Military life can be exhilarating with many perks of travel, education, national pride, and financial benefits for the whole family. However, it is not without its share of challenges when service members are called away for training rotations, combat, long work days, missed special occasions, and the many last-minute PCS moves for the whole family. Spouses and children can go weeks and months holding down the fort from home and managing life without their service member, but counting down the days and getting to the reunion is such a heartwarming event. But what happens when the warm fuzzies of the reunion fade and couples are left bewildered by the unexpected challenges of the transition home from combat? Combat leaves scars in the form of Post Traumatic Stress. Both the servicemember and the spouse can feel very alone, hurt, and confused by the challenges that Post Traumatic Stress can have on their lives.
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What is Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD)?
So what exactly is combat trauma and what should couples look for?
First, we should define that through understanding Post Traumatic Stress, or more commonly referred to as PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a “psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury”. This condition can cause severe and persistent mental and emotional stress, which often causes sleep disturbances, constant vivid recall of the experience, hypervigilance, mood swings, and dulled responses to others and to the outside world.
Service members are trained to be alert, operate on instinct, and override emotions in order to keep themselves and their teams alive during combat. These battle instincts don’t just dissipate when their boots walk through the doors of their family homes. As one veteran put it for me, “It’s difficult to shake off that sense of readiness sometimes”. The brain holds onto that stress and has already created new pathways that are equipped to successfully operate and handle threats.
As partners who love, care, and attend to our soldiers, we quickly notice that our spouse isn’t the same. The relationship must adapt to the service member’s “new normal”. This is not an easy transition for either spouse in the marriage, and most likely is not expected or always prepared for. I’m here to tell spouses that you are not alone, and there are a few things to acknowledge that may help in navigating the challenges of combat trauma on your marriage.
Things to Know:
The Military Is Not Just Your Service Member’s Job- It’s Your Family’s Lifestyle
Military life is a culture in itself. It is normal for your spouse’s job to dictate many aspects of your family’s lifestyle. Travel is required for their job, so the family will move every few years. You’ll have to regularly rebuild your social community. Family birthdays/holidays/school events will be missed, and upward movement in your own job will be more challenging as you have to start over every few years. This requires spouses to learn to become flexible so they can adapt to the many changes and transitions that military life demands. Just as their job affects the family, you can expect that your soldier’s PTS will impact the entire family, creating opportunities for the whole family to grow and learn to face change together.
It is Normal for Spouses to Experience Vicarious Trauma
No, you may not be the one with PTSD, but it is common for you to experience secondary trauma as you empathically care for your spouse. Spouses often become hypervigilant and sensitive to many of the same triggers their spouses have experienced. This occurs in an effort to learn how to care for and reduce the impact on them and the family. Just about any military couple will tell you that when they go out to eat, their service member will be attentive, know every exit of the room, and visualize all aspects of the room as they walk to their chosen seat-one where their back will not face an exit. No they aren’t being nosy watching your neighbors, and they aren’t being ridiculous if they stop in the road before passing a rogue back of trash on the shoulder. Their brain is still trained for threat detection. A bag of trash or blown tire on the side of the road in combat becomes an IED in combat that takes lives. The brain does not immediately distinguish between the cultural differences outside of war. Spouses watch their servicemember struggle to adjust once home. Spousal empathy means you may willingly give up the comfy booth seat at the restaurant so your soldier can sit against a wall, in an effort to reduce the discomfort of the PTS. Just know that you aren’t alone in how you feel those primary and secondary trauma effects.
Practical Solutions Are Not Always So Simple
Patience will be needed for couples coping with PTS. While post-traumatic stress can be considered an injury, it’s not so simple for the service member to take the time to heal themselves. They don’t have the privilege of taking time off from work-the mission must go on, and ‘everyone has something going on’. Not to mention the added worry that asking for help could be considered a weakness or go on their record in ways that limit and impact their career goals and retirement plans. Society is definitely making progress, as a whole, in removing the stigma behind mental health care, but the military community has a ways to go. There are ways to get help without negative impact, but it typically takes service members a little longer to get ready for those next steps.
