The Army officer’s wife told me that since her husband was unwilling to seek treatment for his PTSD, she intended to seek a divorce. It wasn’t what she truly wanted, but she felt that his choice—to disregard the impact of this mental health disorder on himself, their relationship, and all members of the family—left her little choice but to do so.
What this wife in her thirties found devastating, she professed, was not merely learning that her husband had been engaging in an ongoing affair with another officer he’d met while overseas, but that he’d had multiple sexual encounters with other women since developing this mental disorder. She had told him that she could forgive him for his past transgressions since she understood it was the PTSD talking. But she also knew that if he didn’t get help, he would slip right back into the infidelities. And certainly, they not only undermined this couple’s marriage, but encouraged her husband to act in ways which she knew to be against the values he’d held before PTSD ever made its appearance.
What this officer’s wife seemed less inclined to forgive was what she perceived as the Army’s blind eye to such behavior on the part of their returning warriors wounded by PTSD. How were these men’s wives, who were likely finding their husbands to be withdrawn and perhaps uncomfortable being intimate with them anyway, supposed to stand by their men and fight this new enemy, PTSD, when their marriages and personal well-being were being undermined in this way? the officer’s wife wondered. And didn’t the Army Command recognize that these spouses, who could play such a vital role in their wounded warriors’ healing and future well-being, understand that they would be more willing to stand tough and accept the slings and arrows that would invariably come there way, if the Army stood in their corner with regard to this matter?
PTSD, Infidelity, and Soul Wounds
This particular wife’s experiences and anguish are certainly not unique. Go to the "Stars and Stripes" website and read the May 17, 2009 column, Spouse Calls, and you’ll see that Terri Barnes and her readers--military wives, predominantly—have recognized that there are wounded warriors with PTSD spending much time on the internet viewing pornography—whether or not they’re engaging in actual infidelities with other women (who could include prostitutes whom are easy to locate near some of the bases, I’m told).
Another person who speaks openly about how PTSD can lead to promiscuous behavior and addiction to pornography is PTSD sufferer and veteran, Dr. John Zemler. This theology professor talks about these things and more at his website, PTSD Spirituality.
PTSD sufferers and their partners are probably fortunate that Dr. Zemler does so since many of us, who favor looking at this mental disorder from a mind, body, and spirit perspective, believe that it’s necessary to acknowledge and deal with the “soul wound” aspect of PTSD. And indeed, addressing the spiritual component seems especially vital when dealing with those whose PTSD stems from exposure to war.
Therapists, however, may be disinclined to do so because they may not feel as well grounded in this area as they do with regard to the mind and body. Also, trying to delve into spiritual issues may seem inconsistent with the belief many therapists embrace--that all therapeutic techniques they use should be empirically based.
Dr. Zemler discusses how PTSD can essentially consume one’s personality and result in a new kind of identity—similar to what we’ve observed with addicts. He goes on to suggest that PTSD-based infidelity—as well as pornography addiction— result when the PTSD sufferer no longer feels pure enough to keep being pure in his or her sexual actions. Dr. Zemler suggests that untreated PTSD diminishes the person’s ability to desire to remain unstained in the world.
Certainly, essentially everything that was normal for the PTSD sufferer before the trauma occurred has been turned upside down. The rape victim, for example, may feel shame and worthlessness because of the way in which he or she was victimized. The warrior wounded by PTSD, on the other hand, may feel similarly for victimizing others—or perhaps for surviving an attack in which a buddy was blown to pieces when indeed, the sufferer believes he should have been able to protect someone he essentially saw as a brother. Not surprisingly, the wounded warrior may be overwhelmed with survivor’s guilt and other painful emotions—as well as horrific memories and images experienced time and again in flashbacks and nightmares.
The warrior wounded by PTSD may ignore the partner—who likely still craves intimacy. And yet, as already alluded to, the PTSD sufferer may nonetheless seek out casual sexual encounters. Some motivations to behave in this way can include to rekindle feelings of self-worth, to distract oneself from bad memories, to feel more alive, or to satisfy a sexual urge that he or she no longer has the self-control not to act upon.
But no matter what the motivation, these casual sexual relationships typically come to make the PTSD sufferer feel worse—even more worthless and like a failure.
Those offering a spiritual perspective would say that the PTSD sufferer is moving farther and farther away from acting in accordance with his or her highest self—which is, at its core, all about love. The emotionally healthy individual, in other words, wants to love and be loved, and won't elect to engage in actions that consistently extinguish love either within the self or significant others. But of course, the PTSD sufferer will continue to act in ways that are destructive to the self—to the true or highest self, that is. That is why getting those PTSD symptoms treated early on is so vital.
As mentioned earlier, the partner suffers right along with the loved one with PTSD. In fact, he or she may experience even more emotional pain than the PTSD sufferer—while struggling to deal with what has become an irrational world of uncharacteristic behaviors on the part of the loved one who has been reshaped by PTSD. Meanwhile, the partner is left there standing in a sober and rational state—having to absorb the full brunt of the other’s painful choices. Well, and at the same time,of course, there are other matters with which to contend—all fallout from having a PTSD-impacted spouse.
