Veterans’ PTSD and Domestic Violence: Post-War Casualties

Extensive research shows that veterans’ PTSD and domestic violence often go hand-in-hand to terrorize families already desperately trying to survive.

Whether they’re perpetrators or victims, war veterans with PTSD experience significantly more violence in their homes than civilians who don’t have PTSD.

For many veterans’ wives, the numbers reflect the truth we may have been living for years:

  • In 43 percent of veteran couples in one study, men reported abusive behavior toward their partners.
  • In another study, 55 percent of military couples dealing with PTSD reported some kind of physical altercation at some point in their relationship.
  • Anywhere from 15 to 60 percent of veterans have abused their partners.
  • 35 percent of veterans have been the victims of marital abuse.

“Domestic violence rates among veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are higher than those of the general population.”

Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Clearly, domestic abuse is a common problem for veterans with PTSD. But why?

Why Domestic Violence is Prevalent Among Vets With PTSD

Some studies have pointed to a few factors that might explain why veterans exerience more abuse in their homes, such as a history of head trauma and substance abuse.

Other contributing factors may include:

Depression

One study showed that vets with PTSD and depression were more abusive towards their partners than vets diagnosed with PTSD and an adjustment disorder.

As a woman married to a male war veteran, this makes sense to me. Depression looks different in men than it does in women. When my husband gets depressed, he usually doesn’t cry. He gets pissed.

Dissociation

Sometimes our soldiers break from reality and lose control of their bodies and minds. They may not know where they are or what’s going on. They might re-experience the mental distress and physical reactions of combat.

When someone dissociates, they experience two different phenomena:

  • Depersonalization: feeling disconnected from your body
  • Derealization: feeling disconnected from the world

I’ve seen what this looks like. and, chances are, you have, too. Our partners’ bodies are in one place, but their minds are in another. They lose control.

Some nights, my husband can smell the sand and sewage of Iraq. He hears the popping guns and whistling mortars. He sees the dead and dying. He experiences the fear and panic he endured 15 years ago, and he can’t stop it.

For our partners, the war never ended. It will always be there waiting for them.

And we will be there to take the fallout.

Flashbacks and other types of dissociation can wreak havoc in veterans’ marriages.

The Nature of Deployment

Studies suggest that veterans are more likely to commit domestic violence if they were deployed multiple times, if they had to kill anyone, or if they witnessed any atrocities.

In a way, I’m lucky. My husband went on only one tour of duty.

Sometimes, though, that’s all it takes.

Uncontrollable Anger

When the fear of combat lingers, sometimes that culminates into aggression that can be taken out on veterans’ wives. It builds and builds over the years, often unacknowledged and unaddressed, until it explodes in tragedy.

Our soldiers are scared and in pain, so they lash out at the people most supportive of them.

“When one is exposed to war-zone trauma and combat trauma, they are going to be more likely to assume the worst and assume people are trying to do harm to them–and more likely to respond to that with aggressions.”

Dr. Casey Taft, top researcher at the Department of Veterans Affairs

A Lack of Support

Another factor that feeds into veterans’ PTSD and domestic violence is a lack of support. Little is known about the problem, and the VA’s efforts to address it are in their infancy.

In my case, I got excited not too long ago when I heard about the VA doing couples counseling, but when I looked into it, I learned it wasn’t available at my city’s facility.

My husband and I wanted help, but it wasn’t there. The VA couldn’t give us what we needed. They’re focused on wounded veterans, not their wounded wives.

Secondary Trauma

Many marriages that involve PTSD are mutually abusive, meaning both partners mistreat each other.

Women married to partners with PTSD tend to be more violent than women whose partners don’t have PTSD. In one study, 37 percent of men reported being assaulted by their partners, while 34 percent of women reported perpetrating abuse–usually in retaliation.

So what’s the deal? Why do we bring even MORE chaos into our homes?

It has to do with our own trauma. As spouses of veterans with PTSD, we’ve had our share of it, especially if our partners have hurt us in any way.

I’m not blaming my husband for the way I mistreat him sometimes, just like he can’t blame me when he’s in the wrong. It doesn’t mean any of it is OK.

