Two people can’t be in crisis at the same time because crisis is about survival. When you are struggling for survival, you are worried about your own needs. You can’t be there for someone else no matter how much you really want to be. You won’t hear them when their crying.You won’t see them when their sad. Even if they ask directly and specifically for what they want, it can feel like they are speaking a foreign language. What happens is each person ends up feeling left out and forgotten.
Another thing that happens is that they end up unknowingly triggering each other. When one is emotional, the other may feel his emotion rising in response. When he responds by doing something to keep himself safe, it triggers insecurity in the partner. Both end up spiraling out of control and making it worse for her partner. Eventually, this couple or family ends up destroying each other or splitting up.
Do you know any parents who lost a child? This is a great example. It’s very hard for parents who lose a child to stay together. While they have a shared tragedy, they each have their own struggle. Each often blames themselves. It’s also common for them to blame the other parent. Who are they going to turn to? How can mom be strong for dad when she needs someone to lean on? How can dad voice his pain when mom’s hurting so much, too?
Another example is a couple where both partners have PTSD. With post traumatic stress disorder, a person experiences overwhelming stress. The brain produces chemicals that create a fight or flight response so that the person can respond to the threat. The problem is that, unlike wild mammals, people do not have the mechanism to turn these chemicals off. So the body continues to act as if everything is a threat. Now, picture two people occupying the same space with this same condition.
If one is reactive to a loud noise or not getting enough sleep, that is enough to create a “bad day.”If this person becomes reactive, the fear response in the partner goes way up. Now they are both reactive and trying to stay safe. This could lead to abusive behavior, violence, neglect, or fleeing/abandonment. Now the partner reacts to that. And it just keep spiraling.
“Crisis” is a relative term. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a trauma has occurred. It could be that one is working a lot of overtime to get a promotion while the other is in graduate school and also trying to parent. Perhaps the couple is recovering from an affair. One is dealing with the grief of losing a loved one while the other is living with the fear of losing a loved one. If this is the case, someone’s got to put his needs aside and wait his turn.
When you’re in this situation and your needs are too great to put them aside, each partner needs an outside person to help them through. It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to help you. He’s too overwhelmed with his own stuff. It’s not reasonable for you to get through it on your own. The best advice is for each person to have someone outside of the relationship, who will not take sides, for support. Let me know if I can be that person.