Love and War: The unsung role of the veteran spouse
Falling in love with a soldier has a certain romantic ring to it. It conjures images of love blooming in a war zone, and the tearful farewells and ecstatic reunions of the first and second world wars. And while much of that may be true, there’s another side to being a veteran spouse that is rarely talked about. And it can turn a loving marriage into a battlefield.
When veterans first return from deployment or re-enter civilian life, there’s often a honeymoon period where issues and problems don’t arise straight away. But the fundamental truth is no one comes back from deployment unchanged. Trauma alters the way a person views the world.
On the surface a veteran may be functioning, but deep down they’re likely to be suffering and the evidence of that hidden pain often comes out in explosive anger, harsh judgment and emotional detachment – the brunt of which is usually borne by their loved ones. The impact of war on a veteran’s family can span generations, as has been documented with Vietnam veterans. Families are all too often the victims of a hidden mental health crisis, the aftershocks of which can be felt for years to come.
Stepping into the veteran world
Military life as a civilian can be overwhelming at first, and being a veteran spouse is one long process of adjustment. You get used to the upheaval every few years to a new post. You learn to make new friends and become part of a new community. You accept being independent and making family decisions on your own, and having to take on a bigger share of household tasks. Sometimes the nights can be the hardest, when you’re going to bed alone, full of worry.
Then they’re home, and it’s a whole new ball game. You’ve sweated on this reunion and once the euphoria has abated, the changes in your partner can be worrying and frightening. You feel like you’re walking on eggshells around them and so you learn to predict and minimise their triggers. Your entire schedule revolves around their mental and emotional health. Sometimes it feels like you’re living with a stranger in your home. At times it may even feel like the love is gone.
The toll of war
You see glimpses of their mental torment. Perhaps they’re isolating themselves or self-medicating with alcohol and drugs because they’re plagued by traumatic memories. Sometimes it’s like they’re on the outside looking in, intentionally not enjoying life out of a profound sense of guilt for simply having survived. Survivor’s guilt can have a lasting impact and lead to social isolation, depression and poor wellbeing.
Most veterans won’t seek help because in their mind, they didn’t lose an arm or a leg so therefore their problems aren’t that serious. They may even seem in perfect health but their behaviour can become increasingly unpredictable and erratic. The life and death fight of combat made them feel truly alive, and the desire to seek that same rush of adrenaline may lead to risky and dangerous behaviour.
Care for the carer
Close, loving and supportive relationships are an integral part of the long term wellbeing and emotional and mental health of veterans. But the emotional strain of caring for someone with post-traumatic stress (PTS) and depression can take a heavy toll on a marriage and can tear a family apart. There are documented cases of secondary traumatic stress (STS) where a caregiver is indirectly exposed to trauma and can begin displaying symptoms similar to PTSD. So who is caring for the carers? Where is the support for the families and partners who are at breaking point?
There are counselling services and support groups for spouses of veterans with PTSD, where the value of a shared experience and a safe space to talk and be heard can be enormously helpful. As a veteran myself, I work with both veterans and their partners and families to provide support and insight into the struggles they’re facing.
Making a choice
The role of partners of veterans is vital but managing expectations is key. If we expect our partner to return unchanged and for life to go back to how it was before, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, which in turn creates judgment, insecurity and resentment.
Accepting that change is inevitable and making a conscious choice to hold our partner in a space of goodwill, to show them compassion and understanding, to listen when we can and importantly, to seek help and support when we need it. All of this helps to build resilience and foster connection, both within ourselves and in our relationships.
But burn out is real. Don’t wait until it’s too late to get the help you need. Your own emotional needs are equally important and need to be prioritised. Your veteran partner is not the only one who needs support.
Over to you
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Are you married to or in a relationship with a veteran? Do you have a good support network around you? How is that going? Let me know in the comments below. And if you’d like to know more about how I can help, click the button below to book a free, confidential chat.
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