What “NOT” to say to the spouse or partner of someone with PTSD

By Vanessa Stapleton – President- Armor Up West Virginia

We live in a time where EVERYONE has an opinion. Opinions are not always backed with education and research. When dealing with PTSD, people want to tell you what they would do or even what you should do. More often than not, those “opinions” are based on no research, no experience, and no education on the topic. Most are just casual comments that people say without thinking of the damage they are doing to another human with their words. The truth is that someone who has never lived in the hell of PTSD has no idea what they “would do” in that situation.

First and foremost, if you know a family struggling through PTSD, here is a list of things you should NEVER say to them.

1.  “You just need to get your spouse out of the house more.” If you knew ANYTHING about PTSD at all, you would know that statement is insulting. Someone with PTSD will isolate themselves to avoid triggers and panic attacks. Rest assured that the spouse and children of that person have done EVERYTHING to “get them out of the house.” When they are successful getting their loved one out of the house, it often ends in panic or rage. The whole family then suffers from the outing. I will add from an educated and experienced perspective that isolating is NOT healthy at all. However, simply saying to an overwhelmed spouse to “get them out of the house” is insulting to the exhausted spouse. It is the equivalent of telling someone whose spouse has two broken legs to get them up walking more because walking on broken bones will heal them. You would never say that to someone. Why would you tell someone with a broken spouse to get them out more. It isn’t helpful.

2.  “You need to make sure they are taking their PTSD medication.” Or “Are they taking their medication?” First of all, taking their medication is solely that person’s responsibility. Making a spouse feel bad for their spouse or partner’s decisions is unfair to say the least. I had so many people say this to me. Listen, I can’t even get my 10 pound dog to swallow a pill. You are suggesting that I can force a pill down the throat of a grown adult twice my size. Be serious. That statement is damaging. Please do not place that burden or responsibility on anyone other than the person who is prescribed the medication. If that person is choosing not to take those medications then please let that blame fall where it belongs. You cannot force someone to do something they are not willing to do.

3.  “They aren’t getting enough sleep. Make sure they are getting a full night’s rest.” Again, if you have ever had PTSD or lived with someone who has it, this statement is ridiculous. Many people with PTSD suffer from nightmares and insomnia. Simply telling their spouse to make sure they get enough rest is not magically going to make their spouse sleep. Also, that statement again puts the blame and responsibility on the spouse. The spouse has no control over this nor does the person suffering with PTSD.

4.  “They need to exercise. Take them to the gym. Take them for a walk.” Again, this statement places the responsibility and blame on the spouse. From an educated and research based standpoint, they absolutely do need exercise. However, telling the spouse that is unhelpful. You cannot “walk your spouse” like they are the family dog. Stop saying that to people. You are dealing with someone who likely has isolated and doesn’t want to leave the house. Let the mental health professionals deal with this, don’t place that burden on the spouse.

5.  “Are you making them go to counseling?” I learned through a very long and tedious journey with my spouse’s PTSD that the ONLY mental health I am responsible for is MY OWN. I drove him to therapy for months before I found out after the first suicide attempt that he had been lying to the therapist for months. Not only that, but on days I did not drive him, he was not going at all. He was lying to me about going to therapy. I allowed people to make me feel like I had a duty to take him to therapy, to make sure he was going, to make sure he was telling the therapist this and that. The truth is that was HIS responsibility, not mine. I am responsible for my mental health. He is responsible for his. If he chose to lie to the therapist and not show up, that was solely on him. Stop making spouses feel bad for choices that someone else makes. At some point, the person with PTSD has to be accountable and responsible for THEIR OWN mental health. We have to stop blaming spouses and families for things they have no control over.

6.  “Are you stressing them out? Make sure not to stress them.” Listen, if someone is that bad then they need to take the steps to get better. At some point, we need to stop asking an entire family to turn their lives upside down to accomadate someone who is not willing to seek the treatment they so badly need. Stop asking spouses to take on everything in life and overwhelm themselves. That is unrealistic and that spouse will break under the pressure. There is PTSD treatment out there. It is available.

Please know that the spouse and partner of someone with PTSD are exhausted. They are mentally and physically drained. They have exhausted every avenue of trying to get help for their loved one. I was cleaning an old drawer this week and found an entire notebook of therapists, doctors, and organizations that I was calling to get help for my spouse. I had pages of resources I found online. I spent hours emailing and calling. I researched PTSD nonstop. He never made the first phone call, did the first bit of research, or sent the first email. I thought since he was suffering that it was my job to step up. To an extent, that was true, HOWEVER, at some point the person with PTSD has to step up and be willing to be an active participant in their own life and healing.

Please be aware that your words can hurt a spouse or loved one who is already feeling like they can’t save their loved one. The ugly truth is, they can’t save them. They can support them. Their loved one will have to step up and be active in their own healing. In the meantime, be careful what you say to these spouses and family members. Your words can be damaging. I promise you that whatever they do open up and tell you, is not even the tip of the iceberg of what is really happening behind closed doors.

As the wife of a veteran and first responder, I felt it was my duty to protect his reputation at all cost. I only told small portions of what was really happening. To the spouses out there, please know that when PTSD turns to violence, drinking, porn, sex addiction, over medicating, or any of that….you have blown so far past PTSD and into other problems that once a week counseling will NOT fix that. You will need to make a choice. Your loved one will need to make a choice to get help. There is help. But the line will have to be drawn clearly in the sand. I did not know there was help for first responders so he could get better and keep his job. Instead, I hid our crisis only mildly mentioning “PTSD” as the cover for so much more that we were dealing with. Keep that in mind when you say things to a spouse that could be hurtful or give them further damaging thoughts that they are not doing enough. They could be hiding some very difficult problems behind that small discussion covered with a label of “PTSD.”

Now the question becomes, what can you do to help? You can be supportive. Simply say to the spouse that you are sorry they are dealing with so much. Avoid statements that make them feel like they are not doing enough. Just listen. Give them the number to Safe Call Now if they are military or first responder families. Remind them that families can call too. Take them dinner. Send a card of encouragement. Help them with things around the house. Be there for them.

PTSD is a treatable INJURY. Just like any other injury, it needs treated properly. We have amazing treatment now with brain mapping to pinpoint the PTSD then begin to work on those areas of the brain to get them active and working again. The person with PTSD has to be willing to work on their PTSD. They have to be willing to fight for themselves. They have to do the work. It is not a “quick fix.” It is worth the time and effort to heal. Taking the steps to get help and heal will be the best decision for everyone.

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

Safe Call Now:  24 Hour Confidential Hotline:  206-459-3020

For more information on the First Responders program:  Click here

Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008