Unforeseen challenges impact even the happiest, most stable relationships. Whether it the loss of a home, an unexpected death of a loved one, or the discovery of infidelity, the effects of tragedy are often traumatic, enduring and can obliterate our basic sense of safety and security.
Yet, human connection is resilient and is reinforced and fortified through a process of rupture and repair. So, to ensure that tragedy brings us together rather than tears us apart, we should:
1. Pause Before Reacting. It is imperative to resist impulsive, reactive, emergency
action when tragedy strikes. A pause allows a couple to assess what the situation
calls for, as well as to determine what we need from each other to feel secure and
hopeful. To develop an ability to pause — a key to mindfulness, attention and impulse
control — and simply be in the uncertainty of tragedy, is among the most subtly
powerful experiences of fortification that can occur when tragedy strikes a
2. Be present. When a crisis hits, we tend to defend ourselves psychologically by
withdrawing from the shock. But, it is essential to have access to our assets, gifts and
talents during a tragedy. And this requires presence. To be present requires us to
make use of the pause. Being present allows us to respond instead of reacting. In
reaction, we act and then think; but in response, we think and then act.
When we are dealing with tragedy, we can create presence together by listening to
each other without intending to respond. We need to accept that it is okay if we don’t
know all the answers. And we should reflect on events together and embrace feeling
3. Form an alliance. An essential way to navigate tragedy is through collaboration.
And we do this by forming an alliance: a conscious commitment to developing and
maintaining a healthy reliance upon our partner and on the relationship itself. A
healthy reliance is formed by committing to and making use of a balance of giving and
receiving in an intimate relationship. In fact, such a balance is essential to inviting and
allowing intimacy into our relationship. And intimacy allows us to be with each other
on a day-to-day basis where we are truly seeing and being seen as we actually are
(“warts and all”). In this sense, an alliance is a dynamic — a way of relating — that
allows us to be and feel accepted as we are. This goes a very long way in allowing us
to navigate the tumultuous emotions that we experience during a tragedy.
4. Make use of our history. The way we have addressed and dealt with tragedy in
the past will determine how we deal with a current tragedy. And we can make use of
this historical data to determine the best course of action. To make this a more
conscious endeavor, we can discuss how we have handled past tragedies with our
partner. What worked? What did not? What did each person bring to the table that
resolved the crisis?
5. Accept Help from Others. We should be willing to reach out together and allow
ourselves, our relationship and our family to accept care from our friends, extended
family, colleagues, and members of other community or social organizations. A
tragedy can be a “call for help,” allowing us to access care, love, and support that we might not ordinarily accept.
Regardless of the benefits tragedy can bring, none of us would willingly call it down upon
ourselves. And yet, crisis has the ability to provide a window of opportunity to fortify and deepen our relationships. By weathering tragedy, we obtain a greater understanding of the depth of our commitment to and feelings for each other in ways that we never would have access to in our ordinary lives.
Mark Borg, Ph.D., Grant Brenner, M.D., and Daniel Berry, R.N. are the authors of
Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships (a Central
Recovery Press paperback, on sale October 23, 2018) and are practitioners in the mental health field who bring over seven decades of experience working with individuals, couples, families and communities on how to maintain and thrive in loving relationships.
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