Marriage Tips for Families Living with TBI and PTSD

Heather Hummert, FamilyofaVet.com
Marriage Tips for PTSD and TBI Families

One of the biggest requests we get for information at Family Of a Vet is how to keep a marriage with PTSD and / or TBI in its midst going. Unfortunately, those of us living in marriages faced with post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are at a significantly higher risk of divorce. BUT all is not lost.

It takes two to tango and it takes two to save a marriage — but it can be done...and here's some good ways to go about it.

1. Try to spend at least 30 minutes a day together ALONE.

Put the kids to bed early or get up earlier than is necessary. Take that time together. It doesn't have to be anything "special" — but taking the time out to just spend it together is precious.

2. Get a kitchen timer and use it.

Not just for cooking meals! Take a time out when you need it. When things are getting too heated, set that timer for 30 minutes and walk away from each other. You're going to save yourself hours of fighting and hours of apology.

3. Don't daydream about the "ol' glory days."

You aren't doing either of you any good. Sure, she used to be 50 pounds thinner and he used to not have PTSD/TBI/etc. My magic wand is broken and I can't fix everything - but I can tell you that dwelling on the past and wishing it could be your future is going to destroy your marriage. Focusing on what you CAN do and the good days ahead is a much more productive use of your time.

4. Don't be the invisible spouse.

I know work parties are boring because you don't know anyone and his/her friends aren't that interesting to you and sitting through another of your kid's band concerts just might leave you deaf ... but work with me here. For many years, I joked that I had an invisible spouse — and it was because it hurt. I know how hard it can be but honestly when people start to wonder if your spouse isn't just a fictional character, it's very painful. No one has died (that I know of) from sitting through a kid's concert. Get there early and get decent seats so it's easy to duck out if the noise gets to be too much. Consider an MP3 player for before/after your kid's performance. Try, at least twice a year, to make an appearance at something that's important to your spouse. It will mean the world because it's a tangible way to show you care.

5. If I've said it once, I've said it 1,000 times.

It's the little things that will kill a marriage. To me, surviving PTSD and TBI is the easy part. Surviving the little pet peeves and stupid things we do on a daily basis is what will get you. There's a wonderful scene in the movie Forget Paris about the two main characters debating out their little pet peeves. It's hysterical ... but so incredibly true! Work out those little things or be prepared to let them go. No one wants to have to tell a divorce attorney that the final straw was him squeezing the tube of toothpaste from the middle! It happens more than you'd think.

6. Just like it's the little things that will kill it, it's the little things that will SAVE it.

Try to do some small gesture every single day for your spouse. It doesn't have to be romance and flowers and chocolate. A kiss on the forehead to say "I love you" before you leave for work, picking up their favorite treat at the grocery store, a little smile from across the room. It all adds up — and it says "I love you" far clearer than any huge gift ever will.

7. A very stupid person once told me a very wise thing.

"No one always or nevers." It's true. Eliminate those words in a negative context from your vocabulary. "He never gets me flowers." "She's always yelling at me." The ONLY acceptable way to use these two words in the future is in a extremely positive context - "I will always love you and I will never leave you." Now go practice!

8. When I was a little girl my parents got divorced.

Sometimes nasty things would happen as they often do and I'd get angry as all little 9 year old girls do. My mother, sage, wonderful woman that she is offered me some great advice. "Honey, you don't have to like him, but he's your father and you do have to love him." I offer that advice to you. You may not always like your spouse, but you have to love them. Make that commitment and learn how to separate "I don't like you very much right now" from "I hate you." If you can, go one step further, "I don't like the fact that you just left a wet towel on my wood floor for 8 hours and likely ruined the finish" from "I hate you." It's a useful tool that gets to the heart of the REAL problem rather than masking it behind an emotion too large to define that overwhelms both of you.

9. Don't compare notes with other families — you'll always come up short!

EVEN within the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder/Traumatic Brain Injury community!!! Everyone is in a different situation, a different treatment plan, a different place on their journey. No family is going to be "just like you." Sure, Susan's husband just bought her a diamond necklace because he felt like it and your husband "NEVER" does things like that. (oops - there's that whole never thing...) You have no idea what else Susan's husband did. You have no idea what their income level is. Maybe Susan's really mad because it's a cheap piece of garbage and her husband makes a 6 figure salary. Don't play the judging game or ANY version of "Keeping up with the Jones's" — you'll never win what you really want and you'll most likely lose what's most precious.

