When a soldier comes home from war, the return to civilian life can be extremely challenging. It can feel easier to share openly and deeply with fellow soldiers who know the same battlefield experience than with a spouse.
Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals in hard-hit areas have been compared to warzones. And for some frontliners, it can be hard to go home and connect meaningfully with family after such intense shifts at work.
In the video below, Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD will explain how she would help a client reconnect with their partner, even when they aren’t able to talk about distressing experiences from their job.
Have a listen.
Dr. Lanius: I think we often see certain individuals like soldiers or, I think this is very relevant for the COVID-19 pandemic as well, that they feel almost closer to their buddies who are frontline healthcare workers or soldiers than to their own partner. I think that’s very understandable because as a frontline healthcare worker or as a fellow soldier, these individuals really know what the other person has experienced and so it’s so much easier for them to exchange deep feelings and difficulties with their comrades from work. So often that leads to a lot of tension in their intimate relationships because they can’t share those same deep feelings and experiences because their partner, who hasn’t been part of this work, doesn’t fully understand and they haven’t been there. Often, the partners then complain that the individual has a much closer support network with their fellow soldiers or their fellow frontline healthcare workers and often that can lead to the deterioration of this relationship. I think, as therapists, we have to normalize that for the couple and say, “You know that’s completely normal that you share different experiences with the individual than the individual does with their co-workers, but that doesn’t make the relationship any less meaningful,” to really help them understand how their relationship is still incredibly important and that it’s okay to have two close relationships. In one, you share those deep feelings and deep connections around the work and in the other relationship, you share other deep feelings.
Dr. Buczynski: I would think there’s a way in which that would really be hurtful if it continues to the intimate relationship – not the idea of having two relationships that you’re close to – but the idea that, “I can only share or only feel connected when I’m with the people who went through what I went through. How do you help build back that intimacy with civilians?”
Dr. Lanius: So how do you overcome the difficulty that individuals often face in their intimate relationship if they can’t share those distressing and deep feelings they’ve had at work? I think, again, that’s a process, but I think it’s very doable in many cases. I think it’s working with both partners and really finding out what’s preventing the partner who’s been to the front lines of COVID or the front lines of war, what’s making them anxious to share some of their really distressing feelings with their partner? The person who was at the front line of COVID may say, “Oh it’s so disturbing, I’m afraid that this would really push you over the edge if I talked about this.” And the partner may say, “Well actually no, it wouldn’t push me over the edge. I’d rather hear from you about distressing things than you shut down, detach from me, and leave me out of that part of your life.” Then we can work with the couple and say, “Okay how can you communicate these distressing feelings and both feel safe with that and what pace do we need to go at for you guys to feel safe with that?” Maybe also feeling different forms of connection, and I worked with a couple the other day that were really detached from each other, and they couldn’t communicate in words and so I said to them, “What would it be like if both of you were just to hold your hands?” They were startled at first and it was amazing to see actually once they started to hold each other’s hands, after about five minutes of saying nothing, all of a sudden through that physical connection, words came online and they were able to start communicating with each other and telling each other what had been bothering them and what they needed and how meaningful the relationship actually was to them. So that really taught me, yes, we start with words but also using physical touch between the two partners can be incredibly important to bring words online.
What are your takeaways from this video? Please take a moment now to share in the comments below.
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