Trauma comes in many forms, sometimes in the form of disasters or accidents, but more often, it comes at the hands of people hurting other people – and this can have a long term psychological effect, impacting relationships, trust, and perception (among many other things) for the rest of a survivor’s life.
A subscriber recently sent a question about dealing with PTSD in her marriage.
“What should I focus on first if my husband is suffering from PTSD, on assignment out of town for 2 months at a time, and believes our relationship – lots of fighting – is the cause of his unhappiness?”
This situation is actually a lot more common than you might think. For many people suffering with PTSD, tension in relationships is one of the largest problems they face. The unfortunate reality of trauma survival is that it can severely damage a person’s ability to feel close, connected, or even comfortable around others.
Yet, because the reasons for these difficulties can be hard to articulate (but the problems themselves are very obvious), spouses can react negatively, unknowingly pushing the trauma survivor even further away.
This often becomes a frustrating “cycle” for couples, where the underlying realities of PTSD are not recognized, and instead the tension at the surface is allowed to cause dysfunction. Because PTSD can take many forms, it might not be recognizable at face value, and that means that the short temper, difficulty relaxing, fits of anger or sadness, or retreating from social situations – all behaviors associated with PTSD and trauma survival – are not met or understood as symptoms of a mental health issue, but instead met with frustration, anger, retaliation, and other negative behaviors that reinforce the cycle of dysfunction.
The first step for dealing with a spouse’s PTSD is patience, as well as understanding that the behaviors may not be entirely under your spouse’s control. Your support (and the support of others) is essential to their recovery, even if they are trying to push people away, lashing out, or secluding themselves from help.
A big part of offering support and understanding is controlling your own emotional reactions – not allowing your buttons to be pushed, and not contributing to their problems with more negativity. To take it a step further, your compassion and willingness to listen, to help, and to simply be there for your spouse can help them rebuild their ability to connect.
Part of the problem in Maria’s situation may come directly from her husband’s time spent away from home on assignment. This time spent traveling, or even away from the people who care about him, is taking him away from a would-be support system, and likely contributing to his view that the marriage is the source of his unhappiness.
As we recommend to couples struggling with all kinds of issues, spending quality time together is imperative to a happy relationship, and combining long times apart with PTSD – and its tendency to lead to projection, anger, and blame – means that it will be very difficult to build and maintain a bond if things remain as they are now.
For others struggling through a similar situation as Maria, never forget that help is out there – and that you personally can be your trauma survivor’s greatest asset and largest source of support.
Unfortunately, there is no single right answer when it comes to PTSD, simply because it is a deeply personal disorder for each and every person struggling through it. There can be different triggers, different symptoms, and different needs.
What they need most is your commitment and your love, even if they are difficult to be around sometimes, even if they say hurtful things, even if it’s a challenge not to snap back at them. A sense of companionship can help a trauma survivor with self-esteem, and give them the courage they need to seek professional help, confront fears, and begin the long and difficult process of recovery.