"We Almost Lost Our Marriage to Hurricane Katrina"

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The Counselor's Turn

"A life-altering trauma such as Hurricane Katrina can wreak havoc on even a good marriage," said the counselor. "Although Sue and Bob were dealing well with the overwhelming practical aspects of recovery, they had underestimated the emotional toll it would take on them, both individually and as a couple. Raised in families where hard work was expected and complaining frowned upon, they focused on their children's well-being and ignored their own. Yet when someone is in emotional pain, the spillover into the marriage is inevitable. Now that they were settling down into more normal routines, feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear engulfed them, triggering arguments over issues large and small.

"My first goal was to help them appreciate and accept that what they were experiencing was normal -- albeit a 'new normal' that could last a long time. This couple was not on the brink of divorce, but their marriage was slowly being eroded and they needed to find ways to reconnect physically and emotionally.

"Everyone reacts differently to stress, depending on inborn temperament as well as upbringing and life experiences. These two had always been resilient, so their difficulty coping upset them all the more. I explained that once an initial shock wears off, and the adrenaline that helps in a crisis ebbs, the reality of loss takes hold. Whenever someone is displaced even temporarily and separated from friends, neighbors, schools, or jobs, family conflict inevitably increases. 'The emotional support we reap from these associations is huge,' I noted, 'and its absence can lead to everything from irritability and sleeping problems to anxiety, indecisiveness, and decreased intimacy.' It's common to feel that just after moving two steps forward, you're one step behind.

"'Give yourselves, and your kids, time to heal,' I advised. A large part of my work involved simply listening and gently prodding the conversation while they spoke about their sadness and learned what the other needed. We focused on simple accomplishments. 'Pace yourself,' I advised. 'Examine what you did today -- you renewed that driver's license, you secured a loan -- and celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. That way you'll fret less about what remains on your to-do list.' Although the big decision about whether to move back to New Orleans remained unresolved, we discussed how they could take control of situations that were compounding their stress. For starters, Sue needed regular acknowledgment from Bob of just how hard her job was. In turn, he needed some emotional space when he returned home at the end of a demanding week on the road.

"This conversation led to one about how difficult it is for proud people like Sue and Bob to accept help from others. I asked how it felt to assist those in need, and they agreed that being of service was incredibly satisfying. 'That's a very important part of the human equation,' I noted. 'By accepting help from others, you're giving them that same satisfaction.' We talked about the importance of strengthening bonds in their new community. In New Orleans they had always hosted a Fourth of July barbecue, so they revisited that tradition, using it to thank their neighbors and get to know them. 'We had a full house,' said Bob. 'We served turkey gumbo and hamburgers -- something Southern and something Northern.' Several couples have reciprocated by inviting the family to join them at their homes or for boat rides on a nearby lake. Another offered Sue a part-time job managing his medical practice. The girls were able to meet new families and have started to babysit for neighbors, which boosts their self-esteem."

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, continued


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