Relationship Q&A: Post-9/11 Stress
Q. Since the World Trade Center disaster my husband and I have been bickering constantly. Things have been rocky since our youngest child was born last year, but now we argue about everything! I want to talk about what's happened, but my husband, never much of a communicator, clams up. The only time we talk is when he barks an order at me or criticizes something I've done. When I tell him I refuse to be spoken to that way, he says I'm oversensitive. How can I break this cycle?
A. Many couples, especially those who were already experiencing some marital difficulties, have been reporting increased tension in the wake of the terrorist actions. Even if you didn't know anyone who was directly affected by the attacks in New York and Washington, DC, you are vulnerable. Our universal psychological cushion -- the belief that there is goodness and order to our world -- was torn apart that day and each of us is, and will continue to be, affected by it in ways large and small that are still not clear. We now know that we have to be ready and vigilant for the unexpected. The range of responses to that realization is vast, and all, in a sense, are normal and appropriate. Initial shock and anger at what happened may give way to sadness, frustration, and tension. These are all common reactions to stress.
You may take comfort in talking about how you feel. In fact, some people feel the need to talk again and again about what happened to strangers or people they hardly know; they may also have a greater than usual need to be with others. This emotional sharing helps you assuage your grief and make sense of your world. On the other hand, it sounds as if your husband is keeping his distance and holding onto his feelings -- something he tends to do in other cases. Or like many others, he may be feeling emotionally numb, as if he doesn't care about anything anymore. While it is important that you both respect your individual responses to what has happened, at the same time, recognize that you are both anxious, angry, and unsettled by rational or even irrational fears. You may be more critical of each other, quick to find fault or blame.
Your husband may not even be aware that the tragedy is affecting him in this way. I suggest that you try to help him turn toward, rather than away from you at this time. Instead of storming out of the room when you feel criticized, try to be even more patient than you have been. Gently point out to your husband that his tone of voice or choice of words has hurt you. Remind him of your love and concern. However, make your point when he's ready to listen -- not the minute he walks in the door after work, when he's rushing to the office, or right before he's falls asleep. Suggest a walk and reach for his hand. Rather than assigning blame, acknowledge his feelings, too, and turn the discussion toward working as a team in order to find a solution. Let him know you appreciate his input. By demonstrating respect for his insights and showing faith in your relationship, you encourage him to do the same for you. By all means, consult a professional counselor or your clergyman for help during these difficult times.