wikiHow to Cope with a Spouse's Incarceration

Three Parts:Adjusting Initially to the ChangesTaking Care of Your FamilyCommunicating with Your Spouse

It’s confusing to go from the normal day-to-day living with your spouse to suddenly feeling the absence as he or she spends a sentence in prison. You may experience loss, mourning, anger, sadness, frustration, guilt or shame. You may suddenly have lots of responsibilities to fill while your spouse is absent. While the transition can be confusing and painful, know that there are ways to keep your chin up and help you cope more effectively.

Part 1
Adjusting Initially to the Changes

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    Realize it’s okay to mourn. Your spouse’s incarceration creates barriers in your marriage such as a lack of intimacy, family involvement, and financial contribution.[1] You have just experienced a loss and a big life change. It’s okay to feel sad, mad, angry, upset, frustrated, helpless, or out of control.
    • It’s okay to cry and express your emotions.
    • You may want to journal your feelings and what you’re experiencing. Writing down your feelings can be helpful in understanding them.
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    Deal with your own trauma and shame. You may feel shame about your spouse being in prison. Perhaps you feel guilty for the crime your spouse committed or somehow responsible for him or her going to jail. [2] You may wonder what you could have done differently or how things could have changed if you had played a different role. Perhaps you feel depressed from experiencing the loss of your spouse to jail.[3] It’s important to confront these feelings and work through them.
    • Remember that your spouse is responsible for his or her own decisions.
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    Accept reality. Life is different now. You are now responsible for taking care of the kids, paying the bills, and doing the chores without the aid of your spouse. You now will have to accept that holidays will not include your spouse. It’s okay to reflect on happy memories of the two of you together, but don’t dwell in the past, wishing for it to be your present. As much as you want things to change, it is out of your control.[4] It’s up to you the accept the changes that have occurred.
    • Accept that your life has changed dramatically. Don’t buck against it and make it more difficult for yourself.
    • Accept your feelings as a natural part of the circumstances you are experiencing.
    • You may want to talk to someone about how you feel. You can talk to a close friend or start seeing a therapist.
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    Decide what to tell people. You may feel ashamed to tell people your spouse is in prison and find yourself making excuses like, “He’s away on business” or “she’s visiting his family.”[5] Before you get too far, think about what you want to tell people about the absence of your spouse. Think about the people you want to know and the people you don’t want to know. Next, think about what you want to tell people. How much do you want others knowing? Do you want them knowing your spouse is in prison, what your spouse did, or how long he or she will be gone?
    • Remembering that you don’t have to share anything you don’t want to share.
    • When talking about your spouse’s incarceration, be clear whether you want the discussion to stay in confidence. Be clear in saying, “This stays between the two of us, and I hope you respect my family’s privacy.”

Part 2
Taking Care of Your Family

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    Make necessary changes. Because of all the changes resulting from your spouse no longer being in the home, you may have to adjust your life, habits, and behaviors. If you struggle to pay the mortgage or car payments on your own, you may have to consider getting a different job or selling your car. You may have to arrange different childcare or spend more time at home taking care of chores. Think about what new responsibilities you are taking on and how you will deal with them.
    • You may need to start scheduling your days and weeks in order to make sure all tasks get done. Write lists, to-dos, and involve the help of your family and friends.
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    Take care of yourself. You may feel the urge to support your spouse and be there 100% for him or her. While it’s great to take care of and support your spouse (and/or your children), make sure you take care of yourself, too. Keep up with friends and your social life, get enough rest, eat healthy foods, and get some exercise.[6] You may get so invested in taking care of other people and forget to take care of yourself.
    • You may feel like no one understands you and what it feels like to have a spouse in prison and start to isolate yourself.[7] Remember it’s important to keep people in your life, even if it’s a small circle of family and friends.
    • Know how to deal with your stress. Nurture yourself by handling stress daily instead of letting it accumulate over time. Go for a daily walk, write in a journal, listen to music, take a long bath, or play with your dog.[8]
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    Talk to your children. It may feel daunting to think about telling your children about their parent’s incarceration. It’s likely they will feel similar to how you feel: scared, confused, angry, sad, or lonely.[9]Have an age appropriate discussion with your children, letting them know that things will be different at home. Let them know they can still talk to their parent on the phone and see him or her during visits.
    • You may want to discuss what your children may say if other kids ask about where dad or mum is. It’s up to you and the child how to answer, whether to say “Dad is in jail” or to say “Mum is away.”
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    Join a support group.[10] Remember that it’s hard to go through so many changes and still try to balance having a ‘normal’ life. Especially if you dislike talking about your problems with family and friends, a support group can be helpful in banding together with other spouses who know what it feels like to have their loved one in jail. They may be able to share tips with you and support you and provide a listening ear unlike other people.
    • Look at local resources to find a support group that fits your needs.
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    Expect changes in behavior from your spouse. It may be difficult for your spouse to transition to having a different role as ‘prisoner’ and away from the traditional roles of ‘father/mother’, ‘husband/wife’, or ‘businessperson’. While dealing with these changes, he or she may become sad, upset, depressed, anxious, or angry. Your spouse may try to regain power in the family or in the business and may become demanding or threatening.[11] Remind yourself that this is a huge adjustment for your spouse and have compassion.
    • If your spouse feel frustrated, upset, angry or sad, remind yourself that your spouse has had many of his or her freedoms taken away. Show your spouse compassion and empathy by saying, “I’m sorry to hear it’s difficult” or, “I’m here to support you.”
    • Sometimes imprisoned men may request that their wives bring contraband into the prison or ask their wives to participate in criminal activities.[12] If you are put into this position, do not feel obligated to comply. Keep your own safety in mind and seek help if you feel threatened.
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    Move on in life. Your life won't end after your spouse is incarcerated. You still have some time to live. Use it constructively. Your spouse will also feel bad if you don't. Carry on in life and eagerly wait for them to be released.

Part 3
Communicating with Your Spouse

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    Discuss expectations.[13] Early on, discuss what is reasonable expectations of communication. If your spouse is incarcerated 5 hours away, it may not be reasonable to expect weekly visits. Think about how you can be there for your spouse while also being there for yourself. It’s not realistic to drop your whole social life in order to be ready to accept a phone call.
    • You want to be supportive of your spouse, but be realistic, too.
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    Communicate within your means. Think about what you can afford and how frequently you can connect.[14] You may want to accept daily phone calls, but be mindful of the costs. You may also want to send packages and photos and money to your spouse, but don’t go above and beyond your means. You may wish to prove to everyone that your marriage can last while your spouse is in prison, but don’t punish yourself by waiting by the phone all day.
    • Being within your means also means being mindful of your time. If you cannot afford to take time off from work some weekends to visit your spouse, it’s okay.
    • It’s okay to make compromises based on your availability, finances, and support. Your spouse will understand.
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    Keep a notebook near the phone. Phone calls are generally 15 minutes, and there’s a lot to say in a short amount of time. Throughout the day, write down things you want to discuss with your spouse, and bring this list to the phone.[15] That way you can be prepared and cover the topics that are important to you.
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    Arrange visits. It can be difficult to maintain a marriage when you never see your spouse. See if you can commit to bi-weekly or monthly visits, if time and money will allow.[16] It can be nice to have something to look forward to, and your spouse will look forward to it, too.


  • When you are in any form of contact with your husband (while incarcerated), be careful of any words you may use. Your words could be used against your husband in court if they are overheard..
  • Never tell children (no matter how old) the negatives of their mother/father. Keep interactions positive or neutral. They may stop liking them.

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Categories: Social Nuisances | Criminal and Penal Law Procedure