[Excerpted from Married With Special-Needs Children: A Couple's Guide to Keeping Connected by Laura E. Marshak, Ph.D., and Fran Pollock Prezant, M.Ed., CCC-SLP; copyright © 2007 by Woodbine House. Reprinted with permission.]
It is often the mother who feels an unremitting need to talk about her grief and fear. This is one useful path to coming to terms with what has happened and to processing it emotionally. On the other hand, men may be attracted to other paths for coping with sadness or stress, such as attempting to move on and deal with other matters. This does not mean that their grief is not equally gripping.
Sometimes husbands try to help their wives with grief by suggesting ways to contain it or seek solutions. Women do not generally experience this as helpful and are likely to feel more alone with their grief. As the husband feels his efforts are impotent in alleviating her suffering, he increasingly avoids his wife and home. The cycles then intensify with more despair, anger and helplessness. A friend shared her strategy for handling her husband's reactions to her need to talk. She begins intense discussions with, "I don't expect you to fix this, but I need to talk about...."
No matter how long you have been married, you sometimes need to teach your partner what you need rather than get upset when he or she doesn't intuitively anticipate your needs. If you need your spouse to simply be close and listen without offering "solutions," clearly explain this. If you have already done so, do it again and again if necessary. When it comes to marriage, there is little "one trial learning." As a marital therapist, I have found that spouses often feel as if their partner doesn't love them if he or she has to be told how to do something -- as if the teaching invalidates the action. One could easily argue that it shows as much love to allow oneself to be taught.
Husbands and wives may need to learn how to talk to each other about their grief at the same time that they understand the need to respect each other's style of grieving. As with other elements of a successful marriage, there are times for compromise. It may be useful for you to learn to listen to the outpouring of your spouse's emotion while your spouse learns to honor the fact that you can only tolerate immersion in so much grief (or vice versa).
If coping with grief is causing difficulties in your marriage, it may help for you and your spouse to set aside a limited period of time several times a week to talk about your situation. The time could range from fifteen to thirty minutes, long enough for a person to express herself and ventilate fully but not so overwhelmingly long that the other partner will feel swallowed up in interminable grief. Spouses can become less frightened by their partner's grief. More spontaneous discussion is eventually the goal.
From Married With Special-Needs Children: A Couple's Guide to Keeping Connected by Laura E. Marshak, Ph.D., and Fran Pollock Prezant, M.Ed., CCC-SLP; copyright © 2007 by Woodbine House. Reprinted with permission.