Help! My partner is in prison

Author: Elly Prior | First published: 23-04-2012 | Modified: 24-10-2017

If your partner or spouse is in prison, I hope this article will help you, at the very least, to feel supported.

This article is about helping you 'normalise' your feelings and cope with:

  • your reactions and emotions
  • judgement - sentencing - day in court
  • your children's reactions
  • prison visits
  • other people's reactions

I've included links to other helpful pages, so that you can begin to manage all that's happening right now. And I promise you, manage you will. You'll find that you're much stronger than you would ever have given yourself credit for.

It's likely that your partner's arrest has been a huge shock to you, whether or not you saw it coming. You may or may not have believed in their innocence at that moment. They may or may not have been immediately taken into custody, or bailed out.

In any case, after the investigation - with all its uncertainties - your partner appears in court.

Day in court

And then, on that fateful (first) day in court, you may be there 'supporting' your partner, yet you're very likely to be in turmoil yourself. Nobody tells you what's going to happen, where you should be or what's expected of you (unless of course you're giving evidence).

Then there's that awful sense of guilt and shame. You dread the thought of bumping into anybody you know. What would they think? What would you say?

You're likely to be struggling to get your head around it all. You'll probably feel torn:

  • What are you to believe?  
  • How do you emotionally handle the information about what your partner's accused of? What does that entail for you (and your children)?
  • How do you cope with what you've been told (if anything) and what you hear in court?

Just remember that if you choose to support your partner that doesn't mean that you're aligning yourself with the crime.

Your partner or spouse is going to be locked up

You're left to pick up the pieces. You're left dealing with the children and their reactions, the finances, family, friends - you name it. You're on your own with it. All that, whilst you're in shock and quite possibly feeling completely traumatised yourself.

But, I'm hoping I can help you a little - and I want to let you know that you're not on your own. If you understand and know how to deal with your own reactions to your partner's incarceration, you're likely to feel a little less out of control.

I'll also suggest some problem solving strategies to get you though the initial stages. So, stick with me and hang on in there...

Feeling in shock?

This is totally understandable if you've discovered that your partner has been found guilty of some (heinous?) crime. You may doubt that justice has been done.

I don't know, of course, at what stage in the legal process your partner is. But I'll assume that you've only just been confronted with the fact that the person you were sharing your life with is now in prison.

All of a sudden, your life - as it was - is no more. Surely there's been a mistake, you might think. If not, who was that person you were living with? You're in shock, barely able to take it all in.

And now you're having to deal with all this:

  • Lack of knowledge: where is he/she? Will I hear from him/her? Can I make contact? Who can I ask?
  • Having to tell your children, but as you're barely able to comprehend what's happening yourself, you're at a loss as to what to say to them
  • You don't want to tell anyone, including family and friends
  • Yet you'll have to decide who to tell, because suddenly you're on your own - you do need someone to talk to and you may need help with the children
  • Dealing with everyone's reactions, when you can barely cope with your own

I can only guess at how much you're struggling right now. What I do know, though, is that you may find it difficult to share your troubles with anyone. To help you choose the right people in your own surroundings, do read my article on who you may be able to trust.

Image quote: You won't believe how strong you really are! You will manage, you will get through this and you will survive.

How do you react?

Here are some of the things you may be feeling following on from your partner's imprisonment.

Feeling traumatised

Of course you can feel traumatised - this is very natural. You've suffered a major crisis. You may find my page on Trauma Symptoms helpful. (I'll still be here when you come back.)

A sense of guilt and shame, making it even harder to cope

You may find yourself wondering what on earth you should or could have done differently - as if somehow you are guilty too.

Many people in your position comment on their fear of bumping into people. They're worried about using local services and shops. They scuttle around as if they themselves are guilty.

You might find yourself lying about what your partner's up to - at least initially. Perhaps you can get away with saying he or she is on a business trip, a course, a week away etc. But it can be particularly difficult when you find yourself lying to the very people you love - your children, your family and your friends.

