I love watching YouTube videos that capture veterans returning home to their unsuspecting loved ones. The videos steal rare moments of vulnerability when spouses, mothers, children, fathers, and even dogs discover that the soldier for whom they have endured a tortuous distance is suddenly within their grasp. But what happens when the distance does not stay away? What happens when the distance comes home in a uniform? What do spouses, lovers, and soldiers do when they find that the trauma of combat is as intimate as their own embrace?
For Veterans and their Partners, PTSD is a Shared Experience
As a couple’s therapist, my job is to find the closest distance between two people. In my experience working with veterans and their partners, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) divides and conquers the intimacy that inhabits healthy relationships. PTSD isolates veterans and convinces them that they are alone in their struggle, leaving their partners traumatized by a spouse who is at once here and not here.
Those of us who treat PTSD endeavor to help veterans shift away from the survival mode that served them so well during combat in exchange for slower cognitive functions that promote purposeful thoughts and behaviors. Neuroimaging research reveals that veterans recover when their overactive limbic systems that are responsible for survival give ground to the prefrontal cortex. Why then, do recovering veterans still experience high rates of relationship distress?
Trauma Standing In Between a Relationship
Couple relationships have two major working parts: the within and the between. Who I am within impacts whom we are between. Most combat PTSD treatments address the within and neglect the suffering “between” relationship. The most basic intimate question we ask our partners is, “Are you there for me?” When spouses of suffering veterans ask this question, the face of PTSD often responds with a heart breaking, “No.” This is the shared experience of trauma. PTSD creates a cycle of pursuit and withdrawal, hijacking relationships that would otherwise flourish. Veterans are not complicit in their trauma, and spouses are not responsible for their distress. Rather, couples are victims of a trauma cycle that diminishes intimacy. Fear permeates where love once thrived.
Confront PTSD to Break the Hold it has on a Relationship
To break this cycle, veterans need help to confront PTSD, and couples need the support of a therapist who can address secondary trauma. Veterans and their spouses need not suffer the trauma of relational as well as military combat. Limited research on trauma in couple relationships reveals that symptoms of PTSD retreat under the power of a safe-harbor relationship. By shifting out of survival mode, couples can close the distance between and heal the wounds within.
This article was written by:
Dr. Mathis Kennington is a family therapist associate in Austin, TX who specializes in helping couples and families recover from the impact of traumatic relationships and experiences. To read more from Dr. Kennington, visit his blog at or follow him on Twitter.
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