War Changed My Husband; Should I Feel Guilty for Leaving?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Three months ago, my husband returned from his second deployment to the Middle East. I was excited to see him and resume our life together, but he came back to me a changed man, and not for the better. He barely talks to me. He just sits there and watches television or goes out drinking or lays in bed all day. Every time I try to talk to him, he gets snippy and tells me to leave him alone. I can count the number of times we’ve had sex on one hand. He has made me cry numerous times and he acts like I’m not even in the room, let alone tries to comfort me or apologize.

I have gathered from people I’ve talked to that he witnessed some horrific things while deployed, including bombings, shootings, and several deaths. He has told me he was shot at repeatedly. I don’t mean to downplay the effects that can have on a human being. I can’t imagine having been in that position. I don’t doubt that it would change me, too. I know he’s hurting terribly, and I want to help, but he won’t let me. He won’t let me in.

After talking it over with my parents, I’ve decided to leave him, at least for now. I just can’t subject myself to the hurtful language and behavior anymore. He’s not treating me like a wife or even a friend, but rather like the enemy. And yes, for the record, I feel guilty about leaving, but should I? I feel like I’ve done everything I can do. Maybe you have other ideas. I hurt for him, for me, and for our marriage. —Not the Enemy

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Dear NTE,

Thank you for writing. I read your question with a heavy heart, feeling sadness for your husband and for you. I would not blame yourself or consciously nurture guilt or shame. It sounds as though distancing yourself was a necessary last resort. I do not think your husband is fully conscious of what he is doing, nor do I think you are acting selfishly.

Not to downplay your suffering in the slightest, but your husband has been to hell and back. His feelings and behavior are not inconsistent with other veterans exposed to such horrific trauma. It may be posttraumatic stress (PTSD) or dissociative numbness or some/all of the above, but I do know that too many of our veterans are not receiving the treatment they need and ought to have, considering their selflessness and risk. Not long ago I read that PTSD is not a qualifying condition for receiving the Purple Heart, that only obvious physical injuries qualify. This, I think, indicates the stigma of shame and corresponding ignorance accompanying mental health issues, which only superficially appears to undermine stereotypes of “bravery” and so forth. As always, we tend to be afraid of what we can’t tangibly see or explicitly define, and psychology remains a curious mix of art and science (and philosophy, and literature …).

Yet what could be braver than facing one’s own inner “demons”? A veteran I once treated briefly for addiction said he found facing “the monster within” was more frightening than actual gunfights he’d seen on assignment. Your husband is in the awful predicament of needing to process indescribably hellacious experiences, within the right setting with a trained professional, of course. This could never be expected of a partner or loved one.

Acute trauma also, as indicated by your empathic, eloquent question, affects the families of those suffering, as the traumatized one’s behavior pushes others away. You, too, sound traumatized in being neglected, shut out, demeaned, and so forth—painful experiences for someone who, I surmise, longs to reconnect with a long-absent spouse.

It is interesting that some people, including some professionals, call patterns of psychological suffering “disorders.” But if you put it in context, both you and your husband are having a normal, human reaction to extreme circumstances which would be “disordering” to anyone. Being abused in childhood or traumatized in battle might, for instance, lead to addictive or depressive (or other) issues, though it’s worth asking whether it is the person or their traumatizing experiences that are disordered.

Your husband returned to “normal life” with profound suffering and perhaps shame, and reacts by “acting out” (I mean this non-pejoratively) what he is feeling, keeping you at a painful distance and emotionally wounding you in the process. Perhaps he feels too overwhelmed or ashamed to express his pain and corresponding inadequacy, and so he enacts his trauma on those closest to him as a way of unconsciously expressing what he feels inside but cannot express, hiding his vulnerability defensively, even hurtfully. Clearly, there is some kind of unbearable risk for him in allowing the kind of intimacy you so understandably want and miss.

Often trauma makes a person into a kind of wary rescue animal—strong but brutalized, rowling or hissing angrily over and over again at anyone who approaches, until they can, slowly and painstakingly, learn to trust again. It is hard, if not impossible, for us to do this without the proper support.

His own repressed or dissociated trauma feelings are, in other words, probably similar to what you are feeling: shame, a sense of feeling torn, abandoned, and abandoning (since he may also long to reconnect but is too terrified or wounded to do so, perhaps guilty or ashamed he left you behind or is doing so now in his withdrawal). In a bizarre way, he may feel he is protecting you from the chaos within; if he feels he is drowning in unexpressed pain and terror, he may not want to pull a beloved into the maelstrom. He may say, in other words, “You couldn’t handle it,” while you respond, “Try me.”

