A friend of mine recently asked me for my thoughts about the process of recovering relationships after a particularly disruptive and emotionally demanding situation. Specifically, how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together after a crisis has demanded all of our time and energy and focus and resources to be focused on something other than the “us”? In the aftermath of the storm, what happens then? How do we process who we’ve become on the other side while still holding the relationship together?
The answer to this question is a little complicated in that “recovery” as a process is largely contingent on two principle factors: the crisis context, and the individual resiliency of the relationship members. (I’m going to deliberately leave aside the issue of recovering from infidelity; in my not-so-humble opinion, the definitive work on recovering from that particular crisis is Janis Abram-Spring‘s book, “After the Affair”.)
Context is difficult to address as a general factor. One partner losing a job or dealing with an extended period of unemployment is a very different kind of crisis than, say, the death of a child or the diagnosis of a debilitating or fatal illness in a child or a partner. Different contexts paired with differing resiliencies (which will determine our coping strategies) often define what kinds of support we NEED to navigate both crisis and recovery… but don’t tell us what happens when we lack those resources.
Relationships are, ideally, organic and evolutionary things, in that they are meant to change over time (individual resistances to change notwithstanding). What a crisis situation does, potentially, is to force some kind of emotionally intense change on the relationship in a relatively short period of time; it often happens without warning, and therefore with little or no preparation (emotional or otherwise). The speed and degree of crisis will strain even strong and healthy relationships; in dysfunctional ones, crisis exacerbates whatever weaknesses already exist and strains what little tolerance we have for upheaval to, and sometimes past, breaking points.
Navigating recovery also looks different when the precipitating crisis was about something internal the relationship that disrupted or threatened default expectations about the attachment (discovering a partner is a drug user or alcoholic, spent all your joint savings on a questionable investment without consulting you, or is not-so-closeted Trump Supporter, for example), versus something that happened external to the relationship that managed to impact all members of the relationship to some degree (losing a job or being required to uproot and move across the continent for a job, or sudden issues with extended family members, for example).
It’s a common thing to hear people describe how their relational communication either saves or burns them in crisis situations. We already know that our communication skills are generally only as good as our ability to know what it is we’re trying to communicate in the first place, so there’s no way to know if in a crisis we’ll magically transcend our general day-to-day patterns or not. Therefore, in the post-crisis-recovery stage, it’s a reasonable assumption that whatever we were able to do under extreme circumstances will revert to whatever our baseline interactive styles were, after the fact.
Sometimes, having seen how we can band together and work well in crisis, makes that post-crisis reversion a lot harder to bear. Sometimes, if we don’t navigate the crisis itself terribly well, it really drives home the parts of the relationship that don’t work effectively in ways that we can no longer easily ignore. Either way, afterwards, things are often different, and many people don’t know what to do when confronting differences that don’t point towards the relationship being “better, stronger, faster” for having survived the storm.
There are some really important things to remember or consider from a relational standpoint when we’re confronting the aftermath of a storm:
Everybody’s wrung out and exhausted. This means very few of us are at cognitive functioning’s peak capacity. After any kind of exertion, bodies and brains need a break. There may be day-to-day necessities that must be addressed, but no-one’s going to be doing them gracefully in the aftermath. Cut yourself and your partner(s) some slack for a while to be less than “on”.
Recovery times vary. Just because you and your partner(s) are ostensibly in the same relationship, that’s never going to guarantee we all process events, crisis and otherwise, the same way to the same degree or in the same time frame. You may be ready and raring to go with a good night’s sleep; someone else may be weeks in the recovery trough before they can poke their heads back up. Make sure you check your assumptions that other crisis parties will be working “just like you” in the aftermath.
