Spouses want to know: PTSD, Withdrawing, and How to Respond

Today’s question is: “What’s the best way to deal with withdrawal by a spouse with PTSD – call them on it, or what????”

As luck would have it, just as I was sitting down to write this post, I also received the flipside of the question:

“My wife more or less just gets mad at me when I leave the room to cool down; she says I’m running away to hide… How can I help her understand?”

If you’re the spouse of someone who has PTSD, it can be lonely and frustrating to be married to someone who keeps pulling a disappearing act. Even at the best of times, you might feel rejected and pushed away. At the worst of times, when your partner takes off while the kids are screaming and dinner’s burning, you might feel downright abandoned that your partner isn’t pulling their weight.

An important part of how you cope is to get some support for YOU – whether that means therapy, peer support, family or a babysitter to help if you have young kids, whatever you might need. You’ve got a lot on your plate, and you need to be able to vent to someone who won’t judge you or your partner.

As a spouse, you have every right to feel angry and frustrated – BUT, remind yourself that you’re angry and frustrated with your partner’s illness, not with your partner. If your partner is withdrawing because they are overwhelmed or triggered, this is very different from running away because they’re a lazy, selfish jerk who won’t lift a finger to help out, or because they don’t care about your feelings. Don’t confuse illness with selfishness; don’t treat one as if it was the other.

On the other hand, the stuff that’s going on inside the head of a person with PTSD is more than most of us can imagine. If it sometimes seems like your spouse with PTSD is only going through the motions of day-to-day life, it’s because at that moment, that might be the best they can do. Chances are, they realize that they aren’t there enough for you, and they carry a lot of guilt and shame about not being able to do more. They may be feeling helpless, worthless, and angry that they can’t do more to beat this thing. Feeling this way doesn’t help them get a leg up on coping – it just pushes them down more.

The best way to try to cope is together, as a team. Realize that you’re not angry at each other – you’re both angry at the PTSD, and at what it’s doing to your family. Thinking this way puts you on the same side, and that makes it easier to support each other.

Here’s some statements to try out:

Spouse of person with PTSD: “I know you’re doing your best; I’m not blaming you. I just hate that this happened to you. I hate that it gets in the way of things you would like to do.”

Person with PTSD: “I hate that it gets so bad that sometimes crawling into my shell is all I can do. I wish I could just shake this thing off. I know it’s not fair to you.”

Hug each other. Support each other. It won’t magically fix things, but it will get easier if you and your spouse feel like you’re on the same team, and you have each other’s back.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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4 thoughts on “Spouses want to know: PTSD, Withdrawing, and How to Respond

  1. Thanks Dr.Dee you are the best! You are the reason why I am able to cope and carry the load of a Marines wife.Your messages and advice has helped me to help my Marine. Thank you so much Dr. Dee

  2. Thank you so much for this blog! I work in mental health, and both my spouse and her son experience PTSD…even with knowing the things I learn front line…sometimes, getting home at the end of the day…all of the knowledge and skills are out the window and I see things through a different set of glasses so to speak. Not that it’s entirely bad, because I don’t want to social work my family! Guess what I am saying is I needed the reminder that I’m not the only spouse experiencing these things and the reminder that a lifelong journey does have bumps in the road that are beyond anyone’s control and it’s how we navigate these bumps that matters :)

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