I really want you to remind yourself that you are OK. It is not your fault (unless you actively contributed to the crime of course). You did not deserve this and it's unfair that you're left picking up the pieces.

Feelings of guilt are appropriate if you have indeed done something wrong. But shame comes from how other people make you feel. Don't you take that on board - you have more than enough to cope with at the moment!

To help you cope with this difficult time, you may find a calming and soothing self-hypnosis track useful. For further information, see my article: Self-Hypnosis FAQ and Downloads.

An ever-present sense of anxiety and impending doom

I'd imagine you feel anxious... even if you'd normally consider yourself to be strong and able to cope with just about anything. But it's no wonder!

Here's what may be going on for you:

  • You're worried about who's going to know that your partner is in prison
  • You're acutely sensitive about what other people think of you and your family
  • You hurt for your children and worry about how it's going to affect them - how they're going to cope, what they're having to face at school, how they're going to manage
  • You too feel a victim because you're traumatised by all the revelations
  • You may feel you will be judged and found wanting
  • You might not be at all sure what you 'should' be feeling about your partner, but you could be really worried about what they may be going through in prison
  • You may be worried about what the actual 'guilty' verdict will mean for the survival of your relationship or marriage
  • You're very likely to be worried about the financial implications of your partner's incarceration: loss of employment - his/hers and maybe yours too, with a consequent loss of your financial security and your home
  • Depending on what crime your partner is accused of, you may feel a deep sense of sorrow for the victim, or their family
  • Perhaps it all feels like a very bad nightmare, from which you just want to wake up

You may find it helpful to connect with a professional, licensed therapist. It's very easy to set up an online counselling session. For further information see my page on mental health counselling. Or scroll down to the blue box below this article.

Unable to speak to anyone - feeling isolated

That sense of shame you feel makes you reluctant to engage with other people within your local community and even family and friends. You may very likely want to hide away. Not knowing anyone else going through this situation can make you feel alone. Yet you're desperately in need of comfort and reassurance.

Life goes on unchanged for others - they call, visit, ask for your help and your presence... but you'd rather shy away. You may feel 'on guard' all the time, and fearful of giving yourself away.

If you're in this situation, it's no wonder that you're feeling totally isolated, lonely and depressed. I'd love to help you to feel better by explaining how you can overcome depression. Take a look at my article Dealing With Depression.

You will get through this though - somehow you'll find the strength to carry on and life will settle down in some shape or form. Though you and your life will have changed forever, you'll ultimately rebuild your world and find meaning and happiness in years to come. You will recover - I know you can do it!

Tips and advice to help you cope

In this section of this article, I have some strategies, tips and advice for you..

  • to deal with other people's reactions
  • to anticipate your children's reactions
  • to help yourself

How to cope with prison visits

You maybe feeling terribly ambivalent after all you've heard in court, and after the 'guilty' verdict.

You don't suddenly stop loving that person, despite now wondering if you ever really knew them at all. Neither does he or she stop being a parent if you have children together.

You might visit the prison wanting an explanation and to be told it's all a mistake. Part of you might be furious, yet you're also questioning everything and feeling needy, frightened and looking for reassurance.

However, now you're faced with:

  • yourself being 'locked in'
  • long queues with people who appear anything from 'carefree' - been there, done it all too often - feeling just as traumatised as you
  • being subjected to security checks
  • having to endure searches, including your hair and mouth
  • a sniffer dog deployed to detect illegal drugs
  • CCTV cameras

No wonder you feel as if you've committed a crime and you are serving that sentence! After all that you're led into a cold and clinical 'visits hall'. It all feels alien and degrading. It's totally understandable, then, that you feel tearful. Your children may cry, and others around you may be crying too.

