Written by
Joe Whitcomb

What To Do When You and Your Spouse Have Shared Trauma

Published on 
March 9, 2021
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Trauma is an experience that is disturbing and causes deep distress. You wake up in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke and a wailing fire alarm. Your body immediately goes into fight or flight mode knowing you must get your family out of your burning home. What if you are coming home from a date night with your spouse when all of a sudden another car collides with yours sending you into a life threatening tailspin. Your sweet 2 year old is playing in the front yard while you are sitting on the front steps of your home. You look down for just a minute and within that time your toddler walks into the street with on coming traffic. You encounter a home intruder and immediately your home is no longer a safe place.

These overwhelming scenarios are traumatic experiences that pose an extreme threat to yourself or to someone you are close to. When a person endures a dangerous and frightening threat, the brain detects danger, the body responds with tense muscles, a faster heartbeat, and a shot of adrenaline through your veins. The body’s response all happens in record time, less than a second. It is the fight or flight mode the body goes in to survive. When the dangerous threat is continuous the brain can become stuck with a constant expectancy of bad things happening. It is when the brain is relentlessly preparing for fight or flight that a harmless situation, word, smell, or sound can trigger the mind bringing that person right back to the traumatic experience. 

Trauma results in Grief

Perhaps the trauma you endured was shared with your spouse and both of you experienced adrenaline shooting through the body. Now you both are dealing with the aftermath of trauma and you don’t know how to support one another. The aftermath being grief, which is a natural response to trauma. Trauma is an event that deals with extreme emotional loss: loss of a loved one, loss of trust, loss of security etc. Grief is simply a desire for everything to go back the way it was before the tragic event. It brings conflicting emotions that wage war deep within that comes from finality, or a change in what is familiar.

Grief looks different in all people, no matter if the trauma was solo or with your spouse. Therefore navigating trauma can be a great challenge, especially since it manifest differently in each individual. What might bring comfort to you may be a trigger for your spouse or just not what they need. The way you both process may be completely different, as one may be more of an internalizer while the other a talker. One person may seek comfort from their spouse while the other is struggling to hold it together for themselves.

The greatest danger to a marriage that has endured trauma is the belief that there is a certain or “right” way to grieve. Do not get entangled with comparing grief and questioning whether or not your spouse is hurting or why they don’t pull themselves together. Men and women are very different and grieving is no expectation. Choosing to become aware of how your spouse is grieving through communication, observation and vulnerability may be a difficult feat but absolutely necessary. 

Common responses to Trauma

Fear and Anxiety: When you are met with an immediate dangerous circumstance your body responds to the fear however when walking through the aftermath your brain may stay in a replay loop enduring the anxiety at even greater levels than the actual event. Then once you feel like you got a handle on your fear something triggers you causing your anxiety levels to skyrocket. 

Anger: You may feel angry with the person who caused the traumatic experience or maybe you blame yourself and are angry with yourself. The anger tends to manifest through irritability towards those closest to you, such as your spouse. 

Sadness: Crying is not only cleansing to the soul but it is a way for the body to slow down after a fight or flight mode, it calms the body and mind. Therefore the overwhelming emotions that come with trauma and grief can result in extreme sadness and tears. 

Numbness: Your body and mind may cope by shutting down your emotions causing you to feel numb. This numbing response is a way to protect against overwhelming emotions.

Trauma tends to cause a person to have an altered view of oneself as well as the world. When you used to be able to trust most anyone you now keep your guard up and everyone at arms length away. The world before seemed relatively safe with little worry to a world that won’t ever be underestimated again, because it’s all dangerous. You are constantly questioning yourself, “Why didn’t I just leave when I was supposed to?” Or “If only I was watching more carefully.” Sleep used to be restful, now it is such a vulnerable state that your mind won’t give in, leaving you exhausted.

Trauma can bring a sense of helplessness and hopelessness making it difficult to find your bearings to move forward. Even if the traumatic experience was shared between you and your spouse you may both experience completely different symptoms that have different results, such PTSD, anxiety, depression, mood swings etc. making the recovery that much more difficult to bounce back.

All of this to say that even though individually you and your spouse will “feel” differently it doesn’t mean that your marriage has to fail. So how can two people who have walked through a traumatic experience and are weighted down by grieving hearts find comfort in one another? Trauma doesn’t have to cause a divorce but rather your marriage can survive and potentially thrive. However it will take determination and a commitment to pursue a healthy marriage. As said in Ecclesiastes 4:12, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” In the midst of heartache you may need to lean into that third strand, God, to be the pillar of strength for yourself and your marriage. 

As you process your trauma you and your spouse may struggle to see God in the midst of your pain. You may question if He is even there and if He is, why didn’t He stop what happened. You may even feel abandoned by Him. We live in a fallen, broken and sinful world that can result in traumatic experiences, pain, hurt and even death. Although when we cling to that third strand, we begin to find hope in Jesus. The Bible tells us that there will be trials and tribulations, sorrows and suffering but He also promised us that He will never leave us nor forsake us (Deut. 31:6). He is with you in your pain and in your grief. 

