Can a Marriage Survive Trauma?

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By Denise Ambre, LCSW

When a couple suffers a shared trauma — from the loss of a child to a major car accident, home invasion, natural disaster, illness, financial collapse or other shared traumatic event — each partner experiences pain in their own way. Often, that pain feels unbearable.

As if that weren’t enough, the marriage itself also endures a unique, often unprecedented pain. Is it surmountable? Is the burden of grief something that tears couples apart or brings them closer together? 

Research shows that among married couples who’ve suffered the loss of a child, one of the most profound traumatic events, only about 16 percent divorce. The overwhelming majority of these couples are able to band together in their grief and emerge with an even stronger relationship.

One of the biggest hurdles couples face is that no two people respond to trauma in the same way. And just as trauma manifests differently in each person, recovery is unique to each as well.

If you and your partner have experienced shared trauma, it can be especially difficult to know what to do to support each other. Some of the challenges you might face include:

  • 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).

  • 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).

  • 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.  

  • 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.

  • 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.

Any of these things can be really difficult when you're grieving together as a couple. Even spouses who know each other very well, and actually, especially those who have been together for many years can be blindsided by how differently each partner responds to trauma.

As a result, shared trauma can create a secondary crisis, delivering another blow to the marriage. You or your partner might experience acute distress disorder shortly after the event, or develop depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over the longer term.

Related post: Why Women With PTSD Often Suffer in Silence

While every couple is different, one thing holds true for all: Healthy communication is paramount to both individual recovery and the survival of the marriage.

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Tips for Supporting Your Partner Through a Trauma

Despite the pain of a shared trauma, it can actually build an even stronger bond in your marriage. The following tips can help you and your partner support each other after a traumatic event, bolstering your relationship in the process.

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.

Healing after experiencing shared trauma requires time, patience and grace. Although the challenges may feel overwhelming, leaning on — and supporting — your partner through the process can lead to post-traumatic growth.

There is light and love on the other side of trauma. Marriages can survive challenges, and become even stronger in their wake.


No matter what you’ve experienced in the past, there is hope for the future.

*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.*

To learn more trauma therapy for individuals or couples, please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.


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