7 ways to help you deal with prison visits

  1. Once you're familiar with the routine, you can prepare yourself better for it. Imagine a protective 'veil' around you
  2. Remind yourself that in an hour or two you'll have 'survived' again and can focus on problem solving in your daily life
  3. Arrange to see someone you trust immediately afterwards
  4. Talk to someone from the voluntary support agency in your country (see links below)
  5. Use a breathing technique to calm and 'ground' yourself.  Focus on a long slow out-breath and the movement of your abdomen as you breathe calmly in and out. Notice any thoughts, but let them go as you focus again on your breathing. Keep doing that. Practice at home - you'll become better and better at that the more you practice.
  6. Bring with you a tissue with a few drops of a lovely calming essential oil. Use one you're unlikely to come across once you no longer need to go through this whole drama (in other words - NOT lavender or lemon which you're likely to come across frequently.)
  7. Remember though that you won't be able to take anything with you to the visiting area.

You may be worried about your partner's mental state. Particularly, if you're worried that he or she may be feeling suicidal - do speak to the staff before you leave. Alternatively you can call the prison as soon as you get home.

Your children's reactions

Their feelings are likely to mirror yours. They too are likely to feel the shame that goes with having a parent in prison. They'll probably also...

  • feel frightened and confused
  • be worried that their father or mother is going to be beaten up (they've watched the TV programmes!)
  • be at risk of being bullied at school

They may not want to tell you how they feel, or if they're being bullied, because they might want to protect you from further distress.

I suspect that you're finding it really tough to deal with their questions and feelings. That is SO understandable. Cut yourself some slack. How could you have ever been prepared for that?

Do consider getting some professional help - connect with one of the Better Help therapists for that. They can help and support you in finding the right way to help your children - in confidence. You won't have to identify yourself if you don't want to.

I'd also recommend taking a look at my articles on how divorce affects children, and children caught in the middle. These can help you to understand what your children might be going through right now - and how you can help them process what's happening.

Reactions from others

Doubtless you'll take great care when you choose who you take into your confidence.

However, do remember that someone you really trust is likely to have someone else who they really trust. That person, too, will have a really good friend with whom they have always shared everything. And then that person also trusts the one friend they've known since childhood, whom they 'know' would never tell another soul, and so on...

Very unfortunately, you're likely to have to deal with...

  • ugly comments
  • finger pointing
  • people you know crossing the road not wanting to bump into you because they're (mis)judging you, don't know what to say and/or feel embarrassed

I'm afraid there isn't much you can do about any of this, other than to hold you head up high - and manage your own feelings around it. Sadly, there will always be people who judge.

Over time, whilst your partner is in prison and after their release, you'll learn who to avoid and who you can trust. This process will happen much faster than it would've done at any other time in your life.

Image quote: Nothing is going to change what's happened. *You* will change. Make a conscious choice about how you'll change!

The legacy of your partner's imprisonment and what you can do about it

You might feel that your family is serving a prison sentence too. There are so many changes to deal with so suddenly. It's as if someone has died, but worse than that: your partner is now an 'offender'.

This isn't likely to be something you want to share. In this case (unlike if your partner had actually died) it'll require huge strength of character to ask for any support.

