A note from the author: This is part of my column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.
If you’ve read my bio, you know that my wife and I have been “happily married for seventeen out of eighteen years.” We had a major crisis around year seven—a miscarriage—that led to about a year of really painful struggle and disconnect. On the anniversary of our miscarriage, almost to the day, we looked at each other and realized that our relationship was on the brink. We were zombie roommates, totally disconnected from one another after nearly a year of ignoring the trauma and pretending we were OK.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions in life and love, something goes wrong. Something terrible that tears at the very fabric of the relationship as a whole. The most stable relationships are based on a strong attachment to one another, and when a crisis renders that relationship unstable, it’s called an attachment injury. This can show up in many ways: an affair, a miscarriage, an addiction, a death, or a diagnosis. (Think: cancer, depression, or ALS.) No relationship is immune.
But that doesn’t mean that no relationship is safe. If you’ve experienced (or are experiencing) a catastrophic shift, now more than ever is the time to be intentional. The good news is that there are things you can do before, during, and after the crisis to help mitigate its impact.
Before Disaster Strikes
It’s really no different than preparing for any other emergency. You need to make sure that your first aid kit is stocked and accessible and that you have all your important phone numbers in a safe place. The first aid kit should be filled both theoretically and practically.
As a first step to protecting yourself and one another, be sure to load up the relationship with good will and fundamental regard. This is a simple but sustained effort to look for and notice (out loud) the many positive qualities about your partner and your relationship. Prioritize gratitude and make a habit of saying thank you. By front-loading the relationship with positive sentiment, you can buffer the pain of a major negative event. In some cases you can even prevent it. Relationships with high-level trust and commitment are less subject to betrayal and external stress.
Practically, I think it’s a good idea to build your outside collection of helpers sooner rather than later. In a previous column I spoke of the power of community, but go ahead and hire some professionals as well. Build a relationship with a therapist you trust. In a perfect world, you each have your own therapist, and you have a couples therapist as well. (I actually think the best argument for premarital therapy is simply to build rapport with someone who can be of help to you when the going gets tough.) You should also seek out a financial adviser or coach you can rely on for good counsel. Can’t hurt to have a good dentist, a general practitioner, an OB-GYN. Also a mechanic. And a handyman. It may sound weird, but if one of you becomes unexpectedly unable to do the things they once did, these trusted helpers will be lifesavers, quite literally. Finally, ask your wisest friends for a good referral for an estate lawyer, or check out GYST.com. In the worst case, even goodwill isn’t a substitute for a good will.
During the Crisis
Ask for help. Recognize that the first and most important task is rebuilding trust, especially if the tear is personal in nature. Any attachment injury that leaves one partner feeling vulnerable and unsafe needs immediate and ongoing attention. As Dr. John Gottman says in What Makes Love Last, “An attachment injury destroys the implicit contract between partners to be there and nurture each other. . . . Without proper intervention, a relationship that suffers this kind of damage is likely to shatter.” Seeking help from a trained counselor or therapist is a critical first step in rebuilding trust. It’s a powerful way to turn toward your partner and say, “No matter what the circumstances, YOU are my priority.”
Turn toward each other. It is also critical that in the wake of a traumatic event, you continue to turn toward each other even, and especially, in the small day-to-day moments. Now is the time when it’s easier than ever to pull away, but resist this. You may need to increase the frequency, duration, and nature of your daily contact. Go ahead and send that extra affirming text message. Linger a little longer at the dinner table. These efforts are the beginning of creating a new contract with one another. By recognizing that whatever you had before is now fundamentally gone, you can grieve the loss and begin establishing the foundation for what your relationship will become. Again, ask for help. Friends and family are a great place to start. But don’t underestimate the power of a professional therapist, if only for a short time. I hear a lot of people say they can’t afford to go to therapy. I usually ask, “Can you afford not to?” Minimally, you need to find ways to prioritize the relationship during this critical time when it is most fragile.
Rebuilding in the Aftermath
In the aftermath of a catastrophic shift, once the dust has begun to settle, it’s time to do the work of rebuilding attachment. This is difficult and tedious work, but I want to tell you from personal experience, doing the work of rebuilding can be extremely powerful and rewarding.
After realizing we needed help, my wife and I got into therapy and spent a year working on ourselves and our relationship. In addition to couples therapy, we each saw our own therapist and basically took out a second mortgage in order to get healthy. It has paid off. We are more attached than we ever were before the injury, and we have a lot more perspective about what we can and can’t do on our own. In the end, our relationship is much stronger than it was.
It’s not unlike the athlete who suffers an injury and gets surgery and goes through rehab and then comes back stronger and faster and better. At the relationship level, however, there’s no quick surgery; there is only being there for one another with consistency and understanding over time. Don’t hesitate to celebrate small wins and milestones. From time to time, you’ll be reminded of the pain of your trauma, but grieving that pain together reinforces your bond and allows you to look ahead with a renewed sense of hope and strength.
If you’re dealing with some kind of catastrophic shift or attachment injury, ask for help. If you don’t know where to turn, feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll see what I can do. You can also find me on Twitter (@kzbrittle) or Facebook. Hang in there.
Photo Credit: Kitchener Photography