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Spouse/Significant Other Support/Secondary Sufferers 

By Mark Goulston

The family members/significant others of the sufferer of a critical incident, in many ways, experience feelings similar to that of the primary sufferer. They not only want to give support and help the sufferer deal with his/her feelings, they also need to deal with their own feeling regarding the incident and the impact on their relationship with the sufferer.

Significant others may feel responsible for taking care of the sufferer or helping the sufferer make decisions. They may want to give him/her support but don't know how to or what to say or do.

Feelings of Significant Others:


  • Concern for the sufferer of the critical incident.
  • Confusion about how to deal with the trauma.
  • Difficulty understanding why.
  • Helplessness - wishing they could have protected the sufferer of the critical incident or prevented the incident, and wanting to "fix" the situation so that life can get back to "normal."
  • Shame regarding the reaction of family members, acquaintances, the community, should the critical incident be criticized. This shame could lead to feeling a need to distance from the sufferer, leaving the sufferer feeling isolated, rejected or blamed for the incident which can be very damaging.
  • Temporary loss of intimacy with the sufferer. It may be difficult for the significant other to not take this loss personally. Sufferers have been faced to recognize their own vulnerability, and as a result may find it difficult to trust enough to be close, even when the relationship is strong and nurturing. Intimacy will return with the help of a nurturing, patient partner.
  • Feeling out of control of their life. The critical incident has changed the significant other's life; nothing feels the same. Feeling out of control is a normal response to a critical incident; control will return with time and healing.
  • Wanting to harm the person responsible. Although a natural reaction, wanting to strike out at the person responsible may create further crisis.
  • Frustration with other professional systems.
  • Anger. Anger is healthy response to a critical incident and can be directed at the person responsible or the systems that don't work. Although anger is appropriate, acting out violently is not appropriate. Significant others need to understand that venting anger on the sufferer will further her/his feelings of guilt and self-blame. Difficulty expressing their own feelings, difficulty asking for help - may feel that because they aren't the primary sufferer, they shouldn't be using sufferer support systems or that they should be able to "handle it." It's also true that they may find a lack of support systems for secondary suffers (significant others/family).

UW-Eau Claire Counseling Services
105 Garfield Avenue, P.O. Box 4004
Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004
(715) 836-5521

Used with permission from Chippewa Valley Emergency Support Service


  • Giving support means listening, asking how you can help, encouraging the sufferer to ask for what he/she needs, being sensitive and patient, not trying to "fix" the sufferer or the situation, supporting the sufferer's decision in order to allow her/him to regain control over her/his life.
  • No one asks to be involved in a critical incident. Even if it is part of the job, it is not easy.
  • Significant others are responsible for dealing with and finding support for their feelings regarding the critical incident. The primary sufferer can only be concerned with her/his own healing.
  • Pushing the sufferer to be intimate before they are ready will only slow down their healing process and can be damaging to the relationship.
  • Healing from a critical incident takes time, and it's a normal reaction to want it "over with." "Hurry up and get well" messages will only force the sufferer to stuff feelings, internalizing her/his anger and pain, causing him/her to distance from those they care about and feel further isolated.
  • A disruption of routine, even without crisis, is anxiety-producing. Recognize that you and the sufferer may both be in crisis. Prioritize issues that need immediate attention and let go of the decision that can wait.
  • Be sensitive in the way you ask questions regarding the incident. "What were you thinking?" may suggest to the sufferer that she/he might be to blame.
  • All sufferers blame themselves to a degree for an incident or for being unable to prevent it. Reassure the victim many times that it wasn't her/his fault - that she/he did the best they could, given the situation.
  • Your own feelings, personality or your role with the sufferer may make it difficult to ask for help. It's extremely important for you to talk about the incident and its affect on you with a supportive person, who has knowledge or sensitivity about the issues surrounding the critical incident - a friend, a family member, or a counselor.