How to make your relationship stronger after a miscarriage
People often have the assumption that my profession as a couples therapist must mean that I have the healthiest and most mature relationship. And that assumption is spot-on. Just kidding. While I do believe I have a generally healthy and loving relationship, my husband and I have difficulties just like any other couple would. A miscarriage, however, does not fall in the realm of "difficulties." No, a miscarriage is a trauma and trauma can rock even the strongest and "healthiest" of couples. It certainly rocked my relationship.
You know that cliché saying "This can either make or break you?" Well, when it comes to your relationship after miscarriage, this statement has a kernel of truth in it. Research suggests that relationship satisfaction can significantly decline and that couples are at a higher risk for separation after a miscarriage. Author Kristen Swanson, a professor of family and child nursing writes "When miscarriage affects couples it may stimulate growth or unearth the inability to support each other through troubled times."
Part of what can drive a couple apart after a miscarriage is their vastly different experience of the loss. Any kind of loss or trauma impacts us differently based on our backgrounds, personalities, culture, etc. Additionally, while both partners in a miscarriage certainly can experience a sense of loss, objectively, the partner whose body miscarried is the one who experiences the physical symptoms of pregnancy and miscarriage and, subsequently, must deal with the physical toll that a miscarriage or surgery has on her body. For many women, growing the baby inside of them certainly increases the bond and connection they have with their pregnancy. Their partners do not have access to this aspect of a miscarriage and thus may need some guidance in understanding what their partner is going through.
Additionally, while both partners will certainly have their own emotional reactions to this loss, this again may differ. One partner may feel angry, while another will feel sad. Additionally, partners may have different interpretations of the magnitude of the loss. For many women, they become a mother the minute that pregnancy test says positive. They make lifestyle changes, giving up things they enjoy for the good of their child from alcohol to rock climbing. They already start experiencing some of the familiar tides of parenthood such as fatigue and an intense desire to protect this little one growing inside of them. While some partners may also instantly feel that connection to their child, for many partners that are not carrying their child, they become a parent the minute they meet their baby in the delivery room.
What allows a couple to move towards growth after the trauma of a miscarriage? The answer is: C.A.R.E.
Curiosity: Approach your partner with curiosity. Seek to understand what their experience is like without making assumptions such as "He won't get it because he didn't carry the baby." I often will ask my couples in therapy, "Do you want to be married or do you want to be right?" This can be amended to "Do you want to be in this relationship, or do you want to be right?" If the answer is the former, then use compassionate curiosity to understand what they are feeling. While my husband and I certainly had different reactions to the miscarriage, through discussions imbued with curiosity I was surprised to hear how much being a father meant to my husband and how much he mourned the loss that he didn't have that chance at least for now.
Acknowledge: Acknowledge and respect that your partner may be at a different place than you or have different needs than you. For example, I am the type that needs to talk about what I am feeling ALL THE TIME. I clearly found the right calling as a therapist. My husband, on the other hand, certainly wanted to offer me all the space I needed to process what I was feeling, but what he needs at times is having some distance and distraction from our loss. And when that occurred, he would gently share with me that he was there with me and wanted to talk about this, but that he needed some time to process his own feelings on a run and would be happy to continue this conversation later. I appreciated my husband sharing what he needed and this gave me a gentle nudge I needed to engage in some self-soothing exercises such as journaling.
Rituals: Find ways to increase closeness. After a trauma, a couple can experience disconnection and isolation within their relationship. It is important to be mindful of this and to create opportunities for closeness and support. Couples expert and researcher, John Gottman, states that rituals are a great way of increasing connection in a relationship. For example, if couples wanted to develop a ritual around the miscarriage, it could be journaling together every Sunday or reading a chapter of a book on miscarriage together every other night. Other rituals for connection include doing morning yoga together or having dinner every night. Essentially, a ritual of connection is a consistent habit or activity you engage in with your partner designed to increase closeness and connection.
Explore and explain your individual experiences. As mentioned, you and your partner's experience of the miscarriage may vary widely and even if it doesn't, it is so important for you to take the time to explore and explain to your partner what you are feeling and what you need. It's hard and confusing making sense of what is going on in your mind after this loss, but even saying that is enough to help your partner know where you are at. Some questions to begin this conversation include: What has been your experience of our miscarriage?, What can I do to support you further?, and What have you learned about yourself after our miscarriage?
Taking these proactive steps for your relationship whether it is through beginning intentional conversations about your individual experiences, finding new opportunities for closeness or whatever support suits your relationship can make a world of difference for years to come.