Earthquakes and Relationships

Christchurch and Canterbury have taken a beating over this past year, and the sentiment, “I’m just over it”, is frequently expressed by many. Because this natural disaster was not a one-off event, but multiple – and extended over a prolonged period of time – this can be very wearying to our neurochemical and psychological systems. Just a few of the common reactions to such a disaster would include grief over the loss of a loved one, a home, or possessions; flashbacks of the event; difficulties with sleep/nightmares; anxiety regarding future quakes; feeling intolerant and easily irritated; feeling emotionally numbed; and experiencing varying degrees of fraughtness within intimate relationship settings. Traumatic events, whether natural or man-made can call into question some basic assumptions about how the world ticks and our level of safety within it. The way we view our future, how we view ourselves, and what is the meaning of life, are sometimes brought into question following a catastrophe. Expectations of potential harm, betrayal, or danger may follow a traumatic experience. Thus, allowing ourselves to be emotionally close or intimate with another may evoke anxiety within that relationship.

These reactions can all impact to varying degrees upon the way we may relate to our loved ones, friends, and work colleagues. Within an adult relationship where emotional communication and intimacy is of prime importance, if one or both partners are experiencing the various effects of trauma and loss – and the more prolonged the trauma, the more likely we may be affected – then the relationship could over time begin to experience difficulties. Following trauma, the ability to manage our emotional reactions can be compromised, as can the way we process information. Hence, we may sometimes respond with rage, or simply shut down – like an “all or nothing” reaction. Often there is the complaint, “I just can’t think”, or “My brain’s gone to mush”; not only might this be frustrating for our partner, but can also further undermine the partner who is struggling to problem-solve or make a decision about a matter which in normal circumstances would be straightforward.

As a result of trauma, we may “regress” emotionally; this means emotions may be expressed in some physical way (eg stomach pain or headache), or we may become more avoidant and “locked-down”. Whereas emotions would ordinarily act as a signal that steers a couple towards communicating with each other, now one partner may complain that the other is emotionally distant, and express increasing frustration about the loss of emotional connection that they can no longer depend upon the other to make important decisions. On the other hand, the traumatised partner’s intention may be to protect their loved one from their painful emotions and experiences.

Despite these tensions, the relationship is also likely to hold the key to recovery. When an understanding is established of how trauma can impact upon us and why we may behave and react differently to our usual selves, this can provide a very important platform upon which a couple can begin to realise that their relationship has a resiliency that can foster change and recovery. Being able to reduce feelings of shame, guilt, and blame leaves room for the couple to realise that their relationship has a capacity to recoup the intimacy they once had. And sometimes, not uncommonly, the traumatic event and its emotional and psychological consequences may act as a catalyst for a relationship to develop a closer emotional connection than was there prior to the event.

Every couple will have their own unique ways of responding to the impact of a trauma upon their relationship. It is important to keep in mind that it is hard to live with someone who is frequently irritable, angry, depressed, anxious, or disconnected. In time a partner may run out of patience and energy, and feel despair. And the afflicted partner may experience guilt and shame, their sense of personal integrity diminished.

A key step to ease tensions and protect loved ones is to let them know what has happened to you. Your partner needs to know what you have been through, and where you are right now. And although you may not have sorted all that out, it is helpful for a partner to receive some kind of progress reports along the way.

The following suggestions may be a helpful guide to keeping your partner “in touch”:

  • Describe what you basically experienced, but keep it simple. Bear in mind that too much detail may overwhelm your partner.
  • Whilst making this effort to keep your partner informed, try to maintain realistic expectations. It is very easy to assume that, because you have been together in a relationship for a period of time, that somehow, magically, your partner will “know” or understand what is going on for you.
  • When describing the experience, try and focus more upon what the event meant to you – that is, describe your reactions and feelings, as opposed to an overload of factual details about the event.
  • Keep updating loved ones about your continuing reactions. Again, keep it simple – eg “I saw it again last night”, when describing a nightmare or flashback; and, once more, try and describe the emotional effects of that nightmare, eg “And when it happens like that, I just freeze up”. And, hopefully, your partner is able to listen, and be genuinely sympathetic, not be judgemental or cynical.
  • Informing your partner that when you emotionally “disappear”, or become angry or sad, that this is your way of trying to control yourself; that it is not a reflection of how you feel about your partner.

Telling your partner how your feelings or reactions interfere with your relationship with them conveys powerfully the message that, despite the on-going challenges, you are invested in wanting to preserve your relationship. Don’t be hesitant in asking how your behaviour affects them, and what you may be able to do to help alleviate their levels of stress:

  • Tell them what you are doing to get better, and if there is anything that your partner could do to help.
  • Whilst you may ask your partner to be patient during the recovery, you also need to be able to accommodate and be patient regarding your partner’s own struggles during this time.

There are many other ways you might reassure and “keep on board” your loved ones whilst making your recovery. One important strategy might be to follow an appropriate stress-management programme. (This is a topic in itself and there is insufficient space to address this in the current article).

These suggestions may go some way towards assisting in emotionally reconciling a relationship which has been affected by a very disturbing life event. Once a couple can create a sense of safety within their relationship, partners can begin to relax somewhat, and the potential for emotional reconnection gradually increases. Fundamentally, it is about partners being able to afford each other some “room to move”, thus diminishing the risk of recurring emotional impasses and hurts.

Alan Prosser is a clinical psychologist who works with adults and adolescents on a wide range of issues including trauma-related issues and couples therapy. You can learn more about him and his work at


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