Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My wife and I lost our 23- year-old daughter to an accidental drug overdose just over one year ago, and of course we have been devastated by the loss. Each of us has coped in our own way, and we continue to function in practical terms, although the early months were pretty rocky for us both, as you might expect. We’ve been seeing a couples therapist who has been helpful in coaching us through various disagreements more peacefully, and this has helped our communication about points of friction between us. But it hasn’t really helped with the bigger picture–it feels like each of us is grieving alone, and that we are growing more distant as a couple.
What I see happening now is that my wife has thrown herself into her work for several months with a kind of manic intensity, of an anxious, rather than energetic kind. Understandably, I suppose, she seems to have pulled away from me emotionally and sexually, though I don’t really know if this is because she is experiencing menopause or because of her grief. All I know is that she falls silent whenever I try to talk with her about it, or cuts off the conversation to do something for her work. Looking back, I think this is how she learned to cope with losses as a child and young adult, by inserting distance between herself and others, and never looking back. I don’t know what to do, and just feel so alone.
As time goes on I am starting to fear that the rest of our lives will be like this, although sometimes I see a flicker of hope, like when we went to a concert together recently and actually danced. But mostly I feel like things are getting worse rather than better, and I don’t want to lose my wife as well as my daughter as a result.
Tragically, the situation you describe is all too common, although which member of the couple self-isolates and which feels abandoned may vary. Just as you imply, grief saturates the couple relationship as well as the individuals that comprise it, and how each one copes affects the other. An overly individualized understanding of grief can fail to address this relational dynamic, which calls for attention to prevent the cascade of losses that you are experiencing. Let me therefore offer a few practical ideas that might help disrupt the cycle of distancing and invite a return to the intimacy you once shared.
First, create a “safe zone” for the relationship. This implies finding time together, with the main priority being simply restoring a sense of comfort with presence. Take a quiet walk, read together or to each other in the evening, go to a movie. For the first month, avoid the temptation to discuss the “problem” of distance, which could call up your wife’s defenses, and delay addressing the lapse in sexual contact. Both of these issues (which are of course intimately related) might be better dealt with once some level of safety in the relationship is secured. Your recent experience of taking in a concert and dance together is a hopeful step in this direction, with a low-pressure weekend getaway being a future goal.
Second, share simple affirmative statements about such “together moments,” without any hidden agenda or expectation. “It was nice to have this time with you,” or “I love it when we have evenings like this,” could be honest and non-demanding ways of affirming the growing connection, without pushing too quickly. Think of enticing a reluctant animal–perhaps a pigeon in a park, or an abused dog–to take a treat from your hand. Avoid fast moves that could startle the animal and lead it to retreat.
Third, gradually reintroduce your daughter back into the family conversation, in small doses. “Our daughter always loved this park,” or “I remember when we first brought her here” could open a loving conversation, or simply acknowledge her presence in your ongoing lives. Over time, such observations, even if noted in passing, can open doors to shared grief and appreciation, leading each of you to feel less alone in your bereavement.
Finally, if these gentle invitations encounter walls rather than doors after a month or two of effort, consider expanding your couples work in therapy to include the issues of shared grief and the expansion of intimacy. In that context, you and your wife might be supported by your therapist to speak to what closeness and sex mean to you, and to experiment with reintroducing touch and ultimately deeper forms of intimate connection in a graduated way. Sexual engagement and release often imply vulnerability and letting go, which can be difficult when one feels that one is barely holding on. Sometimes individual therapy can also be useful in addressing patterns of defense against painful feelings that have been built up across a lifetime. But with a loving foundation, compassion and patience, most couples can find their way back to a secure ground, and often even stronger intimate connection, following a shared loss.