Dear Sally, My Husband is Struggling and I Want to Help

Dear Sally,

I am concerned about my husband. He has deployed several times, but has never seen combat. I thought things were fine after the last deployment, but over the last few months he seems to be having trouble sleeping, is drinking more often, and seems so anxious. He gets irritated easily and seems withdrawn. I love him so much and hate to see him struggling this way.  I’ve tried to suggest he talk to someone, but he insists there is nothing wrong with him because he “didn’t see any action”. I know better. Something is wrong and it breaks my heart to see the changes in the incredible man I married. How can I help him?!


Desperate to Help


Dear Desperate to Help,

Your husband is lucky to have you in his corner.  I can tell by your words that you care deeply for him and are paying attention to changes that he may not even be aware of, or willing to acknowledge yet.  This is a good thing.  You probably know him better than anyone else…and you know when something is just not right.

You are not alone. I hear from spouses all the time who have noticed similar changes.  So many military members, and their spouses, fear seeking help or even daring to talk about increased anxiety or alcohol use, trouble sleeping, withdrawing from life, etc. In our current climate, where service members are being forced out of service due to the drawdown, many are terrified that speaking up or getting help will mean an end to their military career.  So they keep quiet. They suffer behind the closed doors of their homes, and the family members are the ones who struggle to try and heal those invisible wounds. 


This is not an easy question to answer, I will be honest.  First of all let me offer the advice that, no matter WHAT, if he ever starts to show behavior that could indicate he is having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming himself in any way… please get him help immediately, whether he wants you to or not. The article, “Recognizing Suicide Risk and How to Respond”, is a valuable resource. (You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number 1-800-273-TALK 0r 911) He might not be happy with you for doing so, but you can fix him being angry… there is no fixing the alternative.  In addition, if you (or your children if you have them) ever feel threatened or if he ever harms you… again, get help immediately. (Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE or 911) None of us want to believe our spouse would ever become violent, and I am not suggesting he will.  But all of us, men and women alike, should be prepared to stop abuse of ANY kind, from ANY one at it’s onset. Period. 

But back to the tough part. How to help a spouse who either cannot or will not first of all admit that there is a problem… much less seek support? Here is my advice: 

First of all, find a good time to have a heart-to-heart. Get a sitter for the kids, make sure he doesn’t have PT at zero dark thirty the next morning or that he didn’t just come in from the field. Do something that the two of you can enjoy together. Then start a dialogue.

Let him know that you love him very much and that you are not going anywhere. And ask if you all can discuss some things you have noticed and are concerned with. He may say “no”, at which time it’s okay to say that you understand him not wanting to talk but you would appreciate if he would listen to concerns.

Tell him what you are worried about. Tell him that you want him to be happy and you notice that it seems he is struggling with some things. Tell him that you want to help him. Make it about your concern for him, not your own upset over behavior, etc. Let him know that you do not think he is broken, or that he is damaged. Assure him that seeking help for anxiety, depression, etc. after deployments does not mean he is, in any way, weak. Let him know that you know it is hard, but that he deserves to be happy and you hope you can help him regain some of the joy you think he has been missing.

Then, listen. 


You may be listening to a whole lot of silence. That’s okay. Whatever his answers are, make sure he knows you are listening and not judging the answers.

Offer some solutions he might want to consider. Give him the resources available through the military and tell him you understand why he may be uncomfortable with those options. Options include using MilitaryOneSource or TRICARE for mental health services, military chaplains, and local support groups.  There ARE other outlets that do not involve the military… research those options in your area as well. Sometimes giving your spouse “permission” to call a buddy and vent, or to talk with non-military clergy or another support group like Alcoholics Anonymous can be empowering. 

And then, try to come to an agreement to revisit this issue after he has had some time to consider the options. Let him know that you feel strongly that he does need to seek some kind of help, but that you won’t discuss it until the next time you have agreed to speak and he has had time to think without pressure.

In the meantime, don’t discount the fact that YOU may want to seek some counseling for yourself. You can utilize MilitaryOneSource, the chaplain, a clergy member, or even a trusted friend. When one member of the household is having trouble, it can affect the entire family. If you are taking care of your own mental health needs, you will be in a better position to help your husband.

Don’t give up. It can be really hard to seek mental health help under any circumstances. Military service can make that decision even harder. Above all, be aware of the signs of any type of abuse or suicidal thoughts (insert links)…but be patient, compassionate, attentive and supportive in your attempts to get him help. 

I am wishing you both the very best. 


Sally Spouse




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