Not knowing if your loved one is alive or dead absent or present, knowing or needing you is painfully traumatic. It is the suffering faced when soldiers are missing in action, thousands of bodies vanished after 9/11, a child is kidnapped, a partner is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and most recently, it is the anguish facing thousands of Japanese people as they search or wait for news of loved ones.
In my work with couples and families after 9/11, their inability to verify the death of loved ones created longing, hopes and often complicated grieving. At the beginning, many held off on funeral services, children refused to believe that Daddy wasn’t coming home, some went to psychics, many had a similar dream –“The doorbell rings and she/he is back – looking like they once did. ‘Where have you been?’ The dreamer is relieved and overjoyed … then wakes.”
It was never easy but most found the resiliency to move forward again. How? How do you cope with unresolved loss?
Pauline Boss, who has worked for years with those whose loss has no finality, identifies this as ‘Ambiguous Loss’ in her 2006 book Loss, Trauma and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss. She underscores that in these cases traumatic loss is intensified by fear, confusion, immobilization and a lack of closure.
Drawing upon Pauline Boss’s valuable contributions, here are some ideas for caring for yourself, your partner and others in the face of such loss:
Connection vs. Closure
In the face of unverified or ambiguous loss, people often feel persistent emotional pain because they can not get closure- there is no known end, no body to bury. An approach that fosters healing is to seek connection instead of closure.
Whereas unresolved traumatic loss often isolates, connection with others who share a similar pain recreates a sense of belonging. For the couple with a missing child, those waiting to hear of lost relatives, those coping with Traumatic Brain Injury of a partner, being with others who have faced such suffering offers a place to bear witness to the fear, anger and grieving. There is a normalizing of reactions and a reduction of feelings of shame and …
A long-distance relationship or LDR is typically an intimate relationship that takes place when the partners are separated by a considerable distance. No one is geographically undesirable anymore but many are geographically challenged with the goal of maintaining love at a distance.
There are 115,000 troops in Iraq with an anticipated 34,000 more to be sent as support to Afghanistan. That leaves a lot of Home Fires burning. There’s the man I met on a plane who couldn’t retire or sell his house as planned so he spends half the week in Phoenix and half with his wife in Florida. There are those caught in the cycle of visa regulations; those who need medical treatment far from home and those who stay in different places to accommodate children’s school calendars. In addition, there are the many couples who have “met” online and for whom long distance is the original context of their relationship.
Whether by choice or necessity, long distance relationships bring stress and possibility. Whether you are geographically at a distance from your partner or you feel like you have a long distance relationship with the partner sitting next to you, it is worth asking: What improves love at a distance? What damages it?
Why Are We Doing This?
The reason that a couple is at a distance will affect their expectations, their responses and the impact on their relationship. Did you choose the situation together? Are you dealing with a situation that life put on your path? Are you in a new long-distance on-line relationship with hidden expectations that one or the other will relocate?
Clarification Together of why you are in a LDR , the logistics, the timeline, the feelings and the expectations, eliminates hidden hurt and resentment and opens up the decision making process. Think of it as an on-going process:
“But if you are semi retired – why are you traveling two weeks a month?”
“But you have already been deployed twice – how can we do this again?”
Feeling helpless in the face of increased distance or changed time-lines partners understandably lose the focus and have to blame someone. Too often, they blame each other. A process …
While recently waiting on line in a crowded store, I overheard a bit of a friendly, flirty conversation between two young cashiers. The young man asked the young woman something. I couldn’t hear her answer, but I did hear his response back,
“Does the way you just said “NO” really mean “YES?”
He’s certainly not the only one confused. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that saying “ NO” or hearing “NO” can be complicated. Regardless of whether the issue is sexual, financial, or food related, there are times when you really don’t want to say “NO”- but you do. There are times when you just can’t say “NO” – so you don’t. There are times when you can’t tolerate his/her “NO” and won’t let it go and there are times when you need the shirt that says “What part of “NO” Don’t You Understand?”
“Does problem solving in a relationship mean that someone is always giving up or giving in?” We hope not!
A couple’s ability to address issues and problems that emerge between them or are thrust upon them by life is an important part of their resiliency and functioning as a couple.
Many couples rally in the face of acute trauma in a way that even surprises them. Some couples report doing fine in day to day decision making until crisis hits. Most couples can look back to some issue that they feel they problem solved in a way that works for both.
What works? What gets in the way? What are the ingredients in effective problem solving as a couple?
As a preface to problem solving as a couple it is worth considering:
Not Everything Should Be Problem Solved Together!
The attempt to problem-solve everything as a couple would be unbearable. Most couples have developed an often unspoken agreement about taking care of their own needs and/or deferring to each other in a way that works most of the time. She handles the food shopping, he cooks. She sets up the social calendar, he researches vacations. If there are kids, she may cover the homework, he does the car pooling, etc. If it works – don’t fix it. If, however, either partner is unhappily compliant or collecting resentments – it doesn’t work.
Respect and Utilize the Similarities and Differences
The best solutions to problems evolve from people who respect each other and capitalize on their similarities and differences. When we speak about individual resiliency, we often consider traits as: intelligence, creativity, social skills, athletic ability, empathy, artistic talents, analytic perspective, attention to details, resourcefulness, persistence, patience, organizational skills, spirituality etc. Couples often find that it is the mix of their similarities and differences that work to their great advantage.
Thinking about you and your partner, take a look at the traits listed above. List those you share and those for which you differ. Now underline those traits (both similar and different) that are very beneficial when pulled together for problem solving.
Process vs. Perfect Solutions
It makes sense to …