Grief & Marriage: How to Avoid a Breakdown or Problems

Updated

After a married couple faces tragedy, grief can have a devastating effect on the marriage’s survival. Many relationships tend to fall apart after one or both spouses suffer a significant loss. Any type of setback can be traumatic and difficult to overcome to a marriage that’s already rocky or on the brink of dissolving. 

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Depending on the occurrence, a marriage may not survive the sorrow, pain, and suffering that follows a death or other significant event. However, there are ways in which to avoid a marital breakdown or problems within the relationship. 

How Can Grief Impact a Marriage?

Experiencing death or another devastating type of loss can lead to stress, grief, and anxiety by one or both spouses. Grief can significantly impact a marriage, and its survival will depend on how you react to the loss, how your spouse responds, and how each of you supports the other. 

Other factors affecting a marriage may have nothing to do with the actual event, but things that may have happened even before the two of you ever met. Past tragedies and losses, along with unresolved grief, may resurface when least expected and complicate the grief you’re experiencing. 

Some of those things include:

  • The strength of your relationship
  • The cause and circumstances surrounding the loss
  • Your coping skills
  • The support you give and receive to one another
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How to Avoid Marital Problems When One or Both Spouses Are Grieving

Avoiding marital problems during a time of grief may seem impossible, but it can be done when dealt with love, compassion, and understanding. Personal tragedies tend to change your relationships, no matter how much you work to avoid it. 

Everyone grieves their losses differently. Your spouse’s expressions of grief may differ significantly from yours - even when grieving the same loss. One of you may start resenting the other for things that are out of your control. Grief is one of those things that you can’t control, and you cannot control how it affects you or anyone else. However, the following tips and methods may help you avoid some of the more common pitfalls that affect the marriages of grieving spouses. 

Support your spouse

Offering support to your spouse when one or both of you is grieving is sometimes easier said than done. You may want to help out but don’t know how. You might be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing or arousing anger and resentment in them.

If your spouse is grieving a personal loss, you may start to feel left out or that they’ve disconnected from you. This tends to happen when one of you has suffered a parent or child’s death from a previous relationship. For example, following a parent’s death, you may not know how to help your spouse who lost their dad or mom, but you can support your spouse by committing to staying together through this loss.

Stay committed to each other

Whenever you experience a devastating and life-changing loss, it becomes easy to go outside of the marriage for the support you need. Perhaps you feel as if you don’t want to add to your spouse’s grief, or that they may not understand what you’re going through. 

When you seek outside sources of emotional support, you may end up alienating your spouse. You may feel resentment toward them for bringing you down or for not understanding what you’re going through. Or they may think that you aren’t listening to their needs or providing support. Be honest with your spouse about how you’re feeling and make a renewed commitment to your marriage.

Create a safety zone

A person who is grieving will experience a wide range of emotions. Rage is a common effect of grief that may manifest when least expected. Set boundaries for your grieving so that you maintain a certain level of respect and distance when needed. Creating a safety zone for grieving is not only about protecting each other from physical or psychological harm - it includes encouraging intimacy and time together apart from your grief. 

One way to keep the marital bond from falling apart is by maintaining a physical connection throughout your grieving process. Because men and women have different needs for grief support, one partner may be yearning for that connectedness while the other may feel guilty for indulging while grieving. Don’t judge one another for expressing each other’s needs when within your safe zone. 

Give each other space

While grieving, it’s easy to become irritable, angry, or defensive. Honor your grieving processes and allow each other space to grieve. Your partner may choose to grieve apart from you and may grow distant from you during this time. They may be shutting themselves away from you until they get a better handle on their grief.

Problems that may arise when one or both spouses are grieving may include:

  • Lack of interest
  • Resentment
  • Misplaced blame
  • Guilt
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Infidelity
  • Financial concerns

Understand how grief works

Try not to have elevated expectations of yourself or others while grieving. Grief can take on many different forms and affect you in different ways that may be unfamiliar to you. Generally, women suffer more profoundly and outwardly than men - while men generally tend to keep their feelings locked up. 

These different ways of grieving may seem foreign to the other, and either spouse may not fully understand what the other is going through. For example, some men may express their grief by doing things around the house or office, while women might sit and lament over their losses in a very open and public manner. Either way is an acceptable way of grieving. There is no right or wrong way to express grief. 

Redefine your life’s purpose

Remain open-minded to your new life’s trajectory as a couple and as individuals.

After a tragic event or significant loss, people do tend to grow apart. Grief changes you to the very core, depending on the tragedy suffered. Redefine who you are and where you want your life to go after this loss so you can move forward from it together.

How to Encourage Healthy Communication When a Spouse Is Grieving

An important takeaway when you’re helping your spouse through their loss is that grief doesn’t have a deadline. There’s no set schedule for how long grief lasts or for how long your spouse will be affected by it.

Learn how to encourage healthy communication with one another so that you avoid some of the major marital pitfalls associated with grief and loss. 

Ask if they feel like talking

Emotional distance is one of the side effects of loss and bereavement. You or your spouse may not have the necessary skills to grieve healthily. One of you may be pulling away while the other is trying to hold on to something that needs letting go. 

One of the first steps in healthy communication is to ask the other if they feel like talking before forcing it upon them. A person who’s grieving may not have the energy for deep and profound conversations. They may want to be left alone. Know when to encourage communication and when to take a step back.