How Trauma affects a Marriage

Trauma can bring some threats to a marriage, but thankfully we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength, (Phil. 4:13) but be alert! For example, since isolation is such a heavy part of the grieving process coming together may be difficult for either one of you or possibly both of you. What you will need to remember is that you don’t need to grieve alone you are in this together. However closeness will need to be built upon because ignoring one another can be disastrous. When children are in the home it can make it difficult for a couple to focus on each other.

Men and women have different basic human ego needs that may cause tension if those desires are not fulfilled. Men often feel most loved when they are respected and have their sexual needs met, while women need tenderness and understanding. These are needs that can be hard to fulfill when you’ve undergone trauma. Depression may take a front seat to passion causing a woman to struggle meeting the sexual needs of her husband. Not to mention pleasure may feel a bit awkward in the midst of grief. On the other hand, a man, who best releases tension, and connects, with his spouse through physical intimacy, may find it difficult to offer tenderness and understand when he is struggling to pinpoint his own emotions on the traumatic experience. You must be intentional and reach out to one another during these heart-wrenching times, which begs the question, “How can a couple with shared trauma support one another and help each other heal?

Supporting your spouse 

It’s OK to “feel”: Trauma is no easy feat to recover from quickly and it may take time and a process to overcome it all. Therefore, don’t try to fix it! Don’t attempt to be your spouse’s healer and try to make it all better. The brain needs to take the time to process the trauma; so support your spouse by not putting so much pressure on them, and give yourself some slack as well, especially if you feel you’re not bouncing back as quickly as you’d hoped. 

Be a good listener: Simply be available for each other, when one of you is experiencing trauma symptoms be quick to listen by fully hearing them. Be understanding by making statements like “I hear you saying this is really difficult right now” or “I understand that is hard to deal with.” There is power in being present for one another.

Check in with each other: Become self-aware of yours and your spouse’s emotional state. Intentionally ask the question, “What can I do to make the day easier for you?” When the moment arises invite your spouse to discuss and speak openly about the trauma without pushing them. If that discussion doesn’t happen right away trust that it will when you and your spouse is ready. 

Find positive things to share: This may be a bit difficult when you are not feeling very happy. However don’t make every conversation with your spouse about the trauma. Take time to slow down your mind and find something positive and happier to discuss. During your healing process find ways to praise the Lord. Go back and forth with your spouse and take turns, even if it feels shallow, and speak out gratitude like “Thank you Jesus for the trees, thank you Jesus for my car, or thank you Jesus for clothes to wear.” It is in these positive moments that your brain will find rest in replaying the trauma.

Don’t make assumptions: Instead of assuming your spouse is feeling a certain way communicate how you are feeling and what you’d like from them. For example, sexual intimacy is a way to connect with your spouse but depending on the trauma it may cause them to fear that it will worsen the symptoms. Therefore communication is key so that you both know how to best connect with one another. It may feel like an awkward conversation but it is one that must be acknowledged because the last thing the marriage needs are for one of you to feel rejected. Even if physical intimacy is not an option right now, it is important to discuss each person’s desires so that you both know where one another stands.

Offer grace: Emotions may be taking you and your spouse on a crazy roller-coaster ride as you work through your trauma, which may leave you feeling vulnerable, irritable, and/or distant. So offer each other grace and don’t take things so personally. If one of you is having a bad day and being snappy or is coming across as distant try to extend love, grace and patience to one another, because the way your spouse is acting is not necessarily a reflection of how they feel about you. Trauma alters the way you may respond to everyday tasks making normal routine difficult, so be kind to yourself and each other. 

Be willing to ask for help: Every couple faces difficult times but when you add trauma to the mix it can become overwhelming. Don’t feel like you have to heal or process through alone or that it all needs to remain only between the two of you. It’s important to lean into a support system, especially when you both feel too weak to carry one another. Your support system may include trusted family members, close friends, or your church family like a small group. Having people around outside of your spouse can be beneficial to your healing process as they may be able to support you in ways you and your spouse can’t. Knowing people are in your corner is always encouraging. However be sensitive to each other’s needs to seek professional counseling, if taking this avenue would best help your recovery.

The last journey you must take to help one another overcome trauma and probably one of the more important ones is forgiveness. Depending on the trauma you may need to forgive someone who hurt you, a person you may blame, or you may need to forgive yourself. Forgiveness is a process all in itself but one that is worth it, and one that will ultimately bring peace to your heart and soul. With the help of Jesus is it important to get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Eph. 4:31-32). As you and your spouse work to forgive all the grievances you’ve endured pray for each other. When you struggle to pray for yourself, pray for your spouse. Stand in the gap for each other. 

Trauma in general takes a mighty toll on your body, mind, and emotions making it that much harder to fully recover. It requires time, patience, grace, and good communication. Shared trauma is all this alongside someone but that someone has a front row seat to all you are walking through, so hold each other close. Romans 8:28 says this, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” You see, this scripture isn’t saying what happened to you is good, it’s offering hope that in some way and some how, even if you can’t see it now, good can come out of it. 

Trauma and grief are hard pills to swallow but when you trust in God it becomes His strength that we lean into. Hear these words from God “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 4:10). Through every tear, every emotional outbreak, and even every frustration you may have towards God, and the situation you’ve endured, He’s right there with you, holding you and keeping you.

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