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Relationships

Mothers and fathers are simultaneously confronted with the death of their own baby. The emotional impact on a woman and her partner often go unrecognized as sadly the loss of a baby through pregnancy or infant loss are not always recognised as a major loss to those who were not closely associated with the baby. The consequences can be detrimental. It will be a course in time with many challenges and will test the strength of the relationship. After a loss, the relationship may need more love, strength and patience than ever. Your relationship will need to be at the top of your priority list.

Some partners describe no change in the quality of their relationship, while others report that surviving their losses actually brought them closer together. For some, the reality is much harsher.

This article is to provide you with a brief overview of what relationships face after the loss of a baby, as a reality to the risks of a breakdown, and also provides guidance to help partners through their healing.

Risks

One of the major causes of stress in bereaved couples may develop because partners experience grief at different times, express it in different ways and cope differently, all which can affect the functioning of the family and the couple’s relationship. As a result, this can decrease each other’s ability to be of primary support for the other.

Mothers have a desire to talk about their baby, are more likely to than fathers to cry with others, are preoccupied by their loss, and are more likely to seek support within and outside the home. Fathers usually seek solitude, are more concerned with supporting and protecting their partner from further pain, and appear to become more active in their work. Even though they have both lost their child, mothers and fathers can cope so differently and as a consequence they can both feel isolated or abandoned from each other.

Mothers demonstrate psychological manifestations of grief longer than fathers. Women may grieve more intensely due to their attachment and bonding with their baby. Women tend to immediately bond when they find out they are expecting and it becomes a very real physical and emotional relationship with their baby. A mother’s attachment to her child is considered the strongest human bond. This is a possible reason why women tend to experience heighten levels of anxiety and depression after their loss, than men.

High levels of distress in one partner or both can cause marital dissatisfaction. Relationship conflict can arise when the more affected partner (usually the mother) perceives that the other partner isn’t as affected by their loss, which adds as another source of misunderstanding, resentfulness and distress.
Relationships may also experience conflict when there is an extreme difference in how each parent is grieving and where they are at on their grief journey. Often one parent (usually the Father) finds it difficult to cope with the devastating level of grief that their partner is suffering. Often they will feel like they have lost the person that they knew/loved/married and the breakdown of a relationship may begin, especially if they cannot bare to see their partner in this state of sadness or are not willing to wait for them to return to be more like the person they were before the loss. It’s important to note that some parents will never be that same person.

There are many parents who experience recurrent loss, 3, 5, 10 or more babies and the suffering and distress experienced is immense, often over many years. These parents have a huge task to move through their grief together and find strength and hope every single time to embark on another pregnancy.

Research has found that mothers who felt they couldn’t share their grief with their partner because of the lack of support received within the early months of their loss, experienced more intense grief reactions 2 to 4 years following their loss. On the contrary, mothers who could share their feelings and thoughts with their partner in the early months experienced less guilt, anger, yearning depersonalization and morbid fear 2 years later.

Research has also found that as long as 30 months after the loss of a baby, at least 1 in 4 bereaved couples (a figure double that of non- bereaved couples) had at least one distressed partner.

Distance in interpersonal and sexual relationships has also been found to play a factor in marital dissatisfaction. This can be due to fear of trying again, unable to share the loss with their partner, avoiding intercourse, experiencing less desire, seeing sex as a function of necessity or a fearful reminder of the loss.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suicide and increases in obsessive-compulsive and panic disorder have also been associated with loss, all of which a relationship may face.

In Australia, every third marriage ends in divorce.

Guidance for Couples

Parents, who feel supported by their partner, family and friends, or through other support services, are more likely to move through their grief. If parents can make a connection with their partner who allows them to grieve openly and honestly, this will diminish the chances of them burying their grief. Hiding, pretending you’re ok or not dealing with your pain may only lead to loneliness and other distressing symptoms such as depression and anxiety, all of which may result in a breakdown of the relationship.

To survive such devastation is acknowledging the problems if and when they occur and getting that early support through professional counselling. There is still a cultural stigma seeking professional help, especially for males, but the reality is no support will be detrimental to the relationship if those cracks are given a chance to widen.

Relationships continue to be vulnerable to a resurgence of grief even years later and particularly at times surrounding a significant anniversary.

Suggestions

  • Open communication and empathetic listening – turn to each other, talk about your loss and your feelings with each other openly and honestly
  • Allow each other to grieve in their own way and own pace
  • Mutual support for each other around the process of grieving
  • Accept and respect each other’s differences in grieving – to avoid misinterpretation
  • Be willing to seek support for yourself and for the relationship, either through support groups or counselling- don’t try to be strong on your own any longer when you’re feeling anything but.
  • Honouring and acknowledging your baby, individually or together, plays an important role in your own healing journey
  • Surround yourself with family and friends who are supportive to soften the negative impact of your loss– lack of social support has been associated with elevated levels of psychological distress
  • Reach out to others to avoid social isolation
  • Recognise depression and get help
  • Deal with your issues today, not tomorrow

The differences in coping mechanisms, in the difficulty of synchrony of grief reactions and misunderstandings arising from this, is a real threat to a couple’s relationship. Whilst not all relationships separate, it is noted that social supports are important predictors of health for bereaved mothers and fathers.