When Your Spouse Has Trauma…How to Help

Tish Hedger, MA, LPC

Does your spouse have recent or past trauma? Do you have questions about symptoms or behaviors you cannot understand? Do you feel at a loss of how to help?

It is common to feel confused, afraid, helpless, and alone when your spouse is experiencing the effects of trauma.

In this article, Tish  will explain what trauma is, how trauma may have effected your spouse, and what you can do.

In This Article

  1. What is Trauma?
  2. What is PTSD?
  3. Signs and Symptoms of Trauma
  4. Digging Deeper…Is It Trauma?
  5. What You Can Do

About the Author

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Tish Hedger MA, PLPC is a professional counselor specializing in marriage counseling, sex therapy, anxiety, and depression treatment. You can schedule an appointment with Tish for online counseling or in-person at our Kansas City, Missouri counseling center.

What is Trauma

The dictionary defines trauma as experiencing a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Trauma is an event such as an accident, disaster or an assault that brings a real or perceived threat. Often trauma disrupts or shatters core assumptions or beliefs held about the world or people. The person feels a sense of fear, helplessness or horror (Trauma and Shock).

What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may occur when a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. People may have intense emotions such as sadness, fear or anger. They may have repetitive and vivid flashback or nightmares that replay the trauma. There might be an intense compulsion to avoid people or places that remind them of the traumatic event (Paerkh, 2017).

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma to Look for in Your Spouse:

Intense or Unpredictable Feelings:

Your spouse may feel more moody or irritable than typical. They might be anxious, nervous, grief stricken, or fearful.

Patterns of Thought and Behavior Change

They may have repetitive and vivid flashbacks or nightmares that replay the events. These triggers can occur for no reason and anxiety symptoms may follow. Your spouse may notice shortness of breath, tightness of chest, heart palpitations, or racing thoughts. Your spouse might experience brain fog where they find it difficult to make decisions or to concentrate. They may experience a change in eating or sleeping patterns.

Sensitivity to Surroundings:

You might notice that loud noises, certain smells, or sounds trigger fear, anxiety or panic. This is often followed by fear the event will occur again, or by flashbacks of the original event. Any kind of stimuli to the senses related to the event can trigger this kind of response. Your spouse may not always be aware of what flipped the primal brain’s switch of remembered trauma leading to present moment hyper-vigilance.

Strained Relationships

Oftentimes there is strain on the marriage and other relationships. There may be increase in conflict and disagreements in marriage or with your spouse’s friends or co-workers. You may see your spouse withdraw or isolate, pulling away from their normal social activities (2016, April 28).

Symptoms of Trauma

At its core, trauma is experiencing stress to such a degree that it overwhelms the mind and body’s ability to cope. Trauma causes stress. Stress has powerful effects on the body and can exacerbate already existing medical conditions

Stress-Related Physical Symptoms (May Include the Following but are Not Limited To):

  • Stress Effects the Physical Body
    • headaches/migraines
    • Irritable Bowel Syndrome trouble
    • Headache
    • Muscle tension or pain
    • Chest pain
    • Fatigue
    • Change in sex drive
    • Stomach upset
    • Sleep problems
  • Stress Effects Mood/Anxiety
    • Restlessness
    • Lack of motivation or focus
    • Feeling overwhelmed
    • Irritability or anger
    • Sadness or depression
  • Stress Effects Behavior
    • Overeating or under-eating
    • Angry outbursts
    • Drug or alcohol abuse
    • Tobacco use
    • Social withdrawal
    • Exercising less often

Digging Deeper…is it Trauma?

Trauma is experienced differently by different people. Our understanding and perception of events is the reality that we experience. Trauma is a reality of how the brain, body, mind interaction are effected by a sense of fear, helplessness or horror. If your spouse has this result from an event than the experience was indeed traumatic.

Exposure to an upsetting traumatic event is required for a diagnosis of PTSD. However, this exposure could happen indirectly rather than first hand. For instance, a person could learn the details about the tragic death of a close family member, or a police office may be repeatedly exposed to horrific details of child abuse cases (Paerkh, 2017).

Perhaps you wonder why your spouse experienced trauma from what they experienced. It may feel confusing because those same events may not seem very distressing to you. There is no one size fits all. Two people could experience a car jacking and one individual experiences trauma intense enough to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While the other individual feels distressed, but does not develop lasting symptoms. The APA says trauma is necessary in developing PTSD but not always sufficient (Trauma and Shock).

Trauma Onset

You may have wondered how your spouse could just now be developing symptoms of trauma when the event happened some time ago or many years ago. PTSD can immediately surface or surface after some time. It is common for people to experience PTSD many years later into adulthood after childhood trauma. They may have had long periods of time of no symptoms. Here are some common experiences of trauma. Your spouse may have experienced one of these or another event not listed.

