A New York Times article on Jan. 7, 2005 reported on grieving parents in Sri Lanka who lost children in the Southeast Tsunami. It describes a couple. The mother, pictured with a group of women, is crying and talking about her daughters. The father, who feels there is no value in dwelling on loss, asserts that “this is no time to give up” and focuses his energy on rebuilding the family home.
Their reactions speak to a gender stereotype that is perhaps crosscultural – in the face of traumatic loss, women need to speak about what has happened, men need to do something about what happened.
Do men and women react differently to trauma? Yes. Does it mean one suffers more than the other? No. Do the differences confuse and often create more tension for couples? Too often.
In their 2006 review of 25 years of research on sex differences in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in the Psychological Bulletin, David Tolin and Edna Foa reported that although men have a higher risk for traumatic events, women suffer from higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. In their analysis they suggest that the different rates of PTSD may actually be a function of the fact that men and women manifest their emotional pain in different ways.
In the aftermath of a traumatic event, women are more likely to have feelings of anxiety and depression, while men are more likely to express distress and depression in terms of irritability, anger and increased alcohol consumption.
Adding to these gender differences are other factors that affect any person’s reaction to a traumatic event. They include the type of traumatic event (sexual assault, for example, is more likely to cause PTSD than many other events), the intensity, proximity and amount of time a person must endure an event (extended deployments, witnessing loss of buddies, extended time trapped in a disaster situation increase the reaction to trauma), childhood history, earlier traumas and the meaning of the trauma to a person.
When she suffered a miscarriage in the beginning of her third month, Lynn was devastated. Then in her late 30s, she was worried that this might be her only chance to have a child. Often unable to concentrate or sleep, she would ruminate and blame herself for waiting until her career was set before starting a family.
Lynn was further upset by her husband Mike’s reaction. He was upset by the loss but he seemed confident that there would be other chances. Lynn wondered why he wasn’t blaming himself for their decision to wait to have kids. When she questioned him about this, he felt that she was blaming and judging him, and this often led to tension and fighting.
—(Excerpt from Healing Together: A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress, p.15)
Caught in the physical and emotional pain from a traumatic loss or event, couples often have very little patience for differences. It is hard for them to believe that their partner could feel differently. It is even more difficult to believe that their partner could feel the same and react so differently.
Marie just could not stop telling the story of the hurricane that had destroyed their house and their belongings and almost killed her and Chris, her husband of six months. She would repeatedly go into detail about how they had to swim out the front door, how she got caught on debris and Chris had to go underwater to untangle her. The problem was that, every time she described the trauma of that night, Chris felt thrown back into it—the panic, the fear that he would lose her, the near-drowning. To cope with the feelings, he would walk into another room or go outside.
Not understanding the impact that she was having on him, Marie resented his pulling away whenever she retold the experience. She wondered why he wouldn’t want to be close to her at those times. Not recognizing that Marie’s repetitive descriptions were a desperate attempt to calm herself down, Chris felt isolated and ignored. Neither recognized the effect of their necessary but different coping styles.
—Excerpt from Healing Together p.19
The couples described above are struggling – not because they did not have a good relationship, were not strong or were never truly in love. They are struggling because the nature of trauma is that it catches you off guard and sets in motion an attempt to survive. You don’t get to prepare for it. It does not mean you won’t cope or can’t heal. It just means that in the midst of fear, confusion and differences you will learn things you never knew about yourself, your partner and your capacity to cope.
- Men and women actually have different reactions in the aftermath of trauma.
- Many different factors can affect the meaning and reaction to trauma in anyone.
- Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time – there is no right way.
- When in doubt don’t assume the worst about your partner- assume you don’t know.
- Curiosity about the impact of your reactions on your partner is more likely to improve things than criticism about the impact of his or her reactions on you.
Celebrate the differences. Sometimes the best traveling companion in life is someone who sees and reacts to things in a way that eases and fosters your journey