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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Married To The Past - Your Spouse With PTSD

In World War One it was called shell shock, from the assumption that being under incessant artillery fire caused it.

In World War Two, it was called battle fatigue, because 90 days in combat was seen as the tipping point, beyond which an infantryman became ineffective.

Now, it's Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we've made a lot of progress in understanding it.

PTSD affects those who have been in combat, yes, but it is also part of life for accident victims, victims of child molestation and rape, and First Responders. Any many more.

Movies and television paint a stereotypical image - the war veteran, usually bearded and wearing bits of uniform, about 45 degrees off from reality, wanting nothing more than to live alone in the hills.

Okay, yeah, most of that is me.

But it's a disservice to everyone else, the people who wear PTSD as a private, hidden scar. There are more of them than you can possibly imagine, and they look and act normal when you see them. They do their very best.

But what if you're married to someone with PTSD? You can't see only the surface effort to cope, here. You have to live through the whole thing, and believe me (or believe my wife), it's a hell of a ride. Pardon the expression, please, but this is one time where h-e-double-toothpicks is appropriate.

If you're married to someone who's carrying this cross, you probably know enough about his or her past to realize that something dreadful happened a long time ago, and they're not quite over it.

The symptoms are well-known - hypervigilance, an extreme 'startle' response, insomnia. Those are the obvious externals.

There are others - there is a sense of disconnection, because PTSD puts a person forever with one foot in the present, and one foot in the past. There's emotional distance, because how can anyone who hasn't been there understand?

There's a sense of humor that's lacking, or weirdly inappropriate. I laugh about things that make most people cringe, but find the comedians on "America's Got Talent" decidedly unfunny.

An insurgent stepping on a mine he just planted and being blown into pink mist - that's hysterical. Jokes about flat-chested women...where's the humor?

Does my wife understand? Not completely. She gets the words, but she can't hear the music, and for that I'm grateful.

So what do you do, if you're married to someone's past, a past you can't access or fully understand?

  • Don't judge - the behavior that embarrasses you, or makes you uncomfortable, isn't voluntary, or wanted, and you can't fake PTSD. Please don't judge what you see against your frame of reference, because you haven't walked the miles in your mate's moccasins, and you can't.
  • Educate yourself - whatever the defining event, be it combat or work as a First Responder, learn as much as you can about what that life, those events, were like. This is not so you can sit down with your mate and have a heart-to-heart; its' so you have some idea where they're coming from.
  • Listen - when your mate wants to talk, listen. Don't try to fix it. You can't. But there are few things more valuable than a friendly and sympathetic ear. If your mate's seen a bunch of dead kids, killed to make a political point, he or she may have a lot of trouble walking down the toy aisles at the local Big Box, looking for presents for the nephews and nieces. Listen to the words, or to the unarticulated tears.
  • Accept - your mate may feel very uncomfortable in certain situations, like parties...or stores...or roads where there's roadside trash (which can hide bombs). These limitations are easy, and natural to resent. Why should you be limited like that? Well...because you married, for better or for worse. Suck it up and deal with it. Remember, no one wants to be nervous in a crowd. No  one wants to be rigid with watchfulness in WalMart. And no one - I can assure you - wants to feel the need to belly-crawl up to a piece of cardboard at their own front gate, to check for evidence that it's a bomb.
  • Love - You may be surprised that the grim and haunted person to whom you';re married is capable of a deeper love than most. It's simply because they've seen the other side of life, and somewhere in the soul is the realization that life if fleeting, and precious. This love may not come through in the form of flowers and romantic dinners...it may be stepping through a door first, scanning for threats, or making sure that the oil in your car is changed and that you have cash for contingencies. They're loving you with a part of their world, and that's the biggest gift they can offer.
And never, ever say, Get Over It.

We would if we could.

This post is linked to Wedded Wednesday, a compendium of really cool posts on marriage. If you click on the logo below, you'll be taken to www.messymarriage.com, which is the springboard to a wealth of information.


  1. I have a friend whose husband has PTSD, so I'm going to send her to this post, Andrew. I hope that this gives all who walk this challenging path--both spouse and PTSD victim--the wisdom and practical steps to deal with a diagnosis that is very mysterious and often confusing. It truly is something a spouse cannot fully comprehend, but must be understanding and a caring listener, nonetheless. Thanks for sharing this, my friend, and I appreciate your words about MM above as well. Very kind of you!

  2. Beth, thank you so much!

    One book I would very much recommend for those whose spouse has combat trauma is Al Sever's "Xin Loi, Viet Nam", his memoir of over two years' service as a helicopter crewman.

    While it doesn't deal specifically with PTSD, it offers a compelling look into the changes that combat brings to the personality.

    For specifics on PTSD, Jonathan Shay's "Achilles in Viet Nam" is a classic.

    (Yes, Viet Nam is properly two words...it means 'far south'...and xin loi is a kind of all purpose comment that can be entirely unsympathertic - 'tough s%&#' - or extremely compassionate. It's pronounced 'sin loi'.)

  3. Andrew, beautifully written. What price you have had to pay. Know you are loved and appreciated in the silent hearts of so many of us who wished this place were otherwise.