Those who have married Vietnam veterans, or veterans of other wars, may find that their relationships change over the years. And not always for the better. Our PTSD expert, Mary Tendall, provides some insights.
By Mary Tendall
The situations described in this article are based on the real-life situations of many people who have contacted me by e-mail or in person. To maintain confidentiality, I have changed names and some details.
It’s not uncommon for me to hear from women who are very confused, and who are wondering why their relationships with their Vietnam veteran husbands have not worked out the way they had hoped.
These confused women often refer to these men as, “The love of my life,” followed by, “What happened to that affectionate, caring, and loving man?” When they first met these men, these women felt loved, protected, and highly valued.
Later, when things have gone bad, they don’t realize that the feelings they originally picked up from these men are still there. It’s just that something has gotten in the way – preventing them from accessing or expressing those feelings. The man is now unable to explain what’s wrong, so I will make an attempt to shed some light on these men who seem to have changed so much from who they were in the early stages of the relationships.
Let’s start with the beginning of a romantic relationship, when the brain floods the body with a biochemical infusion that lifts anxiety, and offers the central nervous system the ability to feel fully present and available in a relationship. Old burdens become smaller, and the heart opens, not only to another person, but to the self as well. For a war veteran, or anyone who has experienced severe trauma, this is a phenomenal respite from the past, with hope that this relationship will lead to a meaningful future. And both partners show each other the loving, pure essence of who they are – leaving the baggage in storage for the present.
For some, these mutually open states last only a few weeks or months, while for others it can last a few years, with a few manageable bumps of interruption. For couples who have experienced little trauma prior to marriage or during a war-time situation, they may develop the ability to learn about each other, and deepen the relationship as years go by. Time can actually enhance and deepen intimacy so that life challenges can be worked through with trust and commitment.
So why do so many relationships with Vietnam veterans go wrong? There are many variables to examine. Very often a relationship develops where a veteran is attracted to a woman who brings her own previous trauma issues to the relationship. It’s also common that many Vietnam veterans suffered physical and emotional trauma previous to their war-time experiences.
Many Vietnam veterans have an unexpected need to isolate, or express outbursts when triggered – leaving both partners with unfilled needs. Communication breaks down as confusion and reactivity build between both partners. Shame, guilt, anger, and helplessness override a sense of loving connection.
June and Phil
June,* a woman with no past trauma issues, fell in love with Phil in college. And Phil had no pre-combat trauma. They were married the summer of their college graduation, and Phil joined the military to avoid being drafted.
After OCS (Officer Candidate School) he was sent to Vietnam. June wrote to him frequently, but was dismayed when she received little communication from him. She was pregnant when he left for Vietnam, and their first child was ten months old when he returned.
After Phil’s return, June had difficulty adjusting to the way he had changed, and Phil couldn’t deal with a crying baby and the expectations of fatherhood. He quickly found a job, and over the years they had two more children. After 35 years they divorced, and June wonders whatever happened to the man she married.
Phil spends little time with his adult children and grandchildren, and isolates more than ever now that he is retired. He has not sought help, and believes there is nothing wrong with him.
It would help June if she would do some reading about war-related PTSD so she could understand more about the problems faced by so many Vietnam veterans. It’s important that she have this understanding so she can depersonalize much of what happened during her relationship with Phil.
And it would be important for Phil to find a group of Vietnam veterans to help him learn about the problems caused by the PTSD symptoms that occurred following his return from Vietnam. In Phil’s case (as is fairly common), he didn’t even recognize the symptoms of PTSD, and had no idea what was wrong. It would help if Phil made an effort to deepen his contact with his children and grandchildren, and I would encourage him to offer them reading material to help them better understand his situation. (Phil is unlikely to read the material himself, but there is a list of helpful ideas at the end of this article.)
Sandy and Dave
Sandy married Dave eight years ago. She describes him as handsome, strong, and very intelligent. Sandy had been in what she describes as an abusive relationship prior to her marriage to Dave – while Dave is estranged from his children from a previous marriage, and has had no contact with them for many years. He will not discuss what happened to those relationships.
