Susan Barrera 

Susan Barrera 

I will be writing about wives who are living with their husbands’ PTSD, but since we now have women in combat, I imagine this will also apply to their husbands.  

It has been my experience that many vets who have PTSD get married more than once.  (I met one woman who was her husbands’ eighth wife) The spouse they end up with usually has a caretaker type personality: they were the caretakers in their family of origin and find themselves counseling, advising and taking care of their families, friends, co-workers and everyone else around them, but themselves. I know that applies to me.  As caretakers, we tend to feel responsible for the lives,  choices, and  well–being of others. Perfect partners for our very damaged husbands, but not so good for us.

Wives of men who have PTSD can develop secondary PTSD. The cumulative traumas of living with the rages, intimidation, blame, irritability, hyper-vigilance, paranoia, persistent anxiety, job instability and social difficulties can severely impair the wives’ ability to function.  

Some of the wives find that their husbands’ PTSD gets worse over time and their husbands are reluctant or refuse to apply for disability benefits. Their husbands are unable to keep a job long-term due to their anger and rages and inability to deal with authority figures. This puts a burden on the wife to keep a job that will pay enough to keep things going while the husband often has spending problems and is self-medicating through drug and alcohol abuse.  

The wife often feels overwhelmed by the responsibilities of dealing with their husbands’ symptoms, managing the household, long hours of work, and sole parenting of the children because the men also usually have parenting and bonding  problems.  

The wife feels as though her husband has suffered huge amounts of trauma (despite the fact that sometimes so has she) and she wants to be a good wife and take care of her man. On the list of people to take care of, we are often not even on the list. There is significant loss of self in these situations. We learn to numb our feelings and carry on until we eventually develop significant physical and emotional health issues due to focusing all our attention on others and none on ourselves.    

We come to believe that our husbands would get better if we just did things better. We are constantly blamed for the anger and rages that our husbands experience, and we accept that. The explosive aggressive behaviors make us feel as though we are living in a  mine-field. We never know when any little inoffensive thing we say or do will be misconstrued with the worst possible interpretation. We feel attacked and defensive and spend endless amounts of time explaining and justifying our harmless actions and words.  We become hyper-vigilant too, watching for any little thing that might set him off. 

The truth is that we didn’t cause our husbands’ problems; the combat did,  and we cannot make him  better or love him better. Whether or not they get better is up to them. We can only control what we do.  We can get help and make ourselves better. When we can learn to get some emotional distance, we can learn not to mirror what our men are feeling: just because he is having a bad day doesn’t mean we have to.

I was at the end of my rope, feeling as though I was going to have a breakdown of some sort, when I was able to get help at our VA hospital here in Albuquerque.  There was a program in effect that allowed the wives of veterans who are 100% disabled to receive health care at the VA hospital. It was a wonderful program that enabled us to receive medical care, but more importantly, access to therapists, treatment groups and a support group. Although ours no longer does, I understand that some VA hospitals in the country still have the CITI (CHAMPVA In-house Treatment Initiative) program in effect. Contact your nearest VA hospital, and if they have one, I strongly recommend getting help there. Having the support and understanding of other women who are living with the same disorder was immensely helpful too. I  invite women in the Albuquerque area to join our group. Even though our support group is no longer supported by the hospital and we have no facilitator, we continue to meet and share our coping strategies and support one another.  

I can’t stress enough how important it is to our physical, mental and emotional health and that of our children to get help to deal with this disorder. I think it is a shame that our VA system no longer provides assistance  for those of us who are caring for the most damaged of our veterans;  unlike some government programs, this was a good one.

If you would like to ask questions of Sue and the members of their PTSD Support Group located in Albuquerque, NM who have been, or are in a relationship with PTSD husbands, please join our online forum  here

Susan Barerra

Susan Barerra
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