How Does Grief Affect Relationships?


Grief is the personal experience of loss and has a powerful effect on how people view their relationships after the death of a close loved one. The impact of grief and loss on families, friendships, and relationships and how individuals respond to trauma in the context of these interpersonal relationships vary from one person to the next. But how trauma affects these bonds is universal in many ways. 

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Through lived experiences, human psychology evolves in ways that help bereaved individuals adjust to their pain and suffering while finding ways of keeping their relationships intact as much as possible. While this internal process of recognizing grief’s effects on relationships isn’t perfect, many grieving individuals find themselves at odds with their friends, family, and significant others despite their best efforts. If grief is affecting your relationships, you’re not alone. 

Continue reading below to see why and how grief can change the dynamic of even the most solid relationships. 

Does Grief Affect Relationships?

Grief affects people's relationships every day who struggle to overcome tragedy and other significant losses in their lives. Grieving isn't limited to suffering the death of a loved one. Disaster can strike at any moment. Accidents, loss of a job, and eviction are just some of the ways people are affected by loss every day. 

The way individuals handle their losses strongly reflects on their relationships and their abilities to maintain successful connections to their friends, family, and other loved ones in their lives. The emotional state of grief and the mechanisms through which these reactions are transmitted impact those relationships.

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How Grief May Affect Romantic Relationships

In the presence of grief, many marriages and romantic relationships suffer greatly, often to the point of failure. When spouses or romantic partners deal with the intense emotions of profound pain and suffering, one person in the relationship usually takes a back seat to the other's grief. Individual styles of mourning differ according to each romantic relationship and the connection to the deceased. 

Some losses are more psychologically painful than others, resulting in more adverse grief reactions. Below are ways in which grief affects romantic relationships and how you can successfully deal with the effects of a significant loss that threatens the bond between you and your significant other. 

Growing apart

Whenever a romantic relationship suffers through a traumatic loss, changes in the marriage or relationship often follow. While some bonds are stronger and more resilient to a significant loss, there seems to be a high correlation between grief and marriage breakdown. 

Marriage satisfaction before a catastrophe isn’t always a strong indicator that the relationship will withstand the effects of grief. As one or both partners struggle with meeting their responsibilities to one another, followed by their own needs outside of the relationship, they may lose focus on their combined needs as a couple, which is when bonds start falling apart. 

The way to combat this is to keep open communication channels where you feel comfortable talking about how the relationship is failing you and what needs to happen to reverse those changes.

Heightened stress

Suffering the loss of a loved one, especially when a child dies, is one of the most traumatic and stressful times for couples to endure. The immense grieving experienced following such a loss causes a prolonged grief reaction, characterized by persistent depression, preoccupation, and intense yearning. Both parents suffer profoundly from this type of loss, but their sorrow manifests in markedly different ways.

Although men, women, and non-binary individuals all have differing grieving styles, it’s not unusual for someone to take grief out on their partner, leading to sometimes irreversible changes in the relationship dynamic. To prevent loss from coming between you and your partner, practice mindfulness in how you choose to communicate with one another during your bereavement. 

Diminished intimacy

A significant drop in intimacy often marks the long-term effect of grief in marriage. The death of a close loved one affects many marriages and their intimate connection in the physical sense and how they communicate with one another post-loss. Getting back to the space where they were before a tragedy is often impossible, depending on the type of loss experienced.

For couples dealing with the death of a child, they may find it challenging to regain the bond shared between them now that the manifestation of their love and intimacy is no longer there. To reverse some of the effects of grief on intimacy, consider couples grief counseling and setting time aside each month to reconnect as a couple.

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Shifted needs

After a tragic event takes place within a romantic relationship, each partner's shifting emotions and needs can negatively affect their relationship. The roles each individual filled in their relationship before the loss may no longer be there, creating a void that neither partner can serve for the other. These changes are some of the prices of grief and loss.

