In the UK, it is estimated that one in four pregnancies end in loss during pregnancy or birth.1 Attention tends to be focused on the woman who has experienced the physical loss, and men’s grief often takes a back seat to the expectation that they support their partner. However, men also experience sadness, stress, anxiety and depression after their partner miscarries. It is really important to create space for their own experience and loss. While there is limited research on the psychological reactions of male partners after a miscarriage, we know that many men are left feeling alone, not wanting to burden their partner, but unable to talk to others about their emotions.2
Men often choose to hide their feelings, rather than speaking up about their emotional state, and do not necessarily present their grief in a way that others recognise. If a man is suffering from grief, he doesn’t necessarily cry; instead he will often stay silent. We need to encourage men to express themselves and not put uncomfortable feelings to one side so as to be better at helping and supporting, or just to avoid pain. It’s simply not possible to choose which emotions to have – they cannot exist selectively – we either have them or we don’t. Not having emotions involves highly dysfunctional behaviours, such as excessive drug and alcohol consumption, for example.
Signs of emotional stress after a miscarriage:
- feelings of helplessness at not being able to fix things
- increased time spent on work or working compulsively
- drinking frequently and excessively
- shock and sadness: unhealthy silence about the loss
- over-anxious: worried about partner’s health and wellbeing
- fears that intimacy within the relationship may change
- difficulty concentrating
- feelings of isolation
Unhealthy responses include withdrawal from life and isolation; increased use of alcohol, drugs, food or sex to try to deal with feelings; being angry or aggressive; and blaming. Anxiety and depression are to be expected, and understanding them, and the ways to counteract them, is key to getting through this period. In both depression and anxiety, it is common to become more prone to losing your temper and being easily angered. This can create particular issues for men as their aggression is problematised and, indeed, is often problematic.
Practical ways of dealing with anger that are not anti-social often involve the gym or team sports. For men in particular, it’s well known they can bond more effectively with other men after a period of controlled threat simulation, such as football or contact sports like boxing. Also, the stress hormones involved in anger can be dealt with better during high-intensity physical activity (for example hitting a punchbag or sprinting in a football game). The hormones of distress are designed for fight or flight, and if we simulate those activities, we give them a proper outlet. Often men will open up during these contacts, whereas arranging to meet a friend to discuss their difficult feelings can often seem alien and can be counterproductive. Activity-based support can work better for men. The distraction of the activity reduces the tension of dealing with challenging feelings, particularly if, as is likely the case with miscarriage, there may be significant feelings of failure and shame.
Interestingly, distress hormones are also present in tears, which is why having a cry is so good for you when you are sad, angry, lost or afraid.
How to heal as a couple after miscarriage
As a general rule, acceptance and forgiveness are going to be the key for getting through difficult times. It’s crucial if a couple are struggling with this that they don’t see it as a sign that there is something wrong with the relationship per se. The relationship is under strain because of an event that was out of the couple’s control and the struggle is a response to that event. Being able to frame it in this way will pave the way for accepting that it’s going to be a struggle, and for forgiving each other when a version of the self emerges, at times, that is less than optimal.
Try to let go of ‘should’, ‘ought to’ and ‘must’. Expectations of how you should be feeling or functioning as a couple need to be set aside. Loading expectations on yourselves will make it worse. Expectation is the mother of resentment.
It’s much better to listen than to try to help or fix. Active listening validates the person sharing and lets them know you care enough to understand them. Active listening is a skill that can be learned and practised.
Loss of libido is perfectly normal. Don’t worry if sex becomes fearful or full of stress. It’s OK to not feel sexual for some time. It’s natural as a response and it will heal with time. Focus on gentle intimacy that is non-sexual, such as a massage, a spa trip, holding hands, spooning, and cuddling. Discuss this and agree there is no pressure for sexual relations.
Utilise activate support networks. It’s so important to have a range of support options. In most instances, it’s unhelpful to have a rule that you can’t tell others about the miscarriage. While it may seem an intensely private thing, we are social animals that need the support of others. Talking to someone you trust can help you feel less alone, and it can sometimes help to make things feel easier to deal with.
Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years of industry experience. Passionate about bringing high-quality care and support to vulnerable people, he is an advocate of community care and the power of a stepped care model. noelmcdermott.net
- Tommy’s, ‘Baby loss statistics’, available on the charity’s website tommys.org/baby-loss-support/pregnancy-loss-statistics
- G. Kong et al., ‘Gender comparison of psychological reaction after miscarriage – a one-year longitudinal study’, BJOG, 117 (2010), 1211–1219.
The Miscarriage Society has a leaflet for men that explains simply what they may feel during this time. It legitimises men’s experiences and provides information in a way that is accessible and emotionally manageable. tinyurl.com/menandmiscarriage
Illustration by AtOLOnia. atolonia.com
Photo by Alex Green
First published in Issue 78 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.