Trauma and Marriage Basics

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.”


Unfortunately, toxic mold and its associated loss is not recognized as a natural disaster. However, it is a terrible event that causes emotional responses. 


When people experience trauma, there is no one size fits all in regards to how a person handles the trauma or heals from the trauma. 


When a family goes through a trauma, you are often dealing with not just one individual but multiple individuals. Not only that but multiple individuals with different roles (a woman could also be a mom and/or wife/partner). The reality is that these reactions can lead to a positive outcome or a negative outcome. 


A study done in 2021 on the, “Changes in Marital and Partner Relationships in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina” found the reality that participants reported the following:


“Participants reported that the hurricane led to external stressors, including unemployment and pro-longed separations, and that these stressors, in turn, undermined both individual functioning and relational processes (e.g. communication and support). Conversely, participants reporting positive changes experienced new employment opportunities, a greater sense of perspective, and high levels of effective communications and support in their relationships.” 


The above rang so true as I read it, in regards to what we’ve heard from so many couples in the aftermath of finding out that they have mold. However, one missing component is illness. Mycotoxins can cause so much illness in the body, that the above issues seem compounded. 


So, what do you do when you and your partner have experienced a shared trauma?

Some of the challenges you might face include:

  1. What might be of comfort to you might actually be triggering to your partner. For example, you might need to look at pictures every day of your loved one, but your partner might find that too painful at first (or forever).
  2. You and your partner might process your emotions differently. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who prefers to work through your emotions internally, while your partner needs to talk them through (or vice versa).
  3. There may be times when your partner needs your comfort, but you’re feeling so depleted that you have very little to offer. You might feel guilty or selfish for wanting to be cared for when you feel you “should” be taking care of your partner.  
  4. Even while grieving the same loss, you might be in different places at different times. There is no standard, predictable or “normal” timeline for processing difficult emotions.
  5. One or both of you might withdraw or shut your partner out, appearing numb or unaffected by the event. These are normal, defense mechanisms that are often part of dealing with trauma but are signs of deep pain. Unfortunately, they can easily be misread as “uncaring” by the other person.
  6. One of you may be sick, while the other is not sick. The person who is sick did not choose this; they are not doing it for attention. It is important to acknowledge that this impacts both of you in different ways. The loss on what life looked like is real for BOTH of you.

So what can we do to keep our marriage intact?

  1. Spend time together — and talk. Keeping the lines of communication open is critical in any relationship, especially one impacted by trauma. Continue to invite your partner to talk openly about the trauma. Don’t push or nag; trust that they will open up when they’re ready. Let them know that despite your own pain, you’re there for them, too. Strong partnerships are based on mutual support.
  2. Recognize balance. Emotional equilibrium within a couple isn’t always possible, especially while processing trauma. Being out of sync can be an issue when you’re grieving a shared loss. You might expect your partner to be in the same emotional place as you are. But that’s rarely the case. Some days might be easier for you and more difficult for your partner, and vice-versa. Don’t feel guilty about having a good day if your partner is having a particularly rough day, but be sensitive to — and respect — your partner’s emotional state. Try not to experience your partner as uncaring when they’re having a good day and you’re struggling. Try not to bring each other down or force the other to feel something positive if they’re struggling.
  3. Don’t take things personally. Tune into any discomfort you might be feeling about your partner’s emotions. Don’t assume that their reactions are a reflection of their feelings for you, the status of your relationship, or your effectiveness in easing their pain. Recognize that their emotions are tied to where they are in the grief process.
  4. Find positive things to share with one another. Even though your loss may be top of mind, try to find other, brighter-side things to discuss. Did you notice the tree in your front yard starting to bud? Or find a delicious new flavor of tea? However small or meaningless they may seem in the moment, sharing these things with your partner will help you move forward together.
  5. Cultivate awareness around your partner’s — as well as your own — emotional state. Pay attention to subtle signals. Tune into what your partner does when they’re sad or heavyhearted. If you’re not sure how they’re feeling — or how you can help — ask! (I notice you seem down this afternoon. Do you want to talk about it? What can I do to make today easier for you? How can I best support you in this moment?)
  6. Lean on your extended support system, including family, friends, maybe even a small group of others who have gone through a similar trauma. If you don’t have a strong support system in place, it’s never too late to build one. Check with your church or synagogue to see if they offer any organized support groups. Find local or national organizations, like Helping Parents Heal. Even attending a webinar with others who have gone through a similar trauma can be very comforting.
  7. Be kind to yourself — and to each other. Understand that normal routines may be difficult for a while. Give yourselves some grace as you adjust to your “new normal.” There is no predictable timeline for processing grief, and healing isn’t linear. Flexibility, adaptability and compassion will go a long way in helping each of you cope individually and as a couple.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Work together to determine if one or both of you needs to seek professional counseling and/or medical care to support your recovery. Therapy and/or medications to treat depression and anxiety can be very helpful as you navigate the after-effects of a traumatic event. Respect the use of medication to maintain your mental health in the same way you would if you were treating a physical condition.


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