10. Find something new to fall in love with about your spouse every single day.

The world will give you plenty of things to put on the "fall out of love" list. It's a conscious choice we have to make daily to fall a bit more in love, or a bit more out of it. Make that choice to better your marriage.

Posted on BrainLine May 20, 2013.

Used with permission from Heather Hummert, the wife of an OIF Veteran and Purple Heart Recipient, and contributions coordinator for FamilyofaVet.com. If you would like to contact Heather directly, email her here.

Comments (23)

This is such a wonderful article and I think super helpful. The more tools for Vets and Families helps improve the chances that they will stay connected and cohesive with the family unit. Recovery and treatment is also key and this goes for all the family members involved. Treatment programs include inpatient, outpatient, NAMI, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy. I think the more spouses that complete some form of treatment will have better outcomes in the long term.

Aug 12th comment, while I appreciate everyone's comments because it is if they are my own, your perspective is one I need to cultivate.  It is unfortunate that we are unable to contact one another privately.

It's very hard dealing with a tbi person especially in a marriage. I'm 22 & hes 19 it will be two years since he's been hit by a car really bad and sometimes I throw in the towel because I have had no professional help. I have to read about it on google so I can know the difference of what's going on with him I would do anything to help him get better. We've been married for 3 weeks and one day and it's even more arguments but I feel like we have to have help to get through this

But give up all hope if you're single?

To the lovely lady who has been "dealing", with her husbands issues for 45 years. I first of all give you props, not many couples make it that long any more, most think that giving up is an easy out. I have been learning a lot about TBI, and PTSD, my husband has both. I have found, that if you change your own mind set, things get a lot better. For example, the word "dealing", while I understand where you are coming from, because it is a daily challenge, and can be very exhausting, what if you said, I have been helping my husband to work through his daily challenges with.... Or, I have been working with my husbands.... for 45 years. If you erase the negative words that you direct at the situations, and look at them more as a challenge to love your husband, I have found more success. I give a lot of positive reinforcement, and if he does something that irritates me, or if he has an explosive moment, I either ignore it, or I acknowledge it with, I'm sorry your frustrated right now, or, I didn't mean to upset you. Then I will give him some space, and he usually comes to me, and apologizes, and tells me what the real issue was. I hope this helps. Just putting my experiences out there incase anyone else might find success with my trials. God bless, and good luck. 

I found your suggestions helpful. In the heat of the moment it is difficult to remain even and not respond in kind to an inappropriate remark or gesture....

this all sounds great but how do you put it into practice and be a "wife" to someone who is always angry and so self involved that you feel like you don't need to be in the room he gets all he needs from his own world in his head. and it is all negative in there. I just want a marriage to the man I married not to this monster who makes everything my fault and my responsibility. He seems fine then all the sudden he is this horrible person, not sure in my own mind if its the head injury or just him, I always feel off center not sure how to know I am loved when there is always something that has nothing to do with me that I a supposed to be responsible for. There was no sudden thing that happened, the head injury happened years ago but now he is just this awful person, I am the third wife and wondering if this is really him and not the head injury, how do I do this on a day to day basis being the bad guy when all I do is wait on him and serve him and put up with the crap. I just feel like throwing in the towel but that makes me the third wife who left. He is seeing a psycologist at Brain Injury but nothing seems to be changing , it just gives him another place to go and vent all his crap to someone else who doesn't seem to be giving him strategies that could help this situation