The Echoes of Battle Scramble the Signals of the Relationships
Spouses can struggle to accurately imagine what their servicemember is going through as they desire to feel closer to their partner. However, PTS causes emotional dysregulation, which blocks a couple’s ability to coregulate together. Servicemembers have learned to survive in combat by turning off their emotions and instead thrive off of instinct and adrenaline. As human beings were created for emotional connection, emotional suppression is not a sustainable option for the body. This could result in seeing your soldier go through mood swings on occasion, as anger and grief breakthrough before being suppressed again. Any of the signals and cues that your marriage would normally thrive on, feel scrambled or numbed out. Sexual intimacy can also be impacted when emotional connection is strained, and stress can take a toll on physical condition, resulting in an increased risk of sexual dysfunction.
With the new addition of secondary trauma from your servicemember’s PTS, another thing to know is that spouses are at a greater risk for compassion fatigue. As a caregiver, the burnout rate is more prevalent because the amount one pours out isn’t always balanced with getting filled back up. The service member is learning their new normal, which will take some time. They may have less to give or give back in different ways than what was once expected. The spouse is usually trying to love and care for their soldier well, while also picking up extra tasks around the house and for the family, all while working on a more depleted tank. It is like a rebuilding season, which can feel scary, lonely, and empty for the couple, but this is not indicative of where you’ll always be.
Sources of Help
Spouses made a vow to their partner to love and care for them in all the light and dark times and work hard to be supportive to their service member after hard cycles downrange. Wives, especially, have a natural instinct to want to take care of their family and worry, mostly as a means to keep things in order. However, this can sometimes cause more stress and pressure for the couple to make things go “back to normal”. One way a spouse can help both themselves and their servicemember cope is to help make time and space to listen without judgment or critiques.
One way you could show this is by using open-ended questions and operating from a mindset of curiosity to understand them while holding back any of your immediate input during their sharing. Show them and let them know that, even in the middle of what they may feel is their ugliest and darkest seasons, they have a spouse who still loves them unconditionally and sees them through God’s eyes. Knowing that you aren’t alone is one of the most healing tools for trauma and for deepening the marital bond.
It is imperative for both the service member AND the spouse to seek out their own individual support through therapy, group support, and community support, such as friends, hobbies, church, etc. You don’t want to both feel lost and drained as you’re trying to survive the changes. Both spouses deserve to keep a good solid sense of their identity and have their own space to express themselves freely. It can be so filling to have your own therapy or outlet as you learn the new dynamics and needs of your marriage. Talking to other healthy wives and husbands like you, in support groups, therapy, or community friendships, can be a reminder that you aren’t alone in this journey.
In addition to that, couple’s counseling is a vital lifeline for the marriage. Many couples think they need better structure, lists, and communication tools to repair their marriage. And while those tools are helpful in balancing the logistics of daily life, it does not repair the ruptures of connection that occurred through the many deployments and transitions. Finding an Emotion-Focused Couples or Family Therapist is a very effective way to learn how to break the cycle of disconnection and learn to reconnect on an emotional, physical, and intellectual level again since this form of therapy can address and repair the emotional climate within and between a marriage.
Yes, trauma does change a person, and post-combat stress puts additional pressures on a marriage. However, healing and restoration are not impossible with the many supports out there. Instead of focusing on the challenges of the change, there is more hope and healing in the way we bounce back toward God. If we look at the life of King David, in the Bible, we can see that he was no stranger to the impacts of war. We find the book of Psalms laden with the lows of depression, war, and relational problems, along with the praises of God’s restoration power in his life. Psalm 30 shows him giving God praises for lifting him up from “the pit” and restoring wholeness back to his life. There’s never a place where you or your marriage are too far from connection, healing, and growth, as long as you don’t isolate and you work together with professionals to learn your new normal. God always gives a path forward…. oftentimes it just looks different than the previous seasons of the marriage.