It just means I love someone with PTSD, and I have my own baggage to deal with.

What Are Some Signs of Abuse?

As you can see, domestic violence is a widespread problem among veterans and their partners, but how do you know if it’s a problem for you?

That’s not always an easy question to answer because the signs of abuse can be subtle, and sometimes our spouses deny the abuse is happening at all.

Sometimes we want to deny it because admitting it hurts too much. But if we can face the problem, we might be able to solve it, or at least find a way to deal with it.

To figure out if your relationship is abusive, it helps to familiarize yourself with some red flags associated with different types of domestic violence. These actions are about making you feel scared and controlled, so if that’s how you feel, there’s a chance you’re experiencing abuse.

Physical Abuse

Signs of physical abuse are the easiest to spot. Your partner may do things to you like:

  • Destroy your stuff
  • Hurt your pets
  • Coerce you into getting high
  • Hurt you with her hands or with weapons
  • Forbid you to eat or sleep
  • Keep you from contacting the police or going to the hospital
  • Leave you in strange places
  • Drive carelessly when you’re with her
Physical abuse leaves scars on the inside and out.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can be harder to recognize and is often the first kind of abuse to show up in a marriage. These are attempts to damage your self-worth.

If you’re being emotionally abused, your spouse may:

  • Be extremely jealous
  • Put you down
  • Use your kids against you
  • Keep you from going places and seeing people
  • Try to intimidate you with gestures or weapons
  • Constantly mistrust you without reason
  • Keep tabs on your every move
  • Imprison you in your own home
  • Withhold affection as punishment
  • Publicly humiliate you
  • Blame you for the way he hurts you
  • Claim the abuse isn’t happening (gaslighting)
  • Cheat on you just to hurt or demean you and then blame you for it
  • Control the way you look
  • Stalk you

Of all the different types of domestic abuse, veterans perpetrate emotional violence the most.

Sexual Abuse

When someone sexually abuses you, she might:

  • Coerce you into having sex
  • Use sexual words to insult you
  • Pin you down during sex (when you don’t want her to)
  • Use things to hurt you during sex
  • Bring other people into the bedroom without your consent
  • Try to give you an STI on purpose
  • Disregard your feelings about sex
  • Make you watch porn

In other words, if activities are happening in bed that you don’t want, you might be experiencing sexual abuse.

Reproductive Coercion

Someone who uses reproductive coercion against you may do things like:

  • Refuse to use birth control
  • Lie about the birth control he’s using (or not using)
  • Keep track of your periods
  • Force you to have kids or an abortion
  • Make sure you’re pregnant all the time

Financial Abuse

Your partner may also use money to control you. She can do this by:

  • Having full control over the finances
  • Limiting the number of hours you work
  • Maxing out your credit cards and not paying them off
  • Stealing from you or people close to you
  • Refusing to contribute to household expenses

Digital Abuse

Lastly, your partner may abuse you via the Internet, such as:

  • Threatening you or putting you down online
  • Sending you inappropriate pictures and demanding the same in return (when you don’t want to do that)
  • Stealing your passwords
  • Texting you constantly
  • Using technology to track you
Abuse isn’t always obvious, even when it’s happening in your own home. Sometimes it’s more about how a relationship feels than what’s overtly happening.

Maybe you see your partner and/or yourself in the lists above. Maybe your marriage has been abusive for a long time, and you didn’t even know it.

If that’s the case, these patterns may have affected you in ways you’ve been equally oblivious to. The impact of veterans’ PTSD and domestic violence can be so subtle, it can take us years to realize we’ve changed, at all.

The Impact of Domestic Violence on Veterans’ Spouses

Studies have shown a range of mental and physical consequences that domestic violence has for veterans’ spouses, including:

  • the breakdown of families
  • problems with pregnancy
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • PTSD
  • family members being locked up
  • STIs
  • obesity
  • heart or digestive problems
  • pregnancy issues
  • chronic pain
  • stress-related pain, such as headaches
  • death

As someone who’s endured and dished out her fair share of mistreatment, I’ve also found myself trusting people less and less over the years. I’m suspicious and prone to resentment and guilt.