It's like stepping on eggshells. You have no idea what it is to be a wife of a wounded veteran until you are one. Then you will do everything you can to help your child not experience the same things as a mom/wife that we are experiencing. These soldiers come back so wounded, so bad its like war comes back with them. So much advice on how to aviod what triggers them and so much money trying to stay healthy dealing with our injured vets. I could just cry. It's neverending. They are unpredictable. We begin to fear them and with good reason. Does it get better as a divorced mon who would never keep her growing child away from their dad... NO. It doesn't get better. I know I sound very pessimistic but I am actually a very optimistic and hopeful person. In fact I am brace the experience of opening my arms to my wounded veteran it has taught me much and divorcing one (he divorced me claiming it was to get us to reconcile) he was unstable and lawyer he hired took advantage of his disability and trued to fight me for full custody. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. As a mom holding on to a good job for her family and working long hours coming hone to him was HELL. I wanted to run sometimes, there was not one day I didn't find something jaw dropping. Today, we coparent... I cry still everyday and i suffer from many things I didnt suffer from growing up. My heart hurts for my veteran, he will always be my veteran but he doesn't ration. It hurts just trying to communicate. I repeat myself often he suffers from many things from hearing loss and memory it's like having two children. After divorce I thought it would be easy. If we didn't have a child I know I wouldn't deal with him at all and I disappear but I'd worry still I don't know where he'd end up. I know his son gives his life meaning just as it does for me. I know that the experience made me strong and everyday I am thankful now I used to be very ungrateful but today after undergoing so much I am thankful for any little thing God puts in front of me. I thank God forbthe burds, the sun... i cry when I'm happy and sad. I get talked at not to. He is my critic as if I don't give myself enough criticism.

How can I best describe what it feels like when a soldier we love comes back from war? It's like your this happy little bunny bouncing around this ROBOT. You prance around happily with so many ideas but the emptiness inside the robot and its inability to feel... it's cold, hopeless and down down down, woes me attitude crushes the rabbit. I feel stepped on every day. The best thing I did was get myself out of the house out from under the same roof. I don't regret that one bit even though I would've never filed for divorce. My mother told me that man will kill you if you don't leave. Well, one day I had no choice. God knows why and who he puts the struggle on. It took years to divorce and I lost it all trying to bring my soldier up. But I'm not a victim. Even though I suffer from anxiety and depression. Even though I see a doctor regularly and I suffer I consider myself a strong woman. My child is the reason. So does it get better after you divorce a wounded soldier with TBI? No. Sadly, I imagine that if we didn't have a child he would've killed himself by now. Today, he suffers permanent damage to his brain that makes it utterly impossible to get a good conversation and I find myself working around his bad attitude a lot. Somedays all the emotions come out and I yell. Somedays I close myself off from the world in my ache so that I do not become contagious. The worst thing you can do is try to put yourself in your loved one's shoes and try to understand why do they do and act the way they do.... no doctor can help. It's just a matter of not letting them break you. We have to find a way to stay sane and keep them from hurting us with their words or impulsive behavior. We also have to pray they don't hurt themselves.

Has your spouse tried going to an inpatient facility for TBI? My husband went to one at ft Belvoir for 4 months and it really saved his life- and our marriage. He does need to keep up with " maintainance" therapy at the VA but he learned real skills he can put to practice- to deal with emotional and mental aspects of TBI.

I have spent our 45 years of marriage dealing with my husbands TBI & PTSD and never had anyone to talk to for support.  You see, my husband was wounded in Vietnam (he has refused to have anything to do with the military since) and had a plate put in his forehead before I knew him. I have spent the years walking on eggshells, trying to figure out what the triggers of his anger are, and how to deal with his rages and running interference with 'life' situations that might set him off, and many illogical decisions. In the early years we were both working and very busy, but now we are not. And now that we have all the time we could want to spend together, I am seeing so much more than I ever thought. The inability to reason logically, the socially unacceptable behaviors, inappropriate responses. At times things are ok but more often there are things that he says that make no sense at all and hurts me deeply (intentionally at the time) and he will be so remorseful after and even tell me he doesn't know why he said or did that. We've been together a lifetime and I love him - deeper, much deeper than in the early days- I want so badly to help him. The problem has been that he doesn't want to seek help from a doctor. He sees that as a weakness, which only creates more confusion for us. The frustration in him is obvious, and if I were to go behind his back to find help it would only create a major issue that I would have to live with every day and from what I have been reading, there really isn't any 'fix'.  It is what it is, and I have God's marvelous grace ( as one of you above said) and it is up to me to extend that grace to my precious husband. It's something he cannot correct. It is not easy, in fact, at times it seems to heavy- too dark- but it's then that God reminds me He is here for me.  And His grace is sufficient.

I really wish I'd found this site a week or two ago!!!  I have severe PTSD and just started treatment about 2 months ago.  I'm irritable and angry, easily overwhelmed, weepy.  I fought with my husband often because of my issues.  He is not perfect!  Not by far, but he is a good man.  I left him last Friday and filed for divorce because I couldn't get the fighting to stop.  He had no supports to manage living with me... and I can't cope with his issues on top of trying to manage my own emotions.