7 Common difficulties you have to deal with when your partner is in prison and what to do about them

  1. Your partner isn't going to be with you on important days - Christmas, birthdays, funerals, anniversaries, graduations, start of school-days, weddings and so on.
    Tip
    Devise your strategies well in advance. Be armed with reasons/excuses not go, be ready to support your children and manage other people's expectations, as well as your own. Write personal letters way before important dates if you don't feel able to pick up the phone.
  2. You're also going to have to find a way to keep a roof over your head without your partner's income now that he or she is in prison.
    Tip
    Contact support agencies, banks and other housing organisations at the earliest opportunity. It's essential that you feel safe and secure in the knowledge that you have a roof over your head.
  3. You need to be thinking about how you can fund prison visits, which may be way out of your area.
    Tip
    You might find that there are some benefits to help you with this (see links below).
  4. You're going to have to cope with all the chores you used to share with your partner on your own. You may discover over time this is more than you'd ever anticipated.
    Tip
    Make a list of all the things that need to be done. Just keep adding to it. Then... ask for help with specific tasks! I know, that can feel very scary, but it also offers the hope of new friendships!
  5. You will find out who your friends really are. You may have to suffer the loss of people that you thought would be there for you regardless.
    Tip
    As a counsellor, I've heard numerous accounts from clients who had received support from people they'd never expected anything from. Be open to making new friends.
  6. On finding out what your partner has really done, you may now have to face the fact that your partner wasn't the person you thought you were living with. Alternatively, of course, you may already have been questioning your relationship compatibility for some time.
    Tip
    Accept that you're grieving for the loss of your partner as you knew him or her. Anticipate that with their incarceration you'll be experiencing more losses than you're able to comprehend right now. You (and your children) will just need time and the opportunity to grieve.
  7. Your children, in a sense, lose both parents - one of them is in prison, and the other is now perhaps fragile, unpredictable in their reactions, not the person they knew, anxious, distressed and irritable
    Tip
    Talk to your children and reassure them. Tell them that, however uncomfortable, your reactions are normal, you'll cope and you are there for them. See also: Children in the Middle.

Free fillable and printable worksheet

Specially for you - to help you move forward. Click the link to download the Take Control of Your Emotions worksheet.

Here are some further strategies to help you manage everything that's going on...

How to cope when you're the one having to pick up the pieces

10 Tips to help you not only cope, but thrive, whilst your partner is incarcerated

  1. Self-hypnosis can be really helpful - have a look at my article: Hypnosis FAQ and Downloads to discover how easy it really is.
  2. Tell the truth (even if you don't tell all). You could end up forgetting who you've lied to and what you've actually told them. People will know that something is terribly wrong anyway and make up their own reasons for it. Lying is likely to make everything even more stressful. You just need to know who you can trust, and who to avoid, or cut all contact with. Painful, I know - but necessary!
  3. Continue, as much as possible, with any activities you've always enjoyed. This will help you to establish the best new 'normality'. It's essential that you pick yourself up again after 2 or 3 weeks of letting life happen.
  4. Start a new hobby to keep active. You can join a new group where people don't know you. Be critical of your own "Yes, but...!" excuses or 'reasons'. It's really important that you get some sense of belonging somewhere.
  5. Join a meditation, yoga or Tai Chi class if at all possible to help lower your stress levels. Alternatively, subscribe to a favourite Youtube channel to help you take action at home, if you can't get out of the house.
  6. Explore my articles on Depression for further advice
  7. Consider if you need to end your relationship or marriage - see my Relationship/Marriage Compatibility Quiz
  8. Consider getting some counselling for yourself. See my page on online counselling.
  9. Be active in your problem solving. As human beings we need to feel a measure of control. We need to experience that we can affect our environment and lives in a positive way. Chances are you've felt completely out of control, so you'll really benefit from taking even baby-steps to improve your situation.
  10. Take any opportunity you get to become more skillful at whatever you do. Read, learn, improve and develop yourself. It doesn't matter what and where it is - it could be at home and at work. But it will sure help to improve your self-esteem.

Just remember - this crisis will pass and you will find a way to cope with the situation. I know you can do it!

Free printable download

Download the printable PDF of How to Cope When Your Partner is in Prison for free!

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Related articles

Sleep Like a Baby without Medication
Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome?
How to Improve Your Self-Esteem

Other helpful links

Partners of Prisoners Support Group (UK)
Prison Talk (USA)
Youtube channel with information on a wide variety of prison related matters
US Department of Health and Human Services - 
The Effects of Incarceration on Intimate Partner Relationships

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Elly Prior

Hello you! :-)

It's me - Elly Prior, I'm the Founder and Author of this site. I'm a 'real' person! I'm hoping to make a positive difference, small or large, to every person who visits my site.

Do feel free to ask for help. I would be delighted to write a few lines to support you (please keep it short).

Alternatively -  there are licensed therapists waiting to help you right now. You can connect with a therapist as often as you want on any device, whenever it suits you. For further information, see my page: Online Relationship Advice.

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