook, problem-solving skills, laughter, and shared values. You’ll consider the meaning of hope and the possibility of post-traumatic growth. In total, the chapters offer you understanding and skills to bring you together through this journey that you never expected to take.
Why This Book Can Help
You are not alone in the experience of trauma. Reading this book, considering the examples, and trying out the strategies will allow you to understand this. It will help you see that much of what you have been experiencing is normal in the context of the trauma you have been through and assist you in finding a way to recover and move on. Here are some of the benefits you will experience from working through this book:
- You will come to understand that trauma to one or both partners affects a couple in a way that is more than the sum of the individual responses.
- You will find that having information about trauma lowers anxiety and feelings of helplessness.
- You will see yourselves in the examples of other couples, and this will help youunderstand what is happening in your relationship.
- You will find that understanding fosters empathy for yourself and your partner and reduces isolation and despair.
- You will feel less worried and better able to utilize your strengths and develop additional coping skills.
- Your increased understanding of trauma and the road to recovery will help you make decisions, if needed, about seeking professional help.
- You may find that your relationship is a crucial resource in the face of trauma and a significant factor in your recovery.
- You will see that marriages and relationships need not be the collateral damage of traumatic life events.
Making this Book Work for You
This book may be used to offer understanding and hope in different ways. It can be read by both of you as a couple or by either partner. Whether or not you have both directly faced the trauma, you have each experienced its impact on your relationship and can thus benefit from this expanded understanding of trauma and the path toward recovery.
Although reading this book as a couple might be a wonderful goal, you do not need to wait until that is possible. It can be helpful for both of you if only one partner reads the book. Sometimes one partner might talk about something he or she has read or even read a section to the other that has particular relevance, and this may help the other partner to consider the issue. Sometimes nothing overt is said, but the partner who has read the book might bring greater understanding and empathy to the relationship; this inevitably changes the atmosphere, the tone, the touch, and your pattern of relating. Partners have both conscious and unconscious awareness of each other. It is precisely for this reason that they share the impact of trauma and can utilize their bond for
As you’ll discover, each of the chapters in this book offers information and strategies that address those aspects of relationships most affected by trauma. We recommend that you and your partner consider utilizing these as part of your recovery process. The strategies and guidelines cover a broad range of topics and include creating a safe couple space, stress reduction, being a compassionate presence, communicating needs, listening skills, defusing anger, fair fighting, recovering from sexual trauma, renewing your sexual relationship, dream collaboration, use and misuse of outside social support, reflecting on post-traumatic growth, and others. Each strategy has been designed to offer you and
your partner coping skills and nonthreatening opportunities to move you through your journey to recovery.
Understanding the nature of trauma and recovery has made a difference in our own lives and in the lives of those couples we have had the privilege to work with. We believe that gaining this understanding will make a difference in your relationship too. We invite you to go forward, believing in the power of healing.
Available from New Harbinger Publications 1-800-748-6273
in Canada, from Raincoast Book Distribution 1-800-561-8583