Supporting Your Battle-Stressed Spouse

Article by Heidi Smith Luedtke, Air Force Spouse

If your spouse is struggling with post-traumatic stress, you are not alone. Data from a longitudinal study of 200,000 military members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan show that one-third experience some degree of post-traumatic stress, according to Dr. Charles Marmar, chair of psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

Symptoms improve within 18 months. But for others, symptoms “grow worse over time,” Marmar says, as a cycle of anxiety and avoidance drags them down. It helps if spouses know what to look for.


There are three clusters of symptoms, says Dr. Casey Taft, a staff psychologist at the National Center for PTSD collocated with the Boston VA Medical Center. RE-EXPERIENCING
Re-experiencing symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares, are the ones most people associate with PTSD.

Avoidance symptoms and emotional numbness may be harder to understand. It’s common for those with PTSD to become increasingly isolated from family members and friends. They may feel disconnected and depressed, like they just don’t care about anything anymore, says Taft. And they may self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to numb themselves further. A spouse who was kind and affectionate before deployment may become irritable and aggressive afterward. It may feel like your partner is rejecting you or giving up on your marriage. “Spouses may try to provoke anger just to bring the emotion back to the relationship,” Taft says. Any proof of emotional life can feel better than being ignored.

Hyper-arousal symptoms also disrupt family dynamics. Service members may be stuck on high-alert, scanning the environment for enemies and IEDs. To keep the peace, “partners will do anything possible to avoid triggering their spouse’s anxiety,” says Taft. This puts everyone on edge and makes recovery difficult. Ultimately, people with PTSD must confront their feelings if they want to move past them.

Service members who initially show few signs of battle stress may develop symptoms over time. “There is an initial honeymoon period after deployment,” says Ashley Wise. Troubles often surface when the transition period passes and service members can’t figure out how to fit back into their families.

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