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Grieving Separately: A Dangerous Relationship Chasm

Feelings of sorrow can sometimes shatter a couple's connection.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

No one escapes loss in his or her life. The anguishing pain of forever-gone can shatter a person’s world and capability to function, sometimes for an extended period of time.

For most people, those immobilizing experiences do subside. The body, mind, and spirit, can only bear that level of devastation for so long. Eventually, the residual pain must be buried and life goes on, even if it is never the same.

Those who must endure grief alone suffer in a different way. They also experience isolation and loneliness, adding more sorrow to what is already painful enough. The feelings of anxiety that underlie grief are easier to tolerate when there are welcoming arms nearby. Having a partner who shares that loss can help to soothe the sleepless nights and emotionally anguishing moments.

But sometimes having a partner in grief can cause a different set of problems. Because every person has his or her own way to deal with the irrevocable and devastating sorrows that accompany permanent loss, sorrow is not always shared in the same way.

In the more than four decades I have been working with couples, I have seen how partners may process their grief differently, and how some of those differences can make things worse between them. And, watching for those misunderstandings, I can often predict which couples will grow stronger together and those who will be unable to sustain their relationship after they have undergone a major loss.

There are many of those kinds of counterproductive interactions that predict that outcome. The more a couple understands both their past and present personal and relationship reactions to loss, the more they are prepared to accurately predict each other’s grieving style. When they work together as a team, they will be more able to turn sorrow into a deeper and more lasting bond, even when they approach that task in different ways.

Different Ways of Processing Grief

One’s Personal Grieving Style

The combination of genetic inheritance, family traditions, and life experiences will determine how each person develops his or her own reaction to loss.

When partners have significantly different ways of grieving that the other partner doesn’t understand, the couple’s connection may shatter when each needs to feel the caring presence of the other. For example, what if one partner needs to pull in and process his or her own sadness internally, while the other wants physical closeness and reassurance? Or, what happens to that connection when one person’s grief style is to lash out at God, while the other tries to use his or her faith as a way to heal? Others may appear inconsolable, drawing the others to sacrifice their own need for caring in order to be there for the other.

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Many couples actually separate after the death of a child. They seem to feel that the only way to escape any memories of that loss is to erase every experience that surrounded it, including the one person closest to them.

Differences in the Depth of the Loss

What may be a devastating loss to one partner may not mean as much to the other. That difference in experience can be devastating to the partner who is not done grieving while the other is ready to move on.

The feelings of alienation and pain that occur when one partner appears to minimize the other’s feelings can be immeasurable. The partner who is ready to move on may become frustrated, impatient, and dismissive. It is as if the constant reminder to keep grieving becomes a weight he or she no longer wants to carry.

Different Histories of Loss

Some people have had multiple losses in their lives. They’ve survived by handling sorrow which enables them to continue functioning while they are in pain. That seemingly more toughened behavior can seem uncaring to the other, especially if he or she is facing a more acute sorrow that has never happened at that level before.

These stoic and practical people may seem fine on the outside but are likely minimizing their vulnerability until whatever needs to be done is accomplished. They can’t allow themselves to be derailed. Sometimes, that works for both if the other partner can’t function and is grateful that the other can take over, but it can backfire if the more “used-to-grief” partner makes the other feel that he or she is too self-indulgent or unhelpful.

The Strength of the Relationship

When couples know each other deeply and have always known how to make room for each other’s different ways of handling disappointment, disillusionment, or painful challenges, they already have a bond that has been formed by that knowledge and experience.

When they face a personal loss or a mutual one, they know how to understand their different grief styles and not take them personally, but work with them to help their relationship get stronger through the process. They don’t have to react or feel the same way about how each is processing the grief to keep them from being there for each other in the ways the other needs.

Assigning Blame

Whether devastating loss affects one or both partners, there is no other behavior that puts a dagger in the potential of healing than blaming the other.

Sometimes, sadly, one person has been the one who has brought the loss about. If that is true, that person is already drowning in his or her guilt and sense of worthlessness. Depending on the depth of the loss and the cost to each partner, that blame/guilt situation can be exacerbated, sometimes to the point that the relationship falls apart.

When the Loss Is Unexpected

The trauma of loss is significantly more traumatic when it is not expected. Both partners may be unable to function or to be there for each other. They are in a state of trauma that can trigger all past heartbreaks and do not have the emotional bandwidth to help the other.

Unexpected loss often requires support from the outside. Understanding family, friends, clergy, or professional help can form temporary enclosure of safety and practicality while the couple lives through the trance of inability to face what they cannot endure.

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