Sandy only recently learned that Dave is a Vietnam veteran, and wants to learn more so she can help him. Naturally, Dave becomes upset every time Sandy brings up the topic. Dave, who was so attentive in the beginning, now spends hours each day in his recliner, watching the History Channel, working on his computer, or napping. He is awake much of the night, so they now have separate bedrooms. “What happened to the guy I married?” Sandy wonders.
Sandy needs to stop trying to help Dave. Her intentions are good, but her efforts will be received with resentment on his part. He doesn’t want her to help him fix his problems. Sandy should also educate herself with helpful reading material, and possibly find a support group for wives of war veterans. These groups are easy to find at Vet Centers, VA hospitals, and VA clinics.
It’s also important that Sandy not wait for Dave to once again be the guy she first met. Her dreams of a happy retirement with Dave may have to be adjusted so that she can still enjoy a social life, and develop her own interests. They can explore together what they mutually enjoy, and focus on those activities when she wants to share with him. There’s always a chance that Dave will appreciate her support, and will think about getting some help for his symptoms.
What goes wrong?
After the romantic and exciting beginning of a relationship, a trauma sufferer develops hope that the sense of being in the present, along with this new physical and emotional connection, will last.
But very often our brains don’t allow that to continue, and unresolved issues begin to surface as time goes by. After a traumatic experience (such as might have been experienced by a Vietnam veteran), the brain simply settles back into combat mode, causing a tendency to isolate, emotional numbness, emotional reactivity, avoidance of crowds, nightmares and/or nightsweats, and all the usual PTSD symptoms.
The really confusing part happens when the nervous system reverts to combat mode – the heart emotionally shuts down, and loving attachment becomes almost impossible. Criticism from a partner only triggers more shutting down, resulting in anger and resentment on both sides. There seems to be no logical reason for the changes, but there is a logical answer. The brain has lapsed into guarded-combat mode.
What happened in the relationships we’ve just looked at was an intermittent return to the coping state used during combat to work through the associated difficulties. And that coping state on the part of a Vietnam veteran often results in reactivity and confusion for their partners. Of course there are many more complexities that occur in any relationship, so it’s important to understand that this is a simplistic response to just this one aspect that often causes problems and misunderstandings in a partnership experience.
With war-related trauma, unless effective treatment has taken place, the brain remains in a variable state of combat mode, which requires the emotions to either over-react or to shut down. There is often a silent, loving dialogue that goes on inside the Vietnam veteran that never makes it into actual communication. The deep feelings go unsaid, and partners never hear what they would love to hear. The veterans themselves are confused as to why they can’t leave it all behind, and often develop personalities based on their avoidance and on their inability to cope with everyday challenges.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms – such as isolation, alcohol abuse, or obsessing over something that will take them away from personal interaction – frequently become the norm. Add in the guilt feelings related to not being a better partner, and the result is major trouble with relationships. The Vietnam veteran has no idea what to do – if he even realizes there is a problem – and the wife of the veteran feels left out, socially deprived, and wondering how to deal with the loneliness within her own home.
Ideas for the Veteran
- Find treatment that offers a neuro-somatic (mind/body) modality, such as BrainSpotting, EMDR, or Somatic Experiencing, to work with unresolved issues.
- Learn self-regulation tools to bring yourself out of lock-and-load mode, using bilateral stimulation, such as walking or moving fingers on alternate hands.
- Try yoga. It can teach you to calm your nervous system. Many Vet Centers and VA medical facilities offer classes.
- Seek couples-counseling in order to open communication with your partner.
- Plan events that you would enjoy, and include your partner. Having fun together will decrease tension in the relationship. Laughter is healing.
Ideas for the spouse/partner. All the above, plus:
- Find a support system, preferably one that includes wives of Vietnam veterans.
- Create realistic expectations, knowing that your future retirement dream may have to be adjusted to what works for both of you.
- Avoid comparing your relationship with those of other couples.
- Create opportunities with grandchildren and pets to enhance playfulness.
- War and the Soul, by Edward Tick.
- Back From the Front, by Aphrodite Matsakis.
You are invited to contact Mary Tendall with comments and/or questions regarding PTSD. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.
Mary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.