Trauma can consist of BUT is not limited to:

  • a natural disaster
  • bullying
  • a loved one attempting suicide
  • a shooting
  • physical or sexual assault
  • a sudden death of a loved one
  • a tragic or near death accident
  • a rejection or betrayal of a loved one
  • a long term physical separation from a loved one
  • medical conditions and treatments
  • finding out your spouse was unfaithful
  • military service in war
  • law enforcement or first respondents repetitive exposure to the knowledge and details of traumatic events or witnessing them first hand
  • emotional, verbal, sexual, and physical abuse as a child or adult
    • Including neglect – which although is especially damaging to children is more subtle because it is not what was done but instead what was not done. Neglect is failing to meet the needs necessary for appropriate emotional, social, mental and physical development.
  • witnessing graphic tragedy or crime
  • and many more not listed

So What Can I DO?!

Understand That You Cannot Be Their Cure

You cannot heal their hearts, minds and bodies. Don’t give into thoughts that say, “I should know how to help her/him,” or, “If I were good enough I would be able to fix this.”

You may have an instinct to rescue them. Understand that healing from trauma takes time and that the inner resources to heal come from within your spouse with the help of God. Remember God loves them more than you do.

What you can do is listen to them, validate their feelings and thoughts, and express your love and care for them. Do not underestimate the power of presence.

You can say things like, “I hear you saying this is so hard/confusing/frustrating/painful for you right now,” or, “It sounds like that is really hard to deal with.” These statements accompanied with empathic listening and concern from a loving partner will convey immense support to your spouse.

Communication is Key

Let your spouse share thoughts and feelings without judgment. Tremendous shame, fear and overwhelming feelings come with trauma. Trauma brings confusion and your spouse may have irrational beliefs and contradicting feelings and may have a hard time even understanding their own thoughts and feelings. This is normal.

It may be very helpful for your spouse to talk about what happened. As you create space for them to talk and explore what they are thinking and feeling without judgment this sharing can be tremendously helpful and powerful in helping them process. You can respond with, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I love you. I am here with you.”

You may experience that your spouse does not want to talk about what they are thinking and feeling. They may never want to talk about the details of what happened with you and that is okay. Verbally rehashing details of trauma with loved ones is not always helpful in every case of trauma. Let that be okay with you. You can ask, “Do you want to talk about it?” And if they say “No,” let that be okay. Assure them you are there if they want to talk (E. K., 2018).

Communicate Needs

Communicate About Their Needs

Ask your spouse what they need when they are experiencing a flashback, a panic attack or anxiety. Invite them to talk to you about sight, sound, smell, touch triggers they are experiencing. Expect their needs to change from day to day. They may go through a time of wanting to talk a lot about it and then a time of not wanting to talk about it all. Communicate about these changes through their recovery process.

Communicate Your Needs To Your Spouse

Share that sometimes you don’t know how to help them. Explain that sometimes you feel confused, this will help them not misinterpret your reactions and confusion as rejection or apathy. It is healthy to actively participate in the relationship by expressing what you need to be able to provide support, it is your responsibility to express your needs in productive ways.

It is normal to experience communication breakdown and difficulty when one spouse is experiencing effects of trauma. If you are having trouble resolving these communication difficulties find a trauma counselor who also works with couples. The counselor can help you walk through the unique communication challenges around how trauma is affecting your spouse and relationship.

Get Support

  • Find a counselor that specializes in trauma and has worked with PTSD. You may want to find a trauma counselor who also works with couples, so they can help you navigate your relationship dynamics while your spouse heals.
  • You and your spouse will need relational support outside of the marriage for each of you individually and for the relationship. Be intentional about creating space in your schedule for investing in encouraging relationships.
  • Join a support group or have one or two close relationships that is safe to share how you are feeling and what you are going through. A support group is a good option when sharing with family and friends may or would violate your spouse’s desire for privacy.

Prioritize Self-Care

Self-care will be a vital part for both you and your spouse. Trauma is taking extra mental, emotional and physical resources.

When your spouse engages therapy and recovery it is common that it feels worse before it feels better. Think of self care as filling up your car in preparation of the miles you want to drive. God created us with finite resources and with the need to rest and refuel. This reminds us that we are not God and we need God.

If you or your spouse don’t know what self care would be for you ask yourself, “What makes me feel restored?” “What helps me rest?” Also have good self care daily by eating well, sleeping well, and exercising.

Conclusion

It is painful to watch someone you love suffer, but know that trauma is treatable. PTSD is treatable. There is hope. It takes time so be patient, but your spouse can heal in mind and body from the effects of trauma. God sees you and cares for you and your spouse. God is mighty and is able to redeem as far as the curse is found.

References

  1. Trauma and Shock. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma
  2. Parekh, R. (Ed.). (2017, January). What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved March 30, 2019, from (https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd)
  3. Stress Symptoms: Effects on Your Body and Behavior. (2016, April 28). Retrieved March 30, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987
  4. E.K. (2018, March 7). How To Help Your Partner Through Childhood Trauma. Retrieved March 30, 2019, from https://www.bridgestorecovery.com/blog/help-partner-childhood-trauma-recovery-journey

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