The same loss happened to each member of the couple, but you each may be processing the grief in a different way. We all have unique coping skills, and sometimes our responses clash.
It’s Saturday morning, and you’ve just gotten the news that there’s a rally downtown. When you mention it to your partner, s/he snipes that you’ve got to take it down a notch. Turn it off for just a moment, please. Give it a rest.
Stung, you withdraw. Angry thoughts arise. “Doesn’t my partner see that we need to take action? We can’t let this happen! Fine, stick your head in the sand!” Anxiety swells in your chest as you consider the future. “What will we do?”
Does any of this sound familiar? There’s a new strain of relational stress going around, and you’ve been infected.
The Key Question
“Would you like to process any post-election trauma?”
I’m a therapist, and this is the question I have asked all my clients since election night.
Why? Because this election hit us hard. This is much bigger than the typical “my side lost.” It was a sucker-punch, the kind of blow that makes us double over and wonder why we didn’t see it coming.
My clients have been asking: How did half the country vote for someone who openly boasted that he sexually assaulted women? Someone who wants to establish a Muslim registry? A man who chose for his second-in-command a candidate who believes electro-shock therapy is the right way to “fix” gay kids? People who fit into the categories targeted during the campaign tell me they are up at night worrying about possible internment camps. Yes, I am discussing internment camps with my clients multiple times a day.
These are topics none of us expected to actually have to face. Trump was a “Saturday Night Live” skit, not an actual threat. The rug has been pulled from underneath us, and many of us are hurting the people whom we love most as we struggle to regain our footing.
The First Step: Acknowledge the Emotional Impact of the Election
Before we can move forward, we need to recognize that a lot of us are walking wounded right now, and typical coping skills aren’t helping us the way they usually would.
I’m running into this problem in my office as I address this trauma with my clients. Normally, when people are this depressed, anxious, and paranoid, I use therapy techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy to help them cope. I acknowledge the fact that their feelings are real, and then I help them understand that the level of probability they will actually experience a catastrophic event is very low.
This time around, I cannot assure them that the risk of something bad happening to them is unlikely to happen. I also am worried about the Trumpocalypse and do not know what will happen. Like them, I feel powerless. I worry for myself, my family, and for my clients. Will prejudice and hate crimes be legitimized and even encouraged? I’m stunned by the realization that a large portion of America did not care enough about their fellow citizens to vote in a president who would keep them safe.
The Depth of Trauma
At first, most of us were numb as we tried to grapple with what had happened. There was much crying. People took off work. If they did go into the office, they weren’t able to accomplish much. Some wondered if they were safe at their place of employment anymore. If that co-worker voted for Trump, does he now feel that sexual harassment is OK? Have social norms changed already? Will they change in the near future? How safe am I exactly?
Understandably, survivors of sexual assault have been especially affected. After the release of the “grab ’em by the pussy” Trump tape, sexual abuse survivors were retriggered. For some, their most traumatic memories surfaced, destructive as ever.
But there was a silver lining to clients experiencing painful triggers. Survivors disclosed their sexual assault to a chorus of supporters who publicly said it was #NotOkay and reinforced the most important belief every sexual abuse survivor needs to internalize: “It wasn’t your fault.” Some clients disclosed their sexual abuse to me for the first time (and, in some cases, also to their spouse). With this new piece of the puzzle in view, clients were able to communicate and connect in a new way that was previously hampered. Counter-intuitively, marriages improved.
Sexual abuse victims are definitely not the only ones hurting right now. People in marginalized groups across the country are worried. Hurting. Feeling powerless or inconsequential. Wondering what will happen next.
And that kind of stress affects relationships.
Same Sadness, Different Responses
So…why are you posting on Twitter every hour while your partner refuses to even listen to the news? Why are you so frustrated with each other?
You each have gone through a shocking loss that has triggered a grief/trauma response. The same loss happened to each member of the couple, but you each may be processing the grief in a different way. We all have unique coping skills, and sometimes our responses clash.
Your partner might want to get angry and protest while you might need to tune out and play video games at home. Your partner might want closeness, but you are so upset that you can hardly stand to be touched and need to decompress alone.
Many of us, when sad, are easily annoyed. You might find yourself snapping at your spouse over things that normally would not bother you. If you are a person who craves intimacy as part of your healing process, you may be especially sensitive to the level of disconnection your partner requires to process what has happened.
What To Do?
First, understand that you are grieving, as is your partner. You might be grieving differently, and the key to moving forward together is to communicate that. Express your commitment to each other.
Take Responsibility for Getting Your Needs Met
Think about what you need, and then articulate your needs to your partner. Ask your partner what would help him or her at this time. Do not expect your partner to take your pain away. You are still responsible for your own happiness, and your partner is responsible for his or hers.
Indulge in Radical Self-care
You can’t control the world, but you can control yourself. Now that you have identified what you are going through as grief, it’s time to explore options that will help you feel better—activities that soothe your soul.
In the first couple of weeks after the election, I recommended radical self-care. For some, that was wine (that may or may not be my initial coping strategy). Also, comfort food. I suggested that my already overstressed “Mommy Clients” give themselves permission to call a babysitter and just take some time to be alone with their own thoughts.
Stay Off Social Media Until You Are Ready
While absorbing the blow of the election, it was not the time to justify to those on social media that you had a right to be in pain and grief. It was the time to use the mute and block button. For some, the answer was to just unplug and take a step back. Recognize the fact that you may be ready to jump back into the fray sooner or later than your partner, and it’s OK. Respect your differences. The social media world can be rough on your soul, and you get to decide how much or how little you engage with those who have or may hurt you.
Remain in the Present
We cannot control what will happen in the future, but right now, we can focus on the present. When you feel anxious thoughts whirling out of control and whipping up your emotions, remind yourself that right now, you are safe. Right now, you are warm. You are fed. You are clothed. You are loved.
Once you’ve settled down, then allow yourself to think about actions you may or may not choose to take. If anxiety returned, practice mindfulness again, focusing on the present.
Moving Forward, Together
After you both recover from the initial impact, you will want to get busy with productive action. Dive into work. Organize the pantry closet. Take Trump supporters off your Christmas list. (Just a suggestion.)
Focus on the things that you can do. Put your elected officials on speed dial and call them. Remember to vote in your local elections and not just for President. Use your voice and your unique talents to speak out. Join with like-minded others and think of other actions to take.
But most importantly, treat your partner with respect and love. Remember, you’re in this together. Heal yourself, but also support your partner so the two of you can fight this battle together.
Caroline Madden is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Burbank, California. She specializes in helping marriages recover after infidelity. She is the author of several relationship books including: Fool Me Once: Should I Take Back My Cheating Husband, Blindsided By His Betrayal, and After a Good Man Cheats. Follow her on Twitter; @CMaddenMFT