Write it down

Keep a journal of your feelings and emotions. Creating a list of ways that help you cope with your grief and sharing it with your spouse helps them understand how you’re dealing with your loss. As they become more aware of what you’re going through and what you’re doing to survive, it may help them open up about their personal experiences. 

Encourage your spouse to review your journal when you feel misunderstood so that they can get a deeper sense of what you’re going through.

Don’t take things personally

When you or your spouse directs anger towards the other, don’t take it personally. Grief makes you act out in ways that may be out of character.

Sometimes it’s difficult to control your emotions, and you may not even know why you’re feeling angry or resentful. The different types of grief that affect you can fluctuate from one day to the next. It may be hard for you to understand what’s triggered an emotional outburst, especially when the other person is being loving and supportive. 

Attend therapy

After tragedy strikes, a marriage may become hard to sustain. Emotions are elevated, and you may no longer know how to respond to each other.

A grief or marriage counselor can help you identify the things that cause you to turn against one another. Not every counselor is trained in the specific needs of those who are grieving. When seeking out a counselor, ask if they’re qualified to advise those specifically dealing with grief-related issues.

Check up on each other

Consistent communication is key to having a healthy dialogue between spouses who are experiencing grief. People can compartmentalize their suffering, and you may never know that they’re going through something.

Keep on top of how your spouse is doing by sending text messages throughout the day to check up on them and to share how you’re doing as well. However, it’s equally important to share in each other’s grief as it is to let your spouse mourn their losses independently from yours. 

When Is Counseling or Therapy Appropriate as Grief Affects Your Marriage?

There's never a wrong time to decide the time's right to seek outside help. Seeking counseling or therapy is one of the first steps in sometimes last resort circumstances. There are different types of counseling available for people who are undergoing stressful situations. To best benefit you and your relationship with your spouse or partner, consider seeking help from a professional who is trained in both grief and marriage counseling. 

Grieving the loss of a loved one while trying to keep your marriage intact may take considerable effort. You may want to develop strategies together so that each of you knows when the other needs a lifeline. 

Don't rely on gauging your spouse's needs by how they appear on the outside. Some people are very adept at hiding their pain and suffering. Grief can manifest in ways that may make it seem like your partner's doing okay when they're not.

Many grieving individuals may not know how to express what they're feeling. Some may experience signs and symptoms of complicated grief that are both unfamiliar and scary to them. They also may not understand what's going on within themselves, so they withdraw because they feel confused or ashamed. Others may feel displaced anger and fear that it causes them to lash out toward their partner without provocation. 

Not every situation needing counseling or therapy is a negative one. Sometimes, a couple may need guidance on moving forward and rebuilding their lives after loss. Loss can tear people apart, but it can also bring them closer than ever. A couple facing having to reinvent themselves after loss, such as after the death of a child, may need to get help to learn how to do it successfully.

How Can You End a Marriage With a Grieving Spouse?

Deciding to end your marriage after suffering a loss you can’t seem to recover from is a significantly bold step that takes careful consideration. Grief can be the ultimate neutralizer in a romantic relationship. There are plenty of opportunities to walk away that’ll pop up during grief and mourning, just as there are more than enough reasons to stick together. 

When you can’t seem to go on as a couple and decide to end things, understand that this can happen to many good people. There’s nothing shameful about wanting a divorce. Here are a few pointers on things to consider when deciding that the time has come. 

Consider your approach

Grief can turn a person’s world upside down and can change who they are on a profound level that they may never recover from. When ending a marriage with a grieving spouse, consider how you break the news to avoid deepening their pain and sorrow. Carefully consider the time and place and even special dates on the calendar that might be coming up.

If, for example, a special anniversary, birthday, or holiday is right around the corner, you may want to wait until after the day has come and gone. Small gestures like these may help soothe the news a bit. 

Be honest

Being honest with your spouse and yourself is the best approach to handling the news of a marriage breakdown. When only one of you is grieving, it may be challenging to sustain a relationship with a person who’s emotionally, physically, or psychologically unavailable.

Divorce sometimes seems to be the best option, and only you’ll know when you’ve reached that ultimate decision to end things. When discussing your decision, be compassionate in the words that you choose while being direct and to the point. Honesty doesn’t mean being cruel or dismissive of how your spouse feels or reacts to their loss. 

Don’t blame anyone

No one needs to blame anyone for needing to move on from a relationship that’s broken. Blaming one another or finding outside reasons and excuses for wanting out of a marriage isn’t healthy for the parties involved. Find a direct way to state how you feel and why and have an open discussion about it.

When a marriage is no longer working, staying in it does a disservice to both the spouses and children. There’s plenty of opportunities to remain civil, reasonable, and neutral when seeking a divorce. No one needs to bear the ultimate brunt of the blame for why things fell apart.

Forgive each other

Forgiveness is often the key that helps relationships strengthen, even those that must end in divorce. Forgiving yourself and your spouse can make a massive impact on how you’ll each interact with one another in the future and is good for your individual healing. You can expect a divorce to cause additional grief and feelings of loss.

When added to the grief your spouse is already experiencing, it may complicate the healing process for them somewhat. Kindness, consideration, and forgiveness work together to help both of you survive yet another blow to your feelings and emotions. 

Avoiding Marital Breakdown Through Grief

Your marriage can survive a tragedy regardless of the statistics proving otherwise. Although sometimes despite your best efforts, some marriages don’t always survive a significant loss.

You can avoid a marital breakdown by remaining open, understanding, and committed to making things work. Honoring open communication and empathy for each other’s feelings can go a long way for you both.

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