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Anger After Trauma: Relationships as Collateral Damage

Posted Feb 17 2012 7:26am

Most of us have heard about or even known a couple whose relationship has become strained and even broken in the aftermath of trauma. Why? Because in the aftermath of an unthinkable event that involves tragic loss, there is an overflow of feelings and reactions. Often the partners don’t know where to put their pain. We have seen in our work with couples that the relationship often becomes the locus of that pain.

A primary feeling that people deal with and couples face after trauma is anger. After trauma, anger can be tripped by many sources and can reflect different reactions including hyperarousal, disguised grief or masked depression. Often it is driven by the feeling that someone has to be blamed.

Given that traumatic events are unexpected assaults on our sense of mortality, predictability, safety and control, there is often a desperate need to re-establish the illusion of control. If someone or something can be blamed then perhaps the pain and the loss were preventable. The unspoken blame for losing a child, getting shot, being in the accident, not preparing for the tornado or even getting sick is often manifested in blame and fighting between the couple.

Adding to this angry lashing out at home is often actually meant for someone else – the family, the doctor, the army, but has been displaced to the safest person we know – the person suffering next to us – our partner.

When couples are able to understand the interplay of anger and trauma, they are able to begin to step back from triggers. They start to realize that their reactions are responses to the trauma they have suffered rather than indictments of each other.

An example of the impact of anger on a couple and the importance of “ Making meaning” or understanding the cause of the anger is reflected in the situation of Hal and Marsha.

Hal and Marsha were struggling to survive the death of their 19-year-old son from a drug overdose. Both had just seemed to crawl through the first six months after his death going through the motions of living. Now, it seemed to Hal that either they were arguing all the time or that the house was so silent that it was hard not to assume that Marsha was angry with him for something. Everything and anything could lead to an argument and when not interrupted each was likely to lash out and say things they would later regret. Each had some awareness that they were angry about what had happened and needed the other’s support and forgiveness but neither had any idea how to interrupt the negative spiral they were caught in.

Interestingly each had forgotten that their relationship had always been rather volatile. They had fought often about trivial things but had always managed to kiss and make up without looking back. Those fights, however, rarely led to the kind of personal lashing out that was occurring now. They needed to understand and learn to control this destructive fighting before greater damage was done to their relationship.

At the suggestion of another teacher and close friend of Marsha’s at work, Marsha began to read some booklets about traumatic loss of a loved one. She shared it with Hal. They read about trauma and anger and began to understand how when stressed, negative feelings of any kind often trip associations to angry feelings and actions. Just this little bit of information began to shift things at home. While they still could not talk calmly together about their son, at least they were on the same side as they tried to understand the painful reactions to their unimaginable loss.

They were like a “research team” looking on-line, cutting things out of the paper. Eventually they could get closer to reading more specifically about what had happened- they began to look at substance abuse and drug related deaths. While learning more about their son’s death reduced the tension and anger somewhat, arguments of course still occurred.  The time they had spent “trying to understand,” however, had actually given them shared non-reactive time and drawing upon that experience, they agreed to set some ground rules for expressing anger. They called it “going over the line” and agreed that either of them could announce that “We are over the line” and they would tone it down or stop until they could talk about whatever it was more calmly.  (Excerpt from Healing Together: A Couple’s Guide to Healing from Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress) 

As with Hal and Marsha, this is a painful journey that couples never plan to take. When they begin to pay attention to their feelings and behavior, think about it and understand the possible causes, they restore a sense of “ we.” They have the potential to support each other, draw upon their strengths and begin to heal together.

Veteran with tours during Desert Storm,Bosnia,Kosovo,Iraqtwice.  Husband, Father, Grandfather.  All that by the age of 50!

Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, certified group therapist and Adjunct Full Professor of Clinical Psychology at C W Post Campus of Long Island University,  N.Y. She has worked and published in many areas including  trauma, couples, bereavement, and relationship addiction.  As Co-Chair of Outreach for the American Group Psychotherapy Association, she has intervened after disaster  both nationally and internationally.  In February 2008, she testified before Congress for the needs of military and their families. She is co-author of  Healing Together: A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress .  She has appeared on national TV ( Good Day New York and Good Day Fox 5 Street Talk) as well as on Radio ( Mel Robbins, Pam and Rochelle and Kelley Robbins Women on Health). She blogs weekly on Psych Central “ Healing for Couples ” as well as “ This Emotional Life .”  Visit Dr. Phillips on .

Dianne Kane, D.S.W., LCSW, C.G.P., is an Associate Professor at Hunter School of Social Work, Assistant Director of Counseling Services for the New York City Fire Department, and Founding Member of The New York Center for Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. She has been involved in the development and delivery of employee assistance and trauma-related services to uniform personnel and their families since 1994. Following the loss of 343 FDNY members on 9/11 she was responsible for the rapid expansion of trauma and bereavement services to the 15,000-member FDNY community. This included an innovative approach to dealing with the impact of trauma on the marriages of surviving responders. In addition, Dr. Kane has provided services to members of the New Orleans Fire Department following Hurricane Katrina and to FDNY veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. She is co-author of  FDNY Crisis Counseling: Innovative Responses to 9/11 Firefighters, Families, and Communities  and  Healing Together: A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-traumatic Stress .

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