home of loving support for bereaved parents

Pregnancy/Infant Loss & the Marriage Relationship
By Maribeth Doerr

As a bereaved mom who has also suffered the trauma of divorce, I am often asked if my losses caused the breakup of my marriage. My answer is simple: my husband and I caused our divorce, NOT our babies' deaths. It is a fact that the divorce rate for couples dealing with everyday struggles is over 50%. In today's fast-paced culture, keeping a strong and mutually satisfying marriage requires a deep commitment from both partners. The death of a baby adds an enormous amount of stress to even the strongest relationships. Many other factors contribute to the stress load such as financial burdens from unexpected medical bills and funeral costs and coping with surviving children and other family members. The stress of pregnancy/infant loss is on the individual AND the couple. It isn't surprising that the experts say divorce among bereaved parents is over 60%.

Although this has been the hardest thing we have ever faced in our 5 1/2 year marriage, we have become even more bonded and closer through this loss. It has not been easy, but after losing our daughter, we purposed not to lose our marriage as well. The hardest challenge is that both of us are grieving and both of us have needs, and it is hard to give to your spouse when you are hurting so much. ~ Laura
The heartache we suffer when our babies die is something that cannot be easily solaced. Neither partner can take away the other's pain. This is very frustrating, and the couple may feel helpless to comfort each other. Even though the loss of a child is a "shared" experience, the grief process itself is not a shared experience; it is an extremely personal course that no two people will work through in the same way.

The love between Eric and me which created Zachary, deepened and grew as we shared our dreams and hopes before he was born, but in the five days of his life, that love took on a new dimension as we shared our fears and pain. We felt incredibly close and bonded as we both focused totally on our son. We were united and found great comfort in each other. Such an intense closeness in crisis can't be sustained in the long hard work of grieving, and after Zachary died, we both withdrew a little. We grieved in very different ways, which at times caused conflicts. I wanted to talk about it more than Eric did. He felt he should be "strong" and I felt I would never function again. I felt angry at times that he didn't show his sadness, but I never doubted that it was there. It wasn't until about six months later, when I began to be a little less "crazy" that Eric found it safe to let go and do his grieving, and even then it was in a much more withdrawn, depressed, non-communicative way. ~Melinda

It's vital to remember that everyone grieves differently--not just because men and women grieve differently--but also because we are individuals who react to each situation in accordance with our own gifts. WE MUST ACCEPT THE WAY EACH OTHER GRIEVES. Each parent also had special dreams and expectations about their baby, and when that child dies, they are not only grieving for their child but also for each of those fantasies. Therefore, each parent is not only grieving in his/her own style but also grieving for different aspects of the same loss. Couples who can understand and accept their differences have a better chance of surviving this tragedy with a stronger and intact marriage.

I thought he was totally insensitive and an unfeeling person, and he thought I was overreacting. We finally had it all out one night, and I realized he just couldn't (and didn't) feel the same way I did. ~Mary Kaye

An important key in keeping a healthy marriage is effective communication. After the loss of a baby, communication is even more essential. Each spouse must be honest with each other and discuss what their individual grief needs are. (For example, if one needs to cry, the other should allow the tears without trying to stop them.) There is a danger of assuming (and probably incorrectly) what the other is thinking if the lines of communication aren't kept open. It is difficult to be strong and supportive of your partner when you are burdened as well. Try to respect each other's grief needs and lower your expectations of each other during the difficult initial phases of grieving.

A necessary component of communication is listening. Being an active listener for each other without trying to change or take away the other's feelings is truly valuable.

I can't express my feelings to someone who has no response. Perhaps if I saw more of his emotions about our loss, I'd talk about it less. ~Emma

Grief is hard work!! It is exhausting physically and emotionally. Being so involved in our own feelings plus the exhaustion leaves us less able to cope with our differences.

For a long time, I was so wrapped up in my grief, I was oblivious to his needs and interests. ~Carol

Many couples seek therapy either through marriage counselors, grief counselors, or religious leaders. It can be an invaluable way of discussing feelings without trying to be a therapist for each other. During the grief process, it is common to see unpleasant features of each other not seen before. Counseling can help ease the stress of learning how to speak and listen to each other particularly if it was uncomfortable before the loss.

If you had marital difficulties before your loss, there is a very real danger of losing your marriage as well. Sadly enough, we live in a disposable society. If a toaster breaks, it is easier to throw it away and buy a new one. Many couples approach marriage in this way. With such an attitude, a tragedy of this magnitude is a crisis that can shatter a marriage.

I saw the pain in my husband's eyes every day and I knew it was something could not fix. The loss of control over my life and my baby's death coupled with my feelings of helplessness in trying to comfort my husband was overwhelming. My first instinct was to stay and work it all out; my second was to run away and start over. I chose the second alternative. Although I have remarried and have completely turned my life around, I will always feel guilty about not trying harder to work it out. After all, he was the father of my first child, and I will always love him for that. ~Author

Many, many couples become much closer after having lived through the devastation of losing their baby. With work, this experience can be a source of individual growth as well as the beginning of a more unified family. It certainly isn't easy, but if each spouse is truly committed to their marriage, they will ACCEPT, COMMUNICATE, and LOVE each other despite the horror this kind of tragedy brings forth. Please give yourself time to heal before making any major decisions.

There were times when I didn't think we'd make it, but I knew deep down within my heart that we'd always be together. My husband held his grief within, and I wanted to shake him and make him tell me his feelings. Despite the difficulties, we held together and are now stronger than we've ever been. Courtney has bonded us in ways that wouldn't have been possible if she had never lived and died. I wish she was with us, but since she's not, I'm so glad that one of her gifts to us was finding the joy in our marriage. We've come a long way, and I know now that we can survive anything. ~Rachel

If, however, you find yourself going through a divorce, please don't feel you have failed. It is not easy to start over but neither is living in an irreconcilable environment. Make the best of whatever decision you make. I started over, and as difficult as it was, I have a loving husband and two healthy sons. My life is satisfying because I have made it that way. While I certainly didn't have a choice in losing my babies, I did have choices in how this experience affected my future. My self-esteem suffered tremendously for several years as a result of repeated losses and a broken marriage. Counseling helped me realize I was a worthwhile human being deserving of a happy life--as are each of you!

If you both are committed to each other, your marriage CAN survive this tragedy. It is important to know that the loss of your child doesn't have to be a permanent negative effect on your relationship. Remember - ACCEPT the way each other grieves, DON'T EXPECT your spouse to feel exactly as you do, COMMUNICATE your grief needs to each other and RESPECT them, have PATIENCE with each other and yourself, and LOVE each other. After all, it was that love that created your babies!

For more information, read For Better Or Worse: For Couples Whose Child Has Died written by Maribeth Wilder Doerr and published by Centering Corporation.

© 1992-2001 Maribeth Wilder Doerr. All Rights Reserved.


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