But let’s return to the subject of infidelities for a moment. While such behaviors speak more of the sufferer’s mental disorder than they do of any inadequacy on the spouse’s part, this partner, and especially a wife, may nevertheless question her own sexual attractiveness, for example. Then, believing that she has somehow failed to meet her husband’s needs, rather than electing to not take what’s happening so personally, she may become overwhelmed by feelings of shame. In fact, not unlike her PTSD-suffering husband, she may come to label herself as being worthless, too.
Feeling this way, the wife may begin to experience anxiety or depression. If she is not provided support and guidance in managing her own immense emotional pain, she could also end up coping with her emotions in unhealthy ways—perhaps not too dissimilar from those engaged in by her husband with PTSD. So certainly, besides worrying about the partner of the PTSD sufferer coming to abuse alcohol and drugs as a means of self-medicating emotional pain, suicide can be a potential risk for both the PTSD sufferer and the partner.
Can these Marriages be Saved?
Can these partners forgive their PTSD-inflicted spouses their sexual indiscretions and sustain their marriages? Some people seem able to do so. Sadly, though, it appears an impossible task for so many. That said, for there to be a chance of this happening, the PTSD sufferer must be willing to accept treatment and commit to giving up this means of coping with the PTSD. And, of course, the betrayed partner must be able to forgive and, while he or she may never totally forget, must nevertheless agree to essentially bury the past. This means making a commitment to not reminding the PTSD sufferer of past transgressions or the hurt they caused—as well as agreeing to trust the PTSD sufferer in the future. Of course, with regard to the latter, the assumption is that the warrior wounded by PTSD will henceforth act in ways that are worthy of that trust.
Again, some couples simply will not be able to accomplish these things. Then again, the betrayed partner may decide it is actually kinder to give the loved one, hopefully now striving to change, an opportunity to be with someone who can believe in him or her because there is no painful history with which to contend. And indeed, such thinking seemed to play a part in the Army officer’s wife coming to the decision to end her marriage; she could now believe that divorce was best for the both of them.
The PTSD sufferer could also decide that he or she needs to be able to go forth into territory where trust issues and past resentments do not linger. This could eliminate one source of anxiety for the PTSD sufferer— whereby he or she no longer fears that one or both of these could rear their ugly heads at any time. And certainly, PTSD sufferers do much better when the stress level in their lives is minimized.
We also know from our years of work with addicts, that people striving to overcome significant problems—and wanting to create lasting change for themselves—often must, to use Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) language, change their “playmates and their playpens.” We know that sometimes they must leave behind loved ones whom, otherwise, would forever stare back at them with pain-filled eyes when indeed, they need helping hands that pull them forward—ever closer to their grandest vision of themselves. They don't need to be continually reminded of their wounded selves of yesterday.
Seeking to Strengthen Relationships Promotes Spiritual Growth
Those of us who embrace and promote the idea of spiritual healing would say that this is part of the value or role of healthy relationships—or that emotionally healthy partners support each other in becoming their best and highest selves. It is a tall task—especially when PTSD is present. But that doesn’t mean that some couples can’t embrace this task and experience at least some success. Well, it may help if they first modify their current definition of success.
To be realistic, most are going to need support to do so, however. Fortunately, as people become better educated about PTSD, it seems there are more folks wishing to offer a helping hand than previously. That said, do we all bring to the table the kind of knowledge and skills necessary to do this? Are we prepared to openly discuss with PTSD sufferers topics such as sexual promiscuity and the use of pornography—and their ramifications on not only the wounded warriors themselves, but on their partners, their families, and the larger society?
Everyone wants to believe in the nobleness of our men and women in uniform. Perhaps as a result, it may be too easy to overlook how misshapen some have become by the very things asked of them—or to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly consequences of war. But whether you are offering a helping hand via mental health services of pastoral counseling, or developing policy and programs to better serve our troops and their families, can you embrace helping these individuals to not merely better manage their symptoms of PTSD through medications and behavioral techniques, but to help them connect with their higher selves?
Remember, in helping others to continue to reach higher, we ourselves are likely to do the same. Furthermore, as we struggle as a nation and its people to find the paths best followed to heal the wounded souls of our warriors, we ourselves as a nation should become transformed. And perhaps, that can be some of the good that comes from the sacrifice that our men and women in uniform and their families have not only already made, but, sadly enough, will likely be making for many years to come.
Would you like to read more about how war affects people as well as how to better heal soul wounds? Then check out "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character" by Dr. Jonathan Shay; "War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder" by Dr. Edward Tick; and "War is a Force that Gives Life Meaning" by war correspondent, Chris Hedges. (You may find some other more recent books helpful as well, but these are some I read and found helpful as I wrote The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Relationship: How to Support Your Partner and Keep Your Relationship Healthy.).