It is not uncommon for me to work with a couple who is experiencing what I call the Double Burn Victim Scenario. Imagine two people who care about each other getting caught in a house fire. Both receive 3 degree burns over a high percentage of their bodies. After being rushed to the emergency room both find themselves in the same hospital room, wrapped tightly in bandages, awaiting the time it takes to heal.
Usually there are hospital staff members there to care for their needs, but in this short-handed hospital, there are times when each starts to experience needs. For instance, let’s pretend she starts experiencing significant thirst. She assesses her situation and concludes that she does not have what it takes to get a glass of water for herself. She does not see the extent of her husband’s burns, so she asks him to get a glass of water for her. He loves her and wants to do things for her, so he tries the best he can to get a glass of water for her. With bandaged hands, he fills a cup with water and takes it to her. As he gets close, he accidentally bumps her wounds and she screams out in pain, smacking his bandaged hands, and knocking the cup of water to the ground. He retreats back to his hospital bed and comes to the conclusion that she is ungrateful, “See if I ever help her again”. This pattern can go the other way as well.
I have never had three degree burns, but I hear that they are so painful it is hard to think about much of anything else. The psychological burns that people experience before coming into my office are equally painful. The pain is so deep in most cases that each comes to the “logical” conclusion that, “My pain must be worse than his or her pain, because it is impossible for someone to be in more pain than I am in.”
Then comes the “who-is-to-blame” element. In most cases, one person is letting natural gas leak into the room while the other lights a match. Each by itself is not destructive, but…. Then comes the, “If you hadn’t…, then I wouldn’t have…!” This goes back and forth for as long as each will let it, often escalating to another blow up that hurts both before it is over. It makes my stomach cringe as I think about all the times I have heard people say things to their loved one, “I was mean to you because you were mean to me first.” Kind of reminds you of an elementary school playground, doesn’t it?
So, in order to overcome the double burn victim scenario, it helps to look at the steps a doctor would take to help the two people in this story/analogy:
(1) Neither really knows how much pain or trauma the other is experiencing. To recover, each needs to acknowledge that the other person may have wounds that are deeper and wider than perceived.
(2) Each has to assume that the other person is doing the best they can. Nobody likes to stay in pain. Some couples I work with conclude that their partner likes to be in pain, just so they can rub it in or hold a grudge.
(3) Each has to do all they can to heal and recover without the help of the other. In a hospital you go to the doctor to help you recover from burns, not to the spouse. With psychological and emotional trauma, go to a professional, books and/or God. Don’t ask for help from your partner until they offer it (see #4). Assume that if they are not offering help it is because they are still too traumatized.
(4) If you start feeling better/stronger, offer assistance to the other. Proceed with caution; you don’t want to re-injure your loved one on accident. You don’t want to get hurt when you are trying to be helpful. Before proceeding, remember you could accidently “bump” an old wound and if you do, they will probably react (scream). If you can’t handle the reaction without getting upset yourself, then it may be best not to reach out and offer help yet.
(5) Avoid coming to the conclusion that “there is no good reason for you to be in pain.” Even today I heard, “I have done everything humanly possible to meet your needs (eliminate your pain) and I still get my efforts slammed in my face. What is the point in trying?” Another part of this is, “Why don’t you explain to me what I am doing that is hurting you?” The unspoken statement is, “If you can’t explain it, then it is not real.” Another common question is, “What do you need?” These last two questions usually require a medical degree to answer accurately. Your spouse is only guessing why they are still hurting and what they need. Don’t get frustrated when they cannot answer your questions intelligently or if they change their mind often.
(6) Be patient. Because we have a tendency to underestimate the healing process other people go through, we can become impatient. Besides, it is inconvenient for us when they are incapacitated. “If you would get over this faster, my life would be easier.” Don’t worry. Humans hate being in pain. They are more dedicated to healing and recovery than you are.
Obviously, this is a brief application of the analogy. There is much more that could be discussed on this topic, so let me know if you have any questions, or pieces you would like more detail on.
Your ever present servant,
Maurice W. Harker, LPC email@example.com