Disclaimer: Today’s topic is sensitive in nature. We will be discussing topics that may be difficult for some listeners regarding trauma and things that elicit very emotional responses. Listen at your discretion.
“How To Support Your Spouse…” Series
Welcome to our new series, “How to Support Your Spouse…” For the next seven weeks we will focus on how you can help your spouse through trauma issues, anxiety/OCD, toxic family relationships, alcoholism/substance abuse issues, addictions, anger issues, and grief/loss.
Each week we will offer tips on how to offer support for a struggling spouse while maintaining healthy boundaries through each issue.
How To Support A Traumatized Spouse Introduction
Today’s topic is near and dear to our hearts. We are approaching our discussion from two angles; we’re both therapists who work with trauma survivors and we have had to cope with PTSD in our own marriage.
Vincent supported Laura as she recovered from PTSD. Laura experienced delayed-onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) around the time she married Vincent. A gynecological trauma from childhood led to medical and sexual triggers that made the first few years of our marriage very difficult. In effect, Laura struggled with being in any medical setting and had difficulty with sex.
How PTSD Works
When someone suffers from PTSD they can experience nightmares, hyper-vigilance (extreme safety monitoring to prevent things from harming you), and over-stimulation (hypersensitivity to the five senses).
Laura was in throes of severe PTSD, when they got married. Laura went through years of therapy, which was very helpful and motivated her to become a therapist.
She has been able to overcome the trauma through the support of Vincent, family, and a therapist. She has been able to see God’s role in her healing and recovery, which was an integral part very early in the therapeutic process.
She wants today’s message to offer hope for those coping with trauma and to see that recovery is possible. If you are the spouse of someone struggling with a trauma history, you can play a very important role in supporting them through recovery.
For an in-depth look at understanding triggers check out last week’s episode, “What Are Triggers?”
For Laura, there were many triggers. Hospitals, sex, TV shows, tight spaces, even benign things like temperature and light could produce a flashback. Vincent witnessed many of her flashbacks. He felt like she was in a whole other world.
Panic attacks would result from seemingly small things. It is important to understand that when you are married to someone with PTSD, things that appear to be “normal” can be anything but for the survivor. Having an awareness of your spouse’s triggers is key.
Laura’s flashbacks were so intense that she was having pseudo-hallucinations due to the hyperstimulation of PTSD. These episodes left her hysterical, in the fetal position. At times she would physically hurt herself during these attacks. Thankfully, she is well on the other side of recovery from such intense flashbacks.
The things that would once send Laura into hysterical flashbacks now hold much less power. Recently she faced an emergency c-section, which would have been unthinkable during her early years of PTSD.
She wants others to see her example as someone who is not trapped, there is hope and recovery. You do not have to be a slave to it.
How YOU Can Support Your Spouse
Don’t expect too much from the survivor. Learn to not “react” to the person who has been traumatized. You may see your significant other behave out of character, but the best thing you can do is to slow yourself down and begin to think about what is happening before you speak.
Bring your awareness to the here and now. Be present. Doing this will allow you to see that what is happening is not your fault and is actually something that is outside of your relationship.
Develop a trauma awareness. You may be in a relationship with someone who has been traumatized and not realize it. The traumatized person may not even realize it—they may be ignorant of it, in denial or have a delayed-onset, like Laura.
If you’re dealing with someone who is irritable, cranky, difficult, depressed, anxious, they may have experienced a trauma and are having difficulty coping. Being patient and gaining understanding will be very important.
Laura and Vincent recognize how easily their marriage could have ended due to the difficulties they faced from the PTSD. There were times even on the honeymoon where Laura was trying to escape and did not want to talk about it.
Fortunately, Vincent came into the relationship with some perspective. God had prepared him. For years prior to their first meeting, Vincent read the Bible a lot, along with plenty of Christian living books.
Vincent had been drawn to some old books that had belonged to his grandparents. He did not have an opportunity to get to know them, as his grandfather passed before Vincent was born, and his grandmother died during his childhood. He felt led to read these books.
He read books by James Dobson and Norman Vincent Peale. Then he sought out books by Drs. Cloud and Townsend and Dr. Daniel Clarke. At the time, he did not realize he was reading counseling books. These would be preparing his heart for marriage AND counseling.
2.) Gain Understanding
Vincent had already learned a few things before he learned Laura had PTSD. When Laura received the diagnosis, they started reading books on trauma in earnest.
It helped Vincent to understand that Laura may have been getting mad, but that it was not because of him. He was able to deflect a lot of the anger and find strength from God, rather than looking to Laura with a label, and calling her mean and bad.
There were times where Vincent struggled. He wondered if he could leave Laura at home when he went to work. Her safety was in question. She was pushing him away, telling him to divorce her.
Vincent did not enter into the marriage thinking that getting married would make things perfect. Vincent had the mindset that you get married, you stay married. Years of reading and leading Bible studies had prepared his heart for the challenges ahead.
