Postpartum PTSD: A Step-By-Step Guide For Healing Your Relationship From Birth Trauma

by | Feb 14, 2019 | Depression, Marriage counselling, Stronger Relationships

I

really won the lottery when it comes to my two beautiful daughters.

I am grateful and forever changed for the better since their birth.

However, you might hear me muttering to myself about the not-so-great impact that they have wrought on my marriage! 

Now, don’t get me wrong: they have brought immense joy, a new-found appreciation for our wondrous world, and hope for the future.

However, my girls also brought trouble… the kind of trouble that most couples will experience if they have children.

It is a pretty universal phenomenon that your marital relationship will be different once children arrive on the scene.

It’s not all bad; kids bring smiles, laughter, affection, and that intoxicating baby smell.

But they also impact our ability to relate well to each other.

You don’t need to be a psychotherapist to know that!

It’s clear that children put pressure on relationships.

Birth Trauma and Postpartum PTSD

Today, I’m going to talk about one pressure in particular that, according to this study, can have a long-lasting impact on your relationship.

It is not talked about much in prenatal classes or discussions between pregnant women and experienced parents, but the birth experience can be traumatic.

And it can be traumatic for either person in the relationship, not just the woman giving birth (although it is certainly more commonly the woman).

Birth trauma, which according to the Birth Trauma Association in the UK, often originates from an intense fear that the mother or baby are going to die due to unforeseen complications.

Complications such as excess blood loss, emergency caesareans or sudden dips in baby’s heart-rate can lead to postpartum PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms.

Left unchecked, PTSD can also lead to depressive symptoms.

Understandably, both PTSD and depressive symptoms can negatively impact the quality of our relationship and ultimately our relationship satisfaction.

Strengthen Your Relationship

If you or your partner (either male or female) are still reeling from the effects of a difficult or traumatic birthing experience, I will share 5 steps that you can take to remedy the worst of the trauma.

And a bonus: the following 5 steps can also strengthen your relationship even if you haven’t experienced difficulties with childbirth.

These steps are more like exercises that you and your partner can do, and they can be completed in any order.

I suggest working through them together and jotting down your responses.

This will help you establish your strengths and resources that will help you move past the struggles of a traumatic childbirth.

It will also give you something to look back on during other times of struggle or relational hardship. 

And I want to reassure you of one thing: these steps are going to be easier than you think because we’re not going to relive the trauma.

Instead, we’re going to focus on the non-trauma – we’re going to talk about your strengths and successes as a couple.

Think of yourselves as a united pair, dos amigos who are locked arm-in-arm against the relationship dissatisfaction brought to your life by depression, postpartum PTSD, or trauma. 

So, grab a pen and a pad of paper, and let’s get started! 

1. Be aware of the effects of a traumatic birth and PTSD

When it comes to PTSD and traumatic experiences, knowing that this particular experience – a traumatic birth – is a big source of emotional stress for one or both partners is hugely helpful to a person’s recovery.

Understanding that these postpartum PTSD symptoms are a normal response to incredibly stressful circumstances that makes it easier to understand what is going on in your relationship.

Understanding what is going on also allows for one of my favourite therapy tricks for couples: shifting some of the responsibility for the trouble in your relationship away from each other, and onto the external stressors you are facing – in this case, a traumatic birth. 

When you unite as a couple against postpartum PTSD, and lay at least some of the blame for your relationship struggles on this specific event rather than on your partner or on your relationship, it externalizes the blame and opens up space for you to bond as a couple.

 

2. Pay attention to what went well with the birth

This strategy is another favourite exercise for couples: it is amazing how it can shift your perspective and re-frame your feelings when you start paying attention to the positive. 

I’m going to share my own story of a traumatic birth to illustrate this concept.

During the last ten minutes of my wife’s labour with our first daughter, my daughter’s heart rate was failing to return to normal following each contraction.

The first few times, the nurses and doctor didn’t seem too concerned, and we barely paid attention to the heart rate monitor.

But then, in an instant, the atmosphere in the room became charged with intensity.

The doctor’s demeanour suddenly became serious and, within seconds, nurses rushed into the delivery room with trolleys carrying resuscitation kits and neonatal extraction equipment.

Uncertainty in the delivery room

We didn’t know it at the time, but the umbilical cord was wrapped around our baby’s neck and, with each push, it was choking her tighter and tighter. 

