Special Problems in Marriage after a Suicide Loss
Excerpt from the book After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief
Jack Jordan & Bob Baugher
To order this book, visit www.bobbaugher.com
It is common for the desire for sex to shut down for a while as we grieve (particularly after the death of a child). It is equally common that one of the partners is ready before the other to resume their sexual relationship. As in all relationship problems, much of the solution involves communication, respect for differences, empathy for the needs of your partner, and willingness to compromise. Physical touch and holding can be enormously important as a source of comfort in mourning, and can sometimes be an adequate substitute for orgasmic sex. If the grief you are experiencing has affected your sexual relationship, you may want to find a quiet time, sit down with your partner and say, “I would like to talk about sex.” Then, state your present feelings. Next, listen to what your partner has to say. Couples affected by a suicide report that communicating about their sexual feelings during grief was an important step in gradually regaining the closeness and intimacy they felt before the death of their loved one.
All couples have issues. Some are related to on-going sources of stress in the relationship (finances, in-law relationships, parenting, job demands), and some are related to personality conflicts. Usually, couples tend to have somewhat complementary coping styles that are both a source of attraction and a source of tension as the couple tries to deal with problems. For example, when stressed or upset, one partner will tend to withdraw, while the other may insist on talking, even arguing until the conflict is resolved. Since the emotional pain can be so great after a suicide death, each person is likely to use their preferred coping style to an extreme—often increasing the level of strain between the individuals.
Couples also frequently expect that their partner should be able to “be there” for them in just the way that they need—but that is pretty unrealistic, given that both people are grieving the loss, often in very different ways. Sometimes (but not always), these differences occur along gender lines, with men dealing with emotional pain by withdrawing into themselves (“I don’t want to talk about this – it does no good”) and wives needing to engage outwardly (“What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you talk about this?”)
Do these differences sound familiar? If so, here are some suggestions for dealing with a grieving style different from your own in the midst of a tragic death such as suicide:
You’ve done just that by reading this article and understand how one person may “lean into” their grief, talk about it, feel it, and endure the pain compared to the tendency of their partner to “lean away” from the pain, seek ways to distract, to attempt to “fix the problem.”
Switch perspectives. Try this: Stop for a moment from reading and see if you can take the perspective of your partner. Imagine that you are in that person’s body and in their mind. Become your partner and try your best to “see” the world (including you) from their perspective. How did it feel? By doing this, many people gain an increased understanding of their partner.
Reduce harmful negativity
Research has shown that there are five common couple reactions during a disagreement that drive couples toward divorce. The more a couple reacts with these five: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, and belligerence, the more likely they are to have problems that disrupt the marriage. All couples disagree and a death by suicide can challenge how couples contend with divergent perspectives. If this is you, your job is to find ways to minimize these five listed reactions, particularly when you both are feeling emotionally vulnerable. If you find that the amount and intensity of conflict between you and your partner has escalated since the suicide, it may also be time to seek help for the relationship from a competent couple’s counselor, one who understands grief caused by suicide.
Loss tends to disrupt family roles. For example, the person who has been the family “leader” may now become unable to do so. Or the family “peace-maker” may now become irritable and combative. As people shut down for a while, bills may not get paid and dinner may not end up on the table. This loss of functioning and emotional availability for one another is part of what one of our clients called “the collateral damage” of suicide. Just when you need support from those around you may be the time when family members are emotionally unavailable as they deal with their own grief. Generally, with time and support, people are able to resume their family roles.
When things go badly, human beings typically seek an explanation for what has happened and who is at fault. It is part of the need to restore order to our psychological “map” of the world, so that things will make sense again. Suicide may also release a burst of “anger energy.” The need to understand why this person took their life often becomes entangled with a need to blame or even to punish someone for what can feel like a “wrongful death.” It is interesting to note that the Latin root of the word suicide literally means “self-murder”, and it can feel like someone has killed our loved one. Think for a minute: if your loved one had been murdered intentionally by another person, how would you feel about the perpetrator—angry, right? Well, suicide presents survivors with a profound conundrum: the “perpetrator” of the “murder” is also the “victim” of the “murder.” Doesn’t it then make sense that for many people, suicide can unleash the fury we might feel at the murderer, yet also the compassion and sorrow we feel for the victim all at the same time? For some people, this anger energy needs to go towards someone other than the deceased (e.g., another family member, a therapist, an in-law, a partner, etc.). And just as frequently, survivors direct that energy at themselves, which we believe is the basis for a lot of the intense guilt that many survivors feel (“I should have seen this coming, and done more to prevent it. How could I have been so stupid?”).
Thus, survivors can feel a very complicated mix of emotions, including “mad-sad” feelings that are all fused together. Blaming is common for some people after a suicide, but it is also dangerous to family cohesion if it is excessive. We have seen families that have been permanently fractured by the blame after a suicide. If your family is actively and intensely blaming one another, it is likely that the family will need some skilled counseling to deal with these volatile emotions and to survive the impact of the suicide. Given the overwhelming siognificant changes that have occurred in your family, you deserve to get the help you need.
Jack & Bob