“Recovery” may mean different things to different people. Even if you came through the same set of circumstances together, everyone may see the situation differently, and there may be differences in how each of you responds to the crisis. It’s safe, therefore, to assume that recovery will look and play out differently to all involved. In the counselling room we see a variety of responses to crisis, from utter emotional chaos to absolute emotional disconnection–sometimes in the same relationship. Sometimes one party falls apart while another steps up to deal with the logistical details to pull everyone through the crisis; in the aftermath, one party may need therapy, and the other needs an equal opportunity to fall apart in a delayed emotional response. Maybe they both need therapy. Maybe there’s a grief or health-recovery process involved (how many of us catch a cold or other transient sickness once a period of stress eases off?) Some partners need to keep talking to process what happened, while others just want to forget or let go and move on, leaving the turmoil of crisis times in the rearview as quickly as possible.
Even if crisis brought us closer together in the moment, recovery might not keep us there afterward. Tied to the idea that recovery might mean different things, is the idea that who we are in crisis does not always indicate who we are, or might become, in the aftermath. If partners have differing tolerance for emotional intensity, for example, then what they are willing to handle during a crisis might be far more intensity and vulnerability afterwards, so they retreat; it’s safer, it demands less, it’s familiar and predictable than trying to integrate and sustain what we managed to handle during the storm. We perhaps communicated with great purpose and clarity when the situation demanded our full attention, but left to our own devices we see that as being too much work, too much vulnerability, too much of something we don’t want to face even without the pressure of a crisis.
Navigation in the aftermath is, obviously, not going to be an easy thing.
As with any kind of change process introduced into a relationship framework, there are some strategies that might ease the strain change will introduce.
Offer your partner(s) opportunity to reflect with you on what happened: what went well through the crisis, what you would all want to do differently in future, what you might need to do to improve resilience as individuals or as a relationship.
Discuss what each of you needs for recovery, and how best to go about getting those needs addressed effectively. This is especially crucial if you discover you need different things. If one of you needs to talk and the other just needs to forget, for example, then clearly there won’t be a lot of comfort, and possibly a lack of consent, to force “talk processing” on unwilling or unavailable partners.
Discuss expectations. Once you have all articulated recovery needs, make a plan for what meeting those needs can look like, so that everyone knows what part they can or need to play, what costs might affect the relationship, what kinds of interactions might be required (especially if they are different from pre-crisis norms). This is a negotiation process; we all have expectations for ourselves and those around us, but those around us may not always be aware of those expectations, which makes it challenging for them to meet us in them. Maybe they can help us address our underlying needs but NOT in the way we expect. It’s most useful if we can allow openness to how our needs get addressed as a collaborative process; a partner may not be able to meet our expectation exactly as expressed, but if they know what need we’re tying an expectation to, they may be able to suggest an alternative that works for everyone. And especially on the heels of a potentially resource-exhausting crisis, this negotiation process may be extra-challenging. Be patient and gentle all around. As you wouldn’t push someone in recovery from surgery to commit to doing too much too fast, don’t push anyone recovering from an emotional or relational crisis that way, either.
Recognize that intimacy and vulnerability are choices we make every day, sometimes moment-to-moment. If the crisis was something that introduced or increased distance in a relationship, then it can be hard to feel like we want to come back into connection afterward. If we feel unsupported or abandoned by our partners through a crisis situation, we’re going to have to find ways of articulating and addressing that hurt–even if we consciously choose to not make an issue of it ourselves and just “forgive and forget”–before we can focus on the relationship or reconnection. There may have to be some emotional work done to figure out why a partner wasn’t where we needed or expected them to be in crisis, and we may have to balance our own hurt/disappointment/frustration with understanding why they couldn’t be in the fire with us as we wanted them to be. At the end of the day, though, we each choose for ourselves whether we sustain the distance exacerbated by crisis, or introduce connection bids and repair attempts.
Crisis can introduce a lot of upheaval in a very short period of time; crisis recovery by design happens at a slower pace, allowing for reflection and redefinition, and retooling of current process where necessary. Knowing whether all parties involved are even starting from the same place in defining what is or is not a crisis is the first step in determining how best to get clear of stormy waters and into a calmer state. Give yourselves time, then work out what directions you need to go, individually and as a relationship, at a pace you can each sustain. Don’t allow crisis recovery processes to become the trigger for another round of crisis!