By the time I could process what was going on, I felt time slow to a crawl.

I felt a tightness in my chest, I could barely hear, and my vision went tunnel-like.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was going through a traumatic experience, one that would forever impact the way I parent.

I am now risk averse, to say the least, and overly concerned for my daughter’s safety (perhaps to a fault, as my wife is often coaxing me to allow them to take some healthy risks and explore their boundaries). 

However, there was more than trauma happening in the delivery room that day: my wife was a champion, a rock-star, a birthing super-human.

When my mental fog lifted, I heard the doctor tell my wife, in a very firm voice, that she needed to get the baby out, NOW.

And so that’s exactly what my wife did.

She pushed.

And when she thought she had nothing left to give, she pushed some more.

And she got my precious baby girl out during that very next push, just as the doctor had ordered. 

As I fight back tears writing this, I realize that this concept of paying attention to what went well is something that I have failed to do until today.

Healthy little girl

The fact that my wife pushed our daughter out before there were serious complications and gave birth to a beautiful, healthy little girl changed my life forever.

Despite having the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, my daughter arrived on this earth full of vim and vigour.

Like her mother, she’s a tough one with lots of fight in her.

Now, as I look back at that day, I can choose to pay attention to the heart beat that wasn’t there for the seconds (that felt like minutes) it was lost.

Or, I can choose to hear her glorious cry and see her flailing arms as she entered this world, thanks to her wonderful, strong, warrior mother. 

What went well on that day won’t erase the fear and trauma that I experienced.

But, when I expand the conversation around what went well, then perhaps the good will start to overshadow the trauma.

And, when that happens, I believe that the effects of the traumatic birth experience will become less potent and will make room for new memories and experiences.

3. Pay attention to how you came together following a difficult birth

Most couples are very good at identifying their differences.

We’ll talk about his or her reactions, who is this way or that, or how each of us has a different love language.

Now, while there is nothing wrong with knowing how you and your spouse are different, if you only see how you’re different, you’re going to miss noticing how you’re the same.

It’s a simple concept, but sharing tastes, values, principles, and beliefs is important.

Those similarities are the glue that hold our relationship together. 

As a couple, we can use our shared experience of an event to create a shared language of how we came together to overcome challenges – perhaps including a difficult birth.

I’ll bet you anything that, when you start talking about how you and your partner came together during this difficult time, you’ll find that you move towards one another, lean on one another, and feel closer to one another.

4. Notice how your relationship has grown in its resiliency

Nothing works better for overcoming trauma than talking about how far you’ve come.

For relationships and difficult births, it will be highly beneficial to notice how strong your relationship has become since the traumatic experience (even if it’s hard to find evidence at first!). 

Expanding the conversation about the resiliency of your relationship does one important thing: it builds a new narrative around your experience as a couple.

No longer are you beholden to how your relationship has weakened; instead, you get to talk about how it has grown stronger.

When you do that, you’re highlighting your strengths as a couple.

Noting these strengths can serve you well on an on-going basis, as you will be able to refer back to them in future times of stress or difficulty.

5. What are you doing well as a couple?

I thought I would save the best for last. That’s because this is my favourite question to ask my clients: what do you and your partner do well as a couple?

Believe it or not, when I ask this in a therapy session, it is usually the beginning of the end of my sessions with them.

When my clients begin to shift their focus – even if it happens slowly – away from what doesn’t work in their relationship to what does, they usually stop coming to therapy quite quickly.

It truly is beautiful to watch.

Now, there is a little more to therapy than simply asking one question like “what is going well in your relationship”.

And, I would never attempt to oversimplify any couple’s situation, especially when either partner is suffering from postpartum PTSD or depressive symptoms.

But when has anyone felt good recounting the pain in our past, or present?

The risk in speaking about what has been difficult in the past is that we are confronted again and again with the pain of the trauma, loss or grief.

We risk re-traumatizing ourselves or our relationship. By shifting our gaze as a couple from what doesn’t work in our relationship to what does, we can slowly identify how we work well as a couple.

And, when we do that, it becomes easier and easier to replicate the efforts, smiles, hugs and gestures that work so well to make the sun shine in our relationship.

And I don’t know about you, but I prefer sunshine to rain, any day. 

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About the Author

Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time online couple therapist and relationship mentor helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner.

Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.

About the Author

Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time online couple therapist and relationship mentor helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner.

Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.

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