PTSD and Relationships

Hannah O'Brien and husband Cody

by Hannah O'Brien

Separating Your Spouse

PTSD can sometimes feel like a big, all-consuming monster that takes up all the space, leaving you feeling like there’s no room for anything else, especially in a relationship. As the spouse of a Marine Corps veteran who told me the day we met, that he had PTSD and that his ex had ended their relationship by saying “fuck you and your PTSD,” I thought I knew what I was getting into. I was wrong. I’m a total type A, but I’ve learned there’s no way you can prepare for loving and supporting someone with PTSD, or for supporting yourself for that matter. You learn how to cope (and thrive) by being in the thick of it. You learn through choosing to fight, and doing the incredibly hard work it takes to choose each other every day. 

Over the last 8 years with my husband, I learned that one of the hardest things to do is figure out which of his responses are fueled by PTSD, what’s military culture, and what’s just my spouse? Having met him after he left the Marines, I found this even harder to parse out. I didn’t know him before his service, or before PTSD. I only knew him as a mashup of all of his experiences – the good, bad, and ugly. How was I supposed to understand how to support him if I didn’t even know what (or who) I was dealing with?

Several years ago, a fellow spouse shared a video with me of a veteran spouse describing her understanding of her husband’s PTSD, and it changed my life (and my relationship) forever. She described her husband as three separate people. He was the man she married, he was the military culture, and he was his PTSD, which she affectionately referred to as Rambo. And when she was talking to Rambo, she said she was no longer his wife, but his enemy. Wow. Read that again. When I heard that I burst into tears. She had put into words what I had too often felt, but didn’t understand. How had I been dealing with this – the feeling that at times my husband viewed me as his enemy, on my own, with no support? The unfortunate reality was that I wasn’t dealing with it, I was struggling. 

After this, when my husband was “elevated” as I refer to it, and when I felt like I was the enemy, I had a mantra I would chant to myself, often behind sobs. “It’s not me, it’s PTSD.” It may seem simple, or even strange, but this helped me separate my spouse. In these instances, I was no longer talking to the man I loved, in fact, the person I was talking to didn’t have a wife. And while some may find that heartbreaking to read, it was incredibly helpful to finally have a tool I could utilize to support both my spouse and myself. Who was I dealing with at the moment? Was I dealing with my husband who may be stressed or upset about something anyone could relate to? Was I dealing with the military culture, where my husband’s core value of respect is violated by the person at the grocery store who left their cart in the middle of the aisle? Or was I talking to Rambo? 

Over time I created my own nickname for my husband’s PTSD. We refer to it as his “guy.” When he is elevated or triggered, “his guy” is out, and I’m no longer dealing with my husband, so I can’t react like I would react to my husband. “His guy” has emotions the size of Texas. There is no room for anyone else’s emotions, so if I try to use logic, or even share my emotions, I truly become the enemy. I had to learn a different approach. What I’ve learned is to let “his guy” have his emotions (and separate myself from it if I need to) and have a conversation when my husband’s back at the wheel. Strike when the iron’s cool as they say. And this is helpful for both of us. “His guy” can’t hear anything I say, and doesn’t care to. My husband, however, cares a lot. When we talk about his PTSD as this separate entity, it makes it easier for both of us. Imagine having a conversation with your spouse about how to handle your annoying in-law. You come together as a team, make a plan and tackle it together. It’s no different here, even if the annoying in-law is a part of my husband. 

Talking about it this way takes out the blame, shame, and stigma. Because “his guy” is not his fault. He did not choose to develop PTSD. He chose to serve his country in a time of war. What happened to him is not his fault. And the truth is my husband would send “his guy” packing in an instant if he could, and it helps me be more patient and empathetic when I remind myself of that. How unsettling must it be when it feels like something is taking over your thoughts and emotions? I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, nor would my husband. 

I’ve heard several other spouses use this same technique of separating their spouse. I encourage you to find the technique that works for you, and if you think this is worth trying, talk with your partner about it. If you’re not there yet, or this doesn’t sound like it’s for you, that’s ok too. And if you are dealing with PTSD in your relationship, please check out Episode 4 of the Veteran Spouse Network Podcast where I talk with a fellow spouse of a veteran with PTSD about the many ways it impacts relationships.  

Blog post originally shared on Coming Home Well | January 19, 2024