“I really couldn’t tell if it was me or the PTSD,” said Angela* an Army wife. “It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to live here any more without seeing a therapist.”
Angela told me that her husband had come home from his third combat deployment a few months ago. He didn’t have nightmares like you see in the movies. He wasn’t avoiding crowded places or anything. He was kind of irritable with the kids, but they were at an irritating age.
“He was sort of … polite.”
“I noticed that any time I told him anything about my day he would listen, but he didn’t seem to care,” Angela said. “It was like he was just waiting for me to finish talking so he could go. He was sort of…polite.”
Then Angela noticed her husband wasn’t interested in anything the kids were doing either. When his parents called, he couldn’t be bothered to pick up—which wasn’t like him.
How do you tell if is is PTSD or He’s Not That Into You?
According to the research, symptoms of numbing and withdrawal are the hardest symptoms of PTSD for spouses to catch. These are also the symptoms that cause the most stress for spouses because it is so hard to figure out what is really going on. These are the symptoms that make spouses wonder, Is it me or is it PTSD?
I went to see Keith Renshaw, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University. Renshaw specializes in stress/trauma reactions and his recent research focuses on military couples in which one individual has post- traumatic stress disorder.
He says there is no easy way to figure out exactly what is going on. There is no blood test for PTSD. No swab. No magic pill.
“Withdrawal and numbing are the easiest symptoms to mistake for something else,” said Renshaw. “They are also damaging to the relationship.”
Withdrawal and numbing may seem like “nothing” symptoms. These don’t necessarily come with aggression or outbursts. Yet the couple is suddenly experiencing too many negatives in the relationship and too few positives. That is not a good combination for any relationship.
But Renshaw and his colleagues did find something that helped ease the tension for military couples. In their research, they found that partners of service members with PTSD symptoms were less stressed by symptoms and behaviors if they were able to interpret them as being caused by something outside the relationship—like combat.
The spouse was more likely to cut the service member (and themselves) some slack if they knew there was an explanation for the behavior—but they had to know the symptoms.
An explanation, not an excuse.
Angela knew her husband had been through a lot, especially during the last deployment. When she went back and reread a list of symptoms of PTSD, she could see that her husband had many of the symptoms—including the withdrawal and numbing. She insisted that he see a therapist.
And that is how many service members actually get into care (If you need help getting your veteran into care, get more help here.)
Spouses need to know that behaviors like withdrawal or numbing may be part of PTSD, but that is only an explanation, not an excuse.
Right now, Renshaw is involved in a longitudinal study of military couples coping with PTSD. “Our hunch is that the effect might fade over time,” said Renshaw. While military spouses may have been tolerant of the behavior when it was new, over time they, like Angela, have an expectation that service members will get treated.
“There is an expiration date on that excuse,” said Renshaw.
If you and your service member have just started the struggle with PTSD or you have been struggling a long time, Renshaw points out that the research shows how a good relationship really does help with recovery process.
“There is evidence from a handful of studies that a stronger relationship predicts a better likelihood to get help, a better prognosis for the decrease in symptom, and a better response to the treatment,” said Renshaw.
Researchers are learning more about PTSD and its effect on families all the time. Angela’s husband found a therapist on base that he liked—which surprised him. He was only going to the therapy to get her to let up on him. It worked.
If you have a PTSD story for our readers we are always interested in those afflicted, in those coping, and in those seeking answers. Get in touch with us here.
* name has been change at the interviewee’s request.