Dear Lauren –

I think my husband is suffering from PTSD, but he won’t go to see a therapist.  He is irritable and withdrawn.  I know he loves us, but it just doesn’t seem like he is there with us – or emotionally there for us.  This last deployment seems to have turned him into a different person.

An Invisible Wound of War

Dear Invisible Wound –

Spouses and families suffer from the effects of their loved one’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as surely as the service member suffers with its symptoms.  A spouse’s compassion fatigue (or secondary PTSD) is a likely result.

While serving in the war is not the only cause of PTSD, it is the leading cause for male sufferers. Some estimates on the likelihood of a service member developing some form of a stress disorder as a result of combat experience is as high as 50%.

Spouses of people suffering with PTSD are at risk of developing compassion fatigue or secondary PTSD.  In other words, the dedication, worry, effort, hopelessness, and frustration of trying to heal one’s spouse and bring the family back into balance takes a toll on your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.

It is important to take the time to consciously take care of yourself during this difficult time.  You are very likely tending to the majority of the emotional, physical, and practical needs of your family at this time.  Self-care is essential.  Gently and firmly carve out 15-30 minute blocks of time for tending to your needs, especially rest, exercise, and prayer or meditation.  Confide in a trusted friend or family member; be careful to avoid those with whom you’ve experienced drama in the past.  Find a network of support through a place of worship, counseling center, or within the military community.  If possible, do something fun.  Understandably, these small blocks of time are hard to come by.  It goes without saying that these strategies will not solve your problems.  They will, however, help you cope and navigate your way through them toward a solution.

PTSD can’t be loved away.  And it cannot be ignored.  If your husband is truly experiencing PTSD, he will need the help of a professional to work through the issues.  If he refuses to go alone, consider asking him to go with you for marriage counseling.  It is quite likely that you two are experiencing marital issues in tandem with the PTSD.  In marriage counseling, the focus can be on the symptoms of the PTSD (marital discord, irritability, etc) rather than on the PTSD, itself.

Communication is the key here.  A good therapist will facilitate communication to clear the air and solve conflicts.  In the process, you may be able to talk about issues that previously were off-limits, dead-ending, or explosive.

If your husband refuses to go to marriage counseling, consider individual counseling.  The stress of living with someone who is ‘different,’ frequently angry, and/or emotionally absent can be exhausting, overwhelming, and confusing.

Finally, I encourage you to avoid definitively giving your husband a diagnosis.  Frame your concern as just that:  concern, suggestion, possibilities.  Focus on the problems you are having in tandem with your concerns, and how to go about healthfully solving them.

Best Regards,