Things can never go back to precisely how they were before a tragedy strikes. However, there are things that each person can do to help the relationship get back on track. Consider the following:

  • Creating new meaning
  • Finding ways to honor each other 
  • Making new goals and plans for the future

How Grief May Affect Friendships

Pushing loved ones away after a death is a normal reaction to loss. Grief creates varying psychological and social effects on bereaved individuals, impacting how they manage their friendships and intimate relationships with the people they love. Grief responses following significant and tragic losses may include an individual’s withdrawal from social circles and even their closest friends.

The impact of trauma on their ability to maintain their friendships may create complications within those relationships leading to estrangements. Here are some common ways grief affects these bonds and what you can do to reverse some of the effects. 

Declined invitations

Individuals exist and grow within the context of their grief. As their environment changes, so do their relationships. A bereaved individual will likely stop accepting social invitations as a direct result of their grief. This is a normal reaction in someone who’s having a challenging time coping with their loss.

You might see a subtle shift in your friendship, or you may notice that suddenly your friend starts declining your invitations and stops returning your calls. Try not to take this as a personal rejection of your friendship. Give your friend time to process their loss, and keep checking in on them to see how they’re doing. 

Lashing out

Grief makes people act in ways that are out of character for them. If you’re used to your friend always being happy and outgoing, but all of a sudden, they’re moody, depressed, and angry all the time, this is a normal reaction to grief. They may internalize their pain and suffering, and their grief is manifesting in unexpected ways.

It’s not that your friend hates you all of a sudden. They’re just trying to make sense of their loss and adjusting to the sometimes overwhelming reactions to their pain and suffering. Give them some time and space to figure things out and forgive them when you feel hurt or resentful by how they’ve treated you.

Changed behaviors

When your friends overcome grief, they may react by changing their normal behavior. You may notice that your once conservative friend is now acting in ways out of character for them. They may exhibit risky behavior and changes in attitude that go against their nature or usual course of being.

Try to discourage your friend from taking unnecessary risks with their health or life. You may not be able to do much in the way of stopping them, but don’t join them either. 

How Grief May Affect Familial Relationships

Grieving families often struggle with their differences in finding meaning from their loss. A family working toward establishing a shared purpose to help them come to terms with a loved one's death may find themselves at odds with one another, which usually tears the family apart.

On one end, the family might look for ways to avoid talking about their loved one who died and the effects that loss has had on their family relationship. On the other, each family member may be looking to others to blame for their loved one's death. It makes it challenging for families to stay together through these problematic outcomes in either situation. Here are some ways families can change their behavior patterns to overcome these usual challenges. 

Disruption of stability

Grieving families experiencing a crisis that disrupts the unity and stability of the whole may be experiencing the negative consequences of grief. Family bereavement changes the balance within the family and in each person's roles within those bounds. The death of a close family member usually creates changes in the boundaries of each member as their roles shift after a significant loss.

A bereaved family whose mother figure has died not only deals with the grief-related stressors of no longer having a mom to rely on for whatever role they played within the family, but now another member of the family has to step up to fill those shoes. Having open communication with the remaining family members will ease much of the stress and feelings of instability the death has created. 

Loss of respect and control

The changes between surviving parents and their children following a traumatic loss sometimes manifest as a loss of immediate control and respect for the family institution's rules and expectations. When these changes develop between the parents and children, it's usually due to grief and stress, and each family member finds themselves confused over what's happened.

Bereaved parents and children all have to find a way to regain control of their emotions and how they interact with one another. Family members who suddenly find themselves forced to manage multiple roles within the family dynamic need time to adjust to those changes in responsibility while they're trying to cope with their grief.

Surviving Through Grief

Grief affects all types of relationships in ways that positively and negatively impact the people filling those roles. Traumatic losses almost always leave individuals finding themselves renegotiating relationships as they process their grief. All relationships shift over time to accommodate changes in life cycles. However, when an untimely and traumatic loss occurs within these relationships, everyone needs to work to cope and heal from these alterations in the way they interact with one another.

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