Photo by Angela Gallo

Witnessing a traumatic event, like watching your partner experience a stressful or difficult birth can create a mixture of mind-body reactions. An all too common occurrence for people who witness a traumatic event is this sense of martyr syndrome: “I wasn’t the one going through it”, “I wasn’t driving the car”, “I wasn’t the one who was burned”. But think about it. If you are a parent or in a securely attached relationship – wouldn’t you sooner take a bullet than watch your loved one be injured? Watching your loved one in pain or terror can be just as traumatic as if you experienced that event yourself. In some ways, it might even be more difficult to cope with

There’s a cognitive dissonance that occurs when you feel an emotion or a thought but behave in a way that’s completely in conflict with that experience. Witnessing a traumatic birth is a prime example of this – say someone watches their partner being held down, cut with an episiotomy, feeling terrified. In any other context, you’d feel enraged, scared, protective – and you’d do something. You’d try to stop it from happening. In the context of birth, you have all these feelings of threat, protectiveness and anger, and you stand back and act passively. “let the experts do their job” is the cliché saying

The brain finds this juxtaposition of feelings and actions confusing. Unless this disconnect gets resolved (by actively teaching the brain that the threat has passed), it will keep firing off warnings. Many, many partners I’ve worked with struggle with (a) this idea that they weren’t the ones birthing, so they don’t have a right to be upset, (b) that they felt terrified, enraged and powerless and they are struggling to resolve their feelings with their actions

People often try to cope with this through avoidance (working too much, too much screen time, avoiding home etc.), numbing (alcohol, drugs, porn) and displacement (getting angry at other people, feeling resentful of the baby). No one teaches you adaptive coping skills at school. Maybe you pick up some skills from your family or friends, but it’s rarely an active skills-training process. And you know what? ‘Not coping’ can just mean there’s skills you’re missing in your toolkit

Just like anything else you’ve wanted to learn – good coping is often a matter of skills training. Researching, self-teaching and finding a mentor who can train you

You absolutely cannot force someone to go to therapy. Actually, you can get them to the location, but you can’t make them participate.  I could tell you about the countless hours of unproductive therapy time I’ve spent in sessions with teenagers who don’t want to be there and people who have been mandated with a court order. People who have been ‘made’ to come see me often become so fixated on resistance and their lack of autonomy that they aren’t able to engage. This reactivates feelings of failure, and ‘proves’ the self-fulfilling prophesy that therapy being a waste of time

So what can you do? Consider that people do not make meaningful behaviour change until they are ready. Attending therapy is actually not a sign that someone is ready to make change. It’s often only a sign of ‘pre-readiness’. To be ready, they must value support-seeking. It must be consistent with their world view and meaningful. It usually needs to be valued by their peer group, and it needs to be measurable and specific. Getting help to “feel better” is often too vague for many people.

Reluctance does not mean you can’t help though. There’s a whole stream of therapy techniques dedicated to reluctant people! It’s called motivational interviewing. The goal is to explore all the reasons to get support AND to refrain from support to provide a balanced approach.

To try to encourage partners to seek support you might:

  • Encourage self-directed learning by leaving books and resources around. Most people, if they have the chance, would rather work something out for themselves than ask for help – particularly when it comes to emotions. Respecting someone’s autonomy and choice is vital
  • Breaking isolation by giving general examples of other partners who have experienced birth trauma and what helped (encouraging peer acceptance and support – even if it’s not within your immediate peer group)
  • Using common sense analogies – if you broke your leg/car would you put up with it? If your child was sick or having trouble wouldn’t you want support? Or would you just make them put up with it?
  • Reminders that coping is a learnt skill – if your dad or school or friends didn’t teach you how to use (e.g., a mobile phone) would you just put up with not knowing how to use it and struggle? Would you blame yourself or try to find the info you needed?