I dealt with PTSD and still do, I recommend to you all, what made the biggest difference for me was seeing a trained professional.  I would not think to face combat without training, why should I face PTSD without training. It made an immense difference. There are still struggles, but if I let it steal my life, I have let the enemy win.  Cognitive Behavior Therapy Works!

Great insights here! I use some of these strategies in my own marriage. I love the "always" and "never" tip! Thanks!

My husband's irrational rage is directed toward our children, mostly our daughter. I have to place myself between them. I'm exhausted of always having to watch over his emotions when we're in a crowd. I don't get to just enjoy the moment. I find myself wondering when this will end and if I want to spend my life waiting. I'm faced with what will happen to him if I leave but what will happen to me if I stay?

I am a wife that is going thru some of the same things. My husband was hit on his motorcycle Sept 3, 2017, which is also my bday. He has a TBI and is very angry and mean to both me and my daughter. We don't know what to expect from him on a daily basis which means I walk around on egg shelves. I've had to return back to work and this means he's calling me all day long. It's very stressful for me on so I try hard to take advantage of my time at work, only to realize I have to go home to a man that I no longer know. It's hard watching him struggle every day and letting me have all the cuss words after putting in a long day at work. Nothing I do is enough, nothing I say can calm him. I feel alone and even scared that he may one day lose it. I pray and ask God to come in and take the wheel because I feel I have no strength left to run this race. I don't want to leave him but I don't know this man is not the man I married. I would feel guilty if I just walked away.

Going through the same thing. Except my husband was in Iraq and Afghanistan

Latonya,

I am also a wife of TBI husband. He was in a motorcycle accident 3/11/2015.

First off, the anger is hormones. They do have medications that will help. My husband had Sundowners. Which means he got very angry at night. But as he healed it switched to the day. The medication helped a lot. We were also in therapy. However we could not tell him that the therapy was for his anger, so we told him it was for me. We are already 3 years in the healing. Now my husband is not angry but cries over everything. Food, tv, music, all of it. He also has short term memory loss, so he doesn't remember why he was crying a few minutes after crying.

So what I am trying to tell you from experience is, this too will pass, but another storm will brew. Just keep your faith, remember your vows. There will be some good times in there also. You are still at the very beginning of the healing.

Thank you for that information it has given me hope. What kind of medication is your husband taking? My husband gets the same thing that night and then the next day like nothing ever happened. But he came home after 10 months in the hospital with no psychiatric care and he's very disillusioned and has no concept of time he thinks I've been gone for a long time and I'm only at the store 30 minutes. Thank you for your advice

You are your own responsibility. Just as your child is your responsibility. This means that, just as you are responsible for keeping your child out of harm’s way, you are responsible for keeping yourself out of harm’s way. You must love yourself as if you were your own child.

To the one who wrote on Feb 5th - how can you not know me and know my world, my private world so well? Those are thoughts I have never vocalized but have run through my mind. My husband and I are 10 years into PTSD and it doesn't seem to be getting any easier. But and there is always a but, we are getting better at living with it. In the dark days that usually seem to be weeks he often fails at suggestion #3 and I fall short on #8 but the tip that was not given, the one that saves us is: have and give grace. Undeserved forgiveness over and over again. PTSD is not what we signed up for but I did agree to forever, sickness and health. I believe if the tables were turned he would be at my side so there at his I remain. I hate PTSD and what it does to him and our family but I do love him. Don't give up.

What if you don't want to keep trying to make things work? What if you're just done with it all? I've been married for over 31 years. The marriage was rocky at times before the PTSD/TBI, but over the past 10 years I've gone from really going overboard in support and reaching into his world to just being totally disconnected--and OK with the disconnect. We're in counseling and I see periodic superficial change, but nothing fundamental. I'm still the target of his irrational rage episodes and soul-shredding verbal tirades. I've gone from yearning to stay connected and help him get better to really just hanging out because I don't know what else to do. I find it unbearable sad, but I can't change what's happened. I feel like I've been so verbally and emotionally beaten down that I'm not sure the "real" me is still in here somewhere.

I agree I have been married 49 years

Work at staying married 
It is not easy, it is not simple, it takes an effort, like anything that is worthwhile, achieving your goals takes effort and teamwork.

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