There are times I have no sex drive at all. I can turn my emotions off in a second.

Sometimes I feel unbearably alone with secrets I’m too embarrassed to share.

I’ve learned how to be a survivor. That’s what we know how to do best: survive.

“While physical marks may often be the most obvious signs of the harm caused by domestic violence, the true extent of the pain goes much deeper.”

Barack Obama

If that’s what veterans’ PTSD and domestic violence looks like, then why do so many victims stay? Why do I stay?

Why Veterans’ Wives Stay in Abusive Relationships

The reasons veterans’ wives stay in abusive relationships are unique and complicated. They can be hard to put into words.

I had a hard time explaining my motives until I started doing research for this post.

This is what I’ve learned.

We Stay Because We Have Hope

Veterans’ wives are capable of unlimited hope in people. We have hope that our partners can get well if they get the right treatment or if we give them enough time and understanding.

We believe in them.

I don’t know if I or anyone else can ever cure my husband, but I do know I can never give up on him.

Sometimes giving up hope on someone can feel impossible.

We Feel A Deep Loyalty and Bond

After you help someone through flashbacks, listen to secrets he swore he’d never tell, and cross bridges with him most couples never cross, there’s a loyalty and bond with him that can become a part of you.

Even when my husband and I were separated, if he called me on a bad night, I answered the phone. It didn’t matter if we were on good terms or not. I was there.

It was that inexplicable bond that eventually brought us back together.

Maybe loving a war veteran with PTSD is a calling. For me, there’s a loyalty I can’t quite explain. Giving up on my soldier just isn’t an option.

We’re Used to Domestic Violence

Studies show a relationship between childhood emotional abuse and later experiences with spousal abuse, both as the victim and perpetrator. We get used to domestic violence. For us, it’s just a part of life. That’s how people treat each other sometimes.

We Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone

Sometimes we stay in an abusive marriage because we’re afraid of the impact it could have on the people we love the most.

When I left my husband, I knew it wouldn’t take him long to hit bottom.

It didn’t take long. At all.

As wives and mothers, we don’t want anyone else to hurt. Sometimes we’re willing to sacrifice our own happiness to make sure that doesn’t happen.

We Want to Help Our Partners Heal

When I got married, I knew how haunted and injured my husband was. I’d seen him get lost in the past. I’d gotten through the emotional hangovers that come after a night of flashbacks and dissociation.

I knew how short his temper could be and how crazy it could make me feel.

I knew what I was getting into. I made the conscious decision that I wanted to be there for him, anyway. I wanted to be the person by his side when he felt shattered, even if I couldn’t put him back together again.

“[My husband] is not his post-traumatic stress disorder. He is not his brain injury. These are things he has gotten from serving his country. And that is what we deal with.”

an anonymous wife living with a veteran’s PTSD and domestic violence

Refusing to abandon my husband is my way of supporting the troops.

How to Cope with a Veteran’s PTSD and Domestic Violence

I want to make one thing clear: I’m not here to tell anyone to stay in or leave their relationship. That is a decision only we can make for ourselves.

Whatever you choose to do, there are ways to cope with your situation and keep yourself safe.

We Have to Admit the Abuse Is Happening

Dealing with a veteran’s PTSD and domestic violence can make us feel crazy, but denying the abuse makes us feel even crazier. We have to acknowledge what’s happening so we can take care of ourselves.

I’ll be honest, this took me years to do. Partly because I didn’t realize what was happening was abuse, and partly because I didn’t want to accept it.

Once I did, though, I wasn’t a victim, anymore. I was a survivor.

We Need to Open Up to Someone About the Abuse

Talking about the darker side of our marriage can be difficult because most people can’t relate and don’t know anything about the issue we’re living with.

I’ve learned to try, anyway. Once in a while, people can relate. If they can’t, maybe I can teach them something.

I can’t process the trauma I’ve endured by myself. Sometimes I’m not even sure what I’m feeling until I try to put it into words.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone you know, you can try calling a domestic violence hotline. Whatever avenue you choose, just remember you don’t have to be alone, and you shouldn’t be alone.

