Dear Patrick: My wife and I were delighted when she conceived our first child. We had so many dreams for the future of this new life. But it wasn’t long before she started getting scary information from her doctor. The prenatal tests were warning us that our baby would not be healthy. We decided that we wanted a child whether he or she was disabled or not. Our son lived only a few days, which we spent in the NICU holding him. We did everything we could to show him that he was safe and he was loved before he left this world.
We grieved for at least a year. I was so afraid my wife would leave me. Both of us felt that it was our fault it had happened, that there was something wrong with us that we passed on to a helpless little baby. We have talked about this over and over again. Both of us claim that we do not blame each other for what happened.
But we can’t seem to have sex any more. She sometimes cries in the middle of the night. She started sleeping in another room (the nursery, actually) so she would not wake me up, even though I told her I wanted her to wake me up if she was crying. Is my wife frightened of getting pregnant again? I would like to have another child; she says, “Of course, “ but continues to avoid me. I miss being close to her. The fact that she no longer seems interested in lovemaking with me makes me feel that she no longer loves me, even though she says that she does.
We are lost. I don’t know how to fix this problem. There is nothing in my workshop that I can hammer or screw together to make our marriage strong again. I thought we could go through anything as long as we had each other. I absolutely do not want a divorce, but if we start leading separate lives, that doesn’t seem much better.
The loss of a child is such a major stressor that many relationships do not survive this tragedy. Even if both of you understand this is nobody’s fault, the human personality craves explanations, heroes, and villains. A woman who blames herself for her child’s illness is just as likely to remove herself from a relationship (if only to punish herself) as a woman who thinks her husband is somehow at fault.
Men and women tend to have slightly different “takes” on the function of sex in a relationship. When she is upset, she probably believes that is a terrible time to make love. She is unlikely to respond positively to a sexual advance unless she believes some progress has been made in solving a conflict or fixing a problem. When a man is upset, if he is even lucky enough to realize that’s what is going on, he may feel that sex is an excellent idea. For him, a spouse or girlfriend who wants to make love with him is also telling him that she loves and cares for him. She is letting him know that she continues to be committed to him. He certainly craves the pleasure of a sexual interaction, but he also wants to reaffirm that the two of you are bonded and making one another a priority. But from her point of view, his interest in sex can seem insensitive and inappropriate.
Most couples spend the bulk of their day apart. Even if both partners work for the same company, work will take their attention away from each other. This means that the opportunity to sleep together is very important for bonding. Climbing into bed together is the most basic form of animal comfort and reassurance. There are exceptions, but I think most people would feel that a mate who moved into his or her own bedroom was also on their way out of the relationship. If the separate bedroom is also accompanied by emotional withdrawal, the feeling of being abandoned can be excruciating.
Grieving is an involuntary process. No outsider has any business telling you how to grieve or when it should be over. However, I think many mental-health professionals would expect you and your wife to feel at least a little bit better about your son’s death. The end of grieving is also involuntary, and oddly enough, the feeling that time is taking away some of the pain can be hard for some people to tolerate. They feel that if they are going to be loyal to the individual that they lost, they should continue to grieve at the same level of intensity. Allowing time to ameliorate that pain is seem as disloyal or proof that one’s love was not strong enough. There may be unconscious fears of completely forgetting the person who was lost.
Why continue to flounder? You have tried everything you can think of to fix this situation. Find a couples counselor with good training, somebody that both of you will respect and trust. Ask your wife to go with you. If she refuses, go by yourself. If your intuition is correct, you may have some difficult choices to make, and I don’t think you should have to do that on your own. An ethical therapist won’t tell you what to do, but they can make it much, much easier to figure out what best represents your values and your needs at this point in your life. Once your wife sees that you are sticking with counseling and hopefully getting something good out of it, she may relent and attend as well.
She has probably been keeping certain things from you while telling herself she is protecting you. (In fact, such secrecy usually only causes suspicion and hurt.) If the counselor can create a safe situation for her, some of this stuff will come out in the open. That may be quite explosive, but it needs to happen before there can be any real healing. This is not a logical, sane, or reasonable situation. When awful things happen, our reaction to a trauma, crisis, or great loss is complex. It brings out the worst and the best in us. It may be that what needs to happen is an expression of feelings that are unreasonable, unfair, illogical, and even downright terrible. Just hang on. Because that’s not where the process ends. After the anger and rejection has run its course, people can once more feel safe to offer each other comfort and love. Or so we hope.
The very worst thing either of you could do right now is have an affair. Even though you have gone without sex for a long time, waiting for her to come back to you, don’t look for comfort elsewhere. She will never forgive you for doing that. But this doesn’t mean you have to stick around indefinitely. Sometimes when a relationship is in crisis, it makes sense to ask yourself, “How much longer can I wait for this to get better?” If you’ve got six months or six weeks left in you, that may be important to say in front of the therapist. It can be a useful reality check that lets your spouse know just how far away you have been driven. A reminder of what is at stake can sometimes kick people into looking a little harder for solutions.