Losing a child is likely the worst thing that could possibly happen to a parent. Unfortunately, countless parents encounter that tragedy every day, which often leaves them traumatized and incapacitated by grief. For couples who are together, however, how they manage and express shared grief may significantly play into how they are eventually cope on the long run. According to new research published in Psychological Science, those that try to remain stoic and strong for the sake of their partner tend to suffer most and cope least well while also hurting their spouse.
Most past research on parental coping after the loss of a child focused on individuals rather than couples. In this new study, researchers interviewed 219 couples that had lost a child from stillbirth, illness, an accident, SIDS, suicide or homicide. Parents, who ranged in age from 26 to 68 years old, were asked to say how much they agree with a number of statements such as “I stay strong for my partner,” “I hide my feelings for the sake of my partner,” or “I try to spare my partner’s feelings.” The couples answered these questions at three different time points—six, thirteen and twenty months—following the loss of their child.
The researchers were attempting to tease out a phenomenon called Partner-Oriented Self-Regulation, or the way in which couples either avoid discussing their shared loss or attempt to remain strong for the other. Many people assume that this strategy helps to alleviate grief, but in this experiment the researchers found that people who behaved according to Partner-Oriented Self-Regulation not only increased their own grief but also increased their partner’s pain, too.
Exerting excessive effort to regulate and contain our emotions, feelings, thoughts and behavior exacts interpersonal as well as individual costs, they explain. Too much self regulation depletes a person’s ability to dedicate energy to other facets of life, like maintaining good health and accomplishing goals. The researchers compare this effect to a muscle that becomes fatigued and gives out after too much vigorous exercise.
Ultimately, partners who try to maintain this level of self regulation may not be able to cope with the loss of their child, the researchers continue. Moreover, the other partner may interpret the stoic facade as meaning their spouse lacks actual grief, or is not accepting of painful feelings. The researchers suggest that professionals keep an eye out for this problem in couples undergoing bereavement counseling, and encourage them to share their grief rather than keep it bottled up.
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