Talking about the abuse in our marriage can be difficult, but it makes us stronger because we aren’t trying to handle it alone.

We Can Research Combat-Related PTSD

Knowing something about our partners’ condition can help us not take their anger so personally, which means we don’t always have to react to it.

Keeping our own emotions in check can defuse confrontation, or at least help us not add fuel to an already volatile fire.

Doing research for this blog also transformed my perspective of my husband. I know what drives him more than he does.

I’ve been able to turn a little bit of my own hurt and anger into compassion, which does a lot less damage to everyone, including myself.

I don’t see rage anymore. I see fear. I see someone fighting a war inside. He didn’t know who the enemy was then, and he doesn’t know now.

So everyone’s the enemy.

We May Want to Make a Safety Plan

You might want to have a plan in case of an emergency. Know where you can go, what you need to take with you, and how to get out of your house quickly if you need to. Make sure everyone, including the kids, knows how to call the police if necessary.

You may want to consider little details, like where to keep spare keys or extra money. Maybe keep a list of phone numbers you can use if a crisis starts, including the number to a domestic violence shelter.

My plan took on a wider scope. About a year before my husband and I separated, I started working again. I also kept my name on a couple waiting lists for affordable housing, even when my relationship was going well.

Eventually, I was grateful that those provisions were there.

Even today, when I know I don’t want to leave again, I’ve set up my life so my son and I will be OK if something unexpected happens. I work full time, and our apartment is in my name.

Unfortunately, love and loyalty only go so far. We still have to watch out for ourselves.

We Should Figure Out How to Stay Safe in Violent Situations

There are steps we can take to keep ourselves safe if our relationships become physically abusive:

  • Determine where the safest place in your house is with the quickest access to the outside.
  • Come up with code words to let other people know an argument is getting violent.
  • Put together a list of people who can call the cops if they hear anything suspicious from my house.

If We Decide to Leave, We Can Keep Our Homes Safe

Sometimes leaving is our only option. I get it.

If you decide that’s the case for you, there are a few options to ensure your new home stays safe:

  • Change the locks on the doors.
  • Get a security system.
  • Get a new phone number.
  • Teach our kids what do to do if they’re home alone.
  • Let a couple people know we aren’t with our partners anymore and that they should call the police if they see them around our house.

We May Need Outside Help

It might be advisable to get help from the police, medical personnel, therapists or counselors, or community resources.

In my case, I found a lot of comfort and insight talking to a therapist. I also met with a domestic violence advocate a few times and learned about the impact my experiences had had on me.

The bottom line is the more people we have on our side, the stronger and safer we’re going to feel.

A therapist can help us find ways to cope with a veteran’s PTSD and domestic violence.

If We’re Lucky, We Can Talk to Our Partners About the Abuse

Describing to my husband what he’d put me through was incredibly healing for me, especially since he listened to every word I had to say.

I was specific. I told him what he’d done and how it’d made me feel, and I let him know it was abuse.

He was shocked and ashamed.

Since then, our partnership can still be pretty abusive, but everyone is a little more aware of their behavior and what they have to work on.

No one’s in denial, anymore, either. We both know what our truth is. That’s something we can work with.

Finding Our Voice

I’d like to end on a personal note. Not for me, but for you.

How are you feeling? When I finally saw how abusive and violent my relationship could be, I felt shame, grief, loss, confusion, panic, relief, and just a touch of liberation.

I was a mess.

Maybe you know exactly what you’re feeling right now. Maybe you don’t. Either way, I want to know what you’ve been through and how you’re doing after reading this.

It was a lot, I know. Writing this wasn’t easy for me. I had to do a little bit at a time because it seemed to wrench everything out of me.

But I knew I had to do it because people need to hear my story.

They need to hear yours, too.

I hope this post helped you find your voice. If it did, and you’d like to share your own experiences, feel free to reply below.

If you’re still searching for your voice, I hope you discover it soon.

That’s where we find our freedom.

References:

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