These books are helpful in working through trauma: The Wounded Heart by Dan Allender. (A Christian counseling classic.) Restoring the Shattered Self by Healther Gingrich. (A book on complex PTSD.) Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys & Christ Restores by Diane Langberg. (Dr. Langberg is an expert in trauma and spiritual formation.)
Listen to our last episode “What Are Triggers?” to gain a better understanding of triggers and flashbacks.
3.) Learn Your Spouse’s Triggers
Our last podcast episode, “What Are Triggers?” is a good starting place to help you better understand what to be on the lookout for when you are trying to help your spouse.
Your spouse could be experiencing any number of triggers, anything from anniversary triggers to environmental. Be aware that you may be contributing to the triggers.
Laura struggled with things that Vincent would say. He could be saying something relatively benign, but Laura would take it like he was trying to hurt her.
Vincent suggests spouses learn to step back, talk about it and pray about it.
When we enter into trying to understand trauma, it’s like entering into a war zone. There are all of these hidden booby traps and things that if you step on them, it’s like two steps forward, three steps back. It’s a delicate matter. You may be setting the triggers off whilst trying to understand the trauma.
Understand that you may need to get worse to get better. Being patient and steady through it will go a long way. Don’t ask, “how long?” Vincent would often ask himself “how long will we be going through this?” but did not ask Laura this.
For Laura, one of the most healing parts of the therapeutic process was “putting” Jesus at the scene of the trauma. It’s not that He wasn’t already there, but trauma can make you forget it.
Early in therapy, she was able to recognize Him as a presence during the trauma and to also understand that He bore immeasurable pain for us all. He took on everyone’s pain. It lent perspective into her trauma situation and helped her to recover.
For Vincent, the promises made through his wedding vows guided him through the pain. If being married meant being with Laura through 45 minutes of being hysterical in the fetal position, that’s what he would do. The question of “will this last five years? Ten years? Til death?” may have entered his mind, but it did not last that long.
At times we felt like we were living a horror movie—this was not wedded bliss. We had to undergo extreme odds, but we persisted and our marriage is all the more stronger. Laura’s therapist pointed out that our marriage had to survive trials that don’t normally occur early in a marriage and that we weathered through it.
Vincent did not make decisions on how he felt, instead, He depended on God. In those intense, horrific moments its hard to see that there is light on the other side of this. There’s hope.
If you are noticing some red flags while reading/hearing this, seek strong, Christian counsel. Seek out someone who is trustworthy. Someone that has been vetted out that can come alongside you and help you see that you are not stuck.
Don’t entertain the thought “how long will this last?” as it is a question that many clients get caught up on. It’s asking the wrong question. Better questions are: are you committed to this person? Are committed to this marriage? Are you committed to your recovery? Are you committed to God?
5.) Learn coping/relaxation skills to practice with spouse
Being a supportive spouse means helping your spouse to remember their coping skills. This means learning those skills yourself for those moments where the traumatized spouse is struggling.
Help them practice these coping skills when they are in the throes of panic attacks. Help them get grounded. Grounding exercises can be helpful. (Check out our information on Grounding Exercises here.) You need to know what to do to not make it worse, but to actually help them through it.
For Laura, it was quite grounding for Vincent to come hold her and sing praise songs. (Note that he is a terrible singer and is tone/pitch deaf, but that didn’t matter.) It not only helped to stabilize Laura, but helped to keep Vincent calm, as well.
Being able to talk about what is happening/process it together is important. This also means being a good reflective listener. The process of recovery involves talking about the trauma. It’s not talking about it a certain number times.
Don’t put a limit on how many times it needs to be talked about. It may seem like they are talking about the same thing over and over again, but don’t let the number of times stop them from healing. Talking through it with someone helps them to gain perspective.
For spouses supporting a traumatized spouse, show them that you are trying to understand. Laura mentions how even if Vincent said or did the wrong thing, it meant more to her when he attempted to understand her.
7.) Set boundaries and take care of yourself
Trying to understand the situation can get you stuck in a toxic cycle. It’s important that you as the supporting spouse set boundaries and take care of yourself through the process. That means speaking truth in a loving manner.
You are being faced with a spouse who is having irrational beliefs about what happened. You need to be able to understand how they are feeling. You will have to be able to speak the truth and help them understand what is healthy and what is not.
You MUST NOT get caught up in their fears, otherwise your relationship will be driven by fears. If you feed the fear, it will not promote healing. The trauma will then be controlling both of you.
You need to have your own social and familial support. You need to keep yourself healthy. This way you will be ready to gently speak scripture and truths to your hurting spouse.
We hope that today’s episode has alerted you to some issues that need to be addressed in your life. Take the seven suggestions we’ve made today to heart.
Seek out trustworthy counsel to come alongside you through your recovery. There is hope and healing. We hope our story today has encouraged you.