There’s a reason veterans from wars and first responders from disasters find it tough to talk about their experiences. It’s hard reliving their nightmares, and it seems easier to ignore the horrors they’ve been through. There’s also still the idea that real men don’t show emotion. And real women don’t complain. Instead, they put their heads down and muscle through hard times.
But the fact is, if you’re a PTSD survivor, you’ve probably learned to turn off your emotions to keep yourself calm, logical, and rational. It seems like a practical solution just to get through the day. And if you’re in the midst of a long traumatic experience—like the firefighters who worked at the 9/11 disaster site day after day—you probably compartmentalize your grief and try to soldier through, doing the right thing as best as you can. You have no way to process your fears and anxieties.
When Your Helpmate Can’t Help You
And if that’s not enough, your spouse is worried about you, confounded about how to help you, and feeling closed off. That’s because people experiencing trauma learn to hold their emotions in check, which takes all the energy they have. When you’re in an anxious place, you feel threatened. And when you’re threatened, you don’t have the bandwidth to deal with your partner’s concerns. You’re not thinking about solving the issues in your relationship and being a better communicator when there are other, seemingly more critical issues at hand. Eventually, this distance between you and your partner becomes palpable, and sooner or later, the gap seems impossible to close.
Carrying the Stress Alone
When you can’t share the burden, then you carry it alone. And that’s a stressful situation. It’s not good for you or your partner, who is probably frustrated that she can’t break through the barrier to help you. The only way to remedy this is with patience and understanding. And the realization that opening up and sharing your trauma is anything but a sign of weakness—it’s an indication that you want to be your authentic self, and you are ready to really try to heal.
Being silent and stoic may be built into the expectations of people in our culture, but sooner or later, there will be a breakdown of some sort. PTSD survivors often feel like failures when that happens, as if they’re letting their partners and the people they love down. They feel like they should be stronger, and when they shut down, they feel bad, as if they’ve failed their partners and friends in some way. So on top of the PTSD they’re suffering from, they feel bad for how they react. As if they have failed in some way.
But, in fact, the opposite is true. A breakdown can be the beginning of emotional healing. It is often a slow process that cannot be rushed. It helps to have a good therapist who can walk you through the process, and often it’s helpful to have your partner at your side. Because they are suffering with you. It requires taking the risk of being vulnerable and sharing your feelings. Once you do, your partner can better understand your situation and you will forge an important connection.
Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her