Grief is an acutely painful reaction to loss. A person may grieve in reaction to the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a divorce, or even the loss of a sense of healthy self when faced with a chronic or terminal diagnosis.
As the Hospice Foundation of America points out, grief is highly personalized. Even when two people are grieving the same thing, they can have entirely different experiences and expressions. This can make the grief process a challenging event, particularly for couples.
How might grief affect an intimate relationship? And how can spouses optimally support each other through the grieving process? In this article, we explore these questions.
3 Ways Grief Can Affect a Relationship
Grief Can Create Marital Conflict
Grief includes physical and emotional symptoms that vary from person to person. Many of these symptoms—including irritability, aggression, fear, confusion, guilt, anger, anxiety, impaired concentration, or a loss of interest in enjoyable activities—may not “look” like grief.
When a grieving person experiences any of these emotions, their spouse may mistakenly perceive them as negative reactions directed at them. Sometimes, when the grieving partner struggles to understand or express their feelings, these negative emotions truly are misdirected at the spouse.
As a result, a spouse may become defensive, hurt, or angry in response. This can quickly create conflict, especially if the spouse is also affected by his or her own grief.
Grief Can Create Physical and Emotional Disconnection
Grief can drive a major wedge between two spouses, especially if they tend to grieve in different ways.
One spouse may want to withdraw and be alone, while the other spouse wants to communicate and be together. While neither spouse is “wrong,” they may feel frustrated by not getting the support they want from their partner. This can breed resentment and a sense of distance and loneliness. If partners don’t feel well-supported by each other, they may shut down and seek support from other people in their lives.
For intimate couples, grief can have a profound impact on their sex life, as well. One or both partners may lose interest in sex altogether or feel too physically and emotionally numb to enjoy it. Physical symptoms of grief like heart palpitations, pain, headaches, nausea, or weight gain may also contribute to a decrease in physical intimacy.
At some point, partners may start to grieve the change in their own marriage which occurs as a result of the earlier loss—grief begets grief. Understandably, this can compound the pain and prolong the healing process.
Grief Can Bring a Couple Closer Together
Sometimes, the grieving process—while painful—can open the door to an incredible opportunity for bonding. Perhaps two spouses’ styles of grieving are complementary, making it easier to seek and receive support from each other. Perhaps partners are more emotionally attuned and therefore have an easier time expressing their needs. Overcoming grief and loss may be perceived as a challenge a couple must overcome together, allowing them to come out stronger for it in the end.
Ultimately, the shared experience of loss can help two people find strength and solace in each other, knowing they are not alone in their grief.
How to Support a Grieving Spouse
Know that grief is often unpredictable. There is no set schedule nor a predetermined path that two partners must follow. This means a relationship may be affected by grief in one or even all of the above ways at various moments in time, depending on where a couple is in their grieving and healing process.
Professional guidance is often essential for helping couples and individuals navigate their bereavement. Grieving spouses may also choose to support each other by:
- Talking to each other honestly about what grief looks and feels like to them
- Honoring each other’s needs by not “forcing” each other to act a certain way
- Giving space when wanted
- Not taking personally their partner’s negative emotions
- Doing small acts of kindness or service
- Taking good care of their own physical and mental health
Grief Affecting Your Relationship Negatively?
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