Often trauma makes a person into a kind of wary rescue animal—strong but brutalized, rowling or hissing angrily over and over again at anyone who approaches, until they can, slowly and painstakingly, learn to trust again. It is hard, if not impossible, for us to do this without the proper support.

Of course, what your husband may be missing or repressing is that the distancing itself is hurtful to you and the relationship, and ultimately self-sabotaging, since what he (likely) needs most of all is human connection, emotional safety, and deep validation of his suffering, in a way that confirms (and not undermines) his manhood. (He may unconsciously feel he is “the enemy” for being so “weak” and shamefully afraid, may feel shame or guilt that he could not protect or save those who died—again, a common reaction.)

At a certain point, however, we have to get in the lifeboat even if our loved one refuses to do so. It is an impossibly painful choice. This leads me to reiterate, again, that there is no “right” decision here for you. You can stay and risk drowning, or find safety yourself while anxious you have “left him behind.”

If only we could somehow culturally redefine “strength” to mean addressing and healing, rather than avoiding or numbing, our own psychic pain and isolation. If only, in such a masculinized culture like the police or military, emotional sensitivity is not equated with being “wimpy,” etc. It’s actually the “keep a stiff upper lip and carry on” mentality that is dangerous after the battle has ended.

Perhaps, then, you can role model for your husband the kind of strength I’m talking about. I cannot recommend enough the following: support, support, and more support. I strongly suggest you seek out the kind of education and emotional assistance your husband needs. Is there a “wives of veterans” group, in person or online, from which you can find sustenance, both practical and psychological? Can the local or online VA provide helpful info? I would bet what you are experiencing is also not uncommon. It is too early to abandon hope, and helping yourself is helping the relationship since you are 50% of the equation.

You might also seek out counseling, either individual or group, via a therapist with specific training and experiencing in this area. Trauma resulting from military service or firefights is not quite like any other, given the specifics of military culture, codes of honor and bravery, and so forth. You can look via GoodTherapy.org, if you like. But do find something, because this is agonizing, if not impossible, to handle on one’s own. Ending the pain of your guilt and isolation will make it easier to communicate with your husband, and I would urge you to not make a final decision until after you have found some peer or professional support.

I thank you again for writing. You, too, are doing your country a duty in attempting to help yourself and your husband address the wounds he carries inside.

Kind regards,

Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 7 comments
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  • DanaV

    DanaV

    August 12th, 2016 at 2:16 PM

    You can’t ever feel guilty for making a change in life that is going to be good for you

  • Mike

    Mike

    August 13th, 2016 at 7:45 AM

    I don’t know what to say because both of you have your own wounds that have to be addressed. You may or may not want to stay together to do this together and I think that this is a choice that the two of you need to make together. Whatever you do I know that each of you have to make a very tough decision and no matter what it is never going to be easy. No you should not feel guilty if you want to leave but you should not feel weak if you want to stay.

  • cara

    cara

    August 15th, 2016 at 8:57 AM

    There are certain things that someone encounters in life that they are never fully able to recover from. That does not make them a bad person but nor does it make you a bad person fro deciding that this is not what you want or need in your own life. I think that with some time and patience the two of you may could find your way back together again, it is always worth at least trying to make it work. But never at the sake of your own health.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    August 16th, 2016 at 10:19 AM

    How could you not expect that this experience would change him?

  • Annie

    Annie

    August 17th, 2016 at 1:47 PM

    It can be so hard coming back from a situation where things are decidedly not normal and then you come home to family life and are expected to be that same old person that you used to be but often that person has been smothered and does not really even exist anymore.

  • joan

    joan

    August 19th, 2016 at 1:45 PM

    Did the vow for better or for worse not mean that much to you?

  • David

    David

    November 20th, 2016 at 12:01 PM

    This makes me think of the situation where a husband is addicted to drugs or alcohol and is in denial on needing help and hurts everyone around him who loves him. At some point the loved ones HAVE to give the person doing the hurting some tough love. You leaving is that tough love. He needs to feel the loss of you as a push for him to get professional help. You can give him an ultimatum that if he doesn’t get help there is no chance you will ever come back to him. If he values the marriage he will take that seriously and get help. If he has in fact lost the love for you or doesn’t care anymore, then he may be nonchalant about it and just be okay with you leaving. But I believe you have to take this drastic step in order to preserve your own sanity.

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