I’m very worried about my husband. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with a degenerative terminal illness a few months ago.
Obviously this is a very difficult thing, and everybody responds to this sort of thing differently, but I am worried because my husband seems to be in denial about what’s going on. He was always very close to her, and is even involved in her care, but he is so cold and removed about things.
I keep trying to get him to open up and communicate, but it keeps backfiring and he either starts changing the subject, or actually leaves the room. Sometimes he will even start to yell at me.
Should I try to get him to see a therapist?
Dear Worried Wife,
First of all, I am so sorry to hear about your mother-in-law’s diagnosis. That is a very big deal, and I could see why you would expect your husband to react in a big way. It’s pretty confusing that he’s not…
So let’s see if I can try to make sense of this for you:
You are seeing your husband being closed up and not communicating, right? Well, to me, it looks like he is communicating in a big way. Just without any words.
He is telling you that he is not ready to talk about what he is feeling.
That is because either his feelings are too confusing for him to figure out, or it could be he knows what he is feeling but has to numb himself in order to survive because what he would feel is so painful that it will just take him over.
So it is possible that his cold, uncaring stance is actually coming from a place of intense caring.
His numbness is protective and if we try to take that away from him right now, it could do way more harm than good. Way to add trauma to the grief, right?
So I would say, no, a therapist is not a good idea right now.
If he were wanting to talk, but unsure of his feelings, then a therapist would be good for him.
But if his grief is showing itself in this numb way, we must respect that. And I trust that when it is safe for him to feel, he will. That may not be for another few weeks, months or even years.
It’s obvious that you are doing your best to help him and meet his needs. You were thinking that he needs to open up, and you wanted to help him with that. Now that we see that opening him up will hurt, what next? How in the world are you supposed to be able to meet his needs if he’s not telling you what he needs?
Well, you can meet his needs by filling the most basic one: simply by being there.
You just be there, quietly. This will go a long way. And if he does start to open up with a word here or a sentence there, I want you to catch it.
Catch it by looking at him and just nod your head. Don’t jump on it or ask him to tell you more, and for sure don’t disagree. Make it as safe as you can for him, with as much breathing room as he can have.
Something to notice as you are being there for him: this will take a toll on you. Focusing on meeting his needs will mean that nobody is focusing on meeting yours. That is something that is sure to activate anyone.
You will need to constantly reassure yourself that this is temporary. And it couldn’t hurt to give you some extra attention when he is not around. You may even want to go for therapy yourself, just to get the extra support that you need to be supportive.
And by the way, there may be a point when you should encourage therapy, even if he doesn’t want it. It would be a little later in the game, once the shock of the diagnosis wears off. If you see him losing himself to the point of not functioning for a long period of time, or if he becomes reactively angry in an out of control way, it would be important to get support with that.
Those are normal signs of grief, and are even expected in bits, but if it takes over for a long period of time, it deserves looking into.
That would be the time to validate how he doesn’t want to seek help, while expressing your concern for him.
So there are many ways for you to support him, and you will know the right approach by being attuned to him.
And that starts with taking care of you.
Aviva Rizel, MA, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Aviva maintains a busy private practice in Cedarhurst, NY where she sees couples, families and individuals. She previously served as the Clinical Director of The Five Towns Marriage Initiative. She is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), the most effective, research-based model for strengthening couples’ connections. Aviva is also active in educating therapists and laypeople about EFT. Mrs. Rizel and her husband, Meir Rizel, MS, a Mental Health Counselor, enjoy co-lecturing across the tri-state area together almost as much as they enjoy raising their three children together in Far Rockaway, NY. To reach Aviva, email AvivaRizel.email@example.com or call 347-292-8482 To find out more about Emotionally Focused Therapy, go to iceeft.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.