The loss of a child before it is born naturally stirs intense and conflicting emotions. Women might feel an intense physical bonding and grief for a being with whom they have already grown attached. Whereas men might feel more ephemerally connected and cheated from the opportunity to begin their bond. When miscarriage affects couples, it may stimulate growth or, conversely, unearth an inability to support each other through troubling times. The confusion surrounding one’s own feelings as well as how to be of real support to one’s partner after the loss tends to disrupt the balance of our relationships. This is especially true if some of that balance lay in the shared anticipation of parenthood. The inability to share and understand each other’s grief can be an isolating experience.
One week after the loss, most women report feeling closer interpersonally with their partner while feeling more distant sexually. As time progresses and different coping strategies for grief kick in, the feelings of closeness fade even when their sexual relationship recovers. Partners with significantly different grieving patterns may be at particularly high risk for subsequent marital conflict or emotional withdrawal.
A recent study on women’s perceptions on their relationship after a miscarriage (1) shows a dramatic decrease in interpersonal and sexual intimacy for most couples up to one year after a miscarriage. At that point only about half of women interviewed report a return to normalcy in their relationship (there is no data available on men’s perceptions).
Percentage of Women Claiming Their Interpersonal and Sexual Relationships Were Closer, As It Was, or More Distant
Results of the study showed that women who perceived their partners engaged in mutual sharing of feelings and experiences claimed to grow closer interpersonally and sexually. When partners failed to do things that showed they cared, women felt abandoned. These results combined with the findings of others (2) that men tend to keep to themselves after miscarriage deny their own loss, engage in avoidance, distract themselves through work and, if highly self-critical, experience greater despair and difficulty suggest that couples may need coaching in how best to care for each other after miscarriage.
Should you find that your partner experiences feelings of grief at the same intensity and duration as you, count yourself fortunate. Grief, by definition an extremely uncomfortable emotion, when shared and reflected accurately by another, tends to wane and can actually strengthen us over time. Creating supportive rituals to acknowledge and soothe one another’s pain are tremendously helpful for those who have experienced a miscarriage. Funerals, wakes, and birthday and anniversary routines all serve to give parents healing time; honoring the role that the “child to be” continues to play in their family and restoring a sense of meaning to the loss.
It is important to normalize the fact, however, that men and women tend to experience the impact of miscarriage differently. Coping with loss is a unique experience for each of us and there is no “right way” to go about it. Women, in general, do not need to learn to toughen up and let go. Nor do men need to soften up and express themselves more deeply. Often we choose our partners precisely because of these differences. The health of our long term commitment to one another depends on remaining curious and respectful of how those differences evolve over time.
Should weeks of estrangement from your partner’s grief become months (or years), it would be a good practice to explore new pathways for connection. The topic of miscarriage may seem still terribly hurtful to one, and all but forgotten to the other. Remember that getting outside help is appropriate at any stage of grief. Couples counseling provides neutral territory for safely acknowledging the new terrain of your marriage and what new shared coping strategies might still be available.
(1) Miscarriage Effects on Couples’ Interpersonal and Sexual Relationships During the First Year After Loss: Women’s Perceptions
(2) Kristen M. Swanson, RN, PhD, FAAN, Zahra A. Karmali, BA, Suzanne H. Powell, BS, BA and Faina Pulvermakher, BS, MT (ASCP)
Psychosomatic Medicine 65:902-910 (2003)
© 2003 American Psychosomatic Society
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