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Q&A with Geoff: At what point should my husband stop using PTSD as an excuse for bad behavior?

q&a with geoff Aug 25, 2021

Question

My husband was diagnosed with PTSD years ago, and now it’s his excuse for showing no compassion nor love. We have three grown children and one grandchild. Our sons are still in the home yet very productive. My husband isolates himself in the basement.

Everything is a trigger to his post-traumatic stress disorder – literally everything. I believe we are in a good space then, boom, the shoe drops, and there is a tsunami of anger and he is threatening divorce. He’s totally resentful of the bond I have with our children. He feels we will be in a better place if our children go away. I don’t understand this sentiment. My husband has always done things separate from me.

From the time we’ve had children he would go out with his friends alone. He would celebrate his birthdays alone with his friends. Our only family times were around holidays, which we would spend with his extended family. I love my husband with all his flaws, yet I get what I get. Our latest argument was over my fixing food he didn’t like, and then it immediately shifts to accusations that I don’t care if he eats and then threats of divorce. 

I don’t know what to do anymore. I guess there’s no fixing this. I thought I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, yet now not so much. I’m becoming numb and that’s not good.

Answer

Your question is heartbreaking. Post-traumatic stress disorder is highly treatable, and it’s painful to see that your husband either hasn’t been able to find the right help or hasn’t been willing to seek treatment. Either way, the fallout is tragic and requires you to make some tough decisions you never thought you’d have to make. While I don’t know what your husband will choose, you can choose to find peace and healing. 

It can be terribly difficult to accurately assess someone’s capacity for change, especially when dealing with trauma and mental illness. Our minds can trick us into believing things that simply aren’t reality. Our bodies and minds can interact in ways that make absolutely no sense to other people but seem perfectly normal to us. Motivation can wax and wane based on physical, emotional, spiritual and environmental factors.

Even though it’s truly impossible to know exactly what another person is capable of, you still must make decisions about how to be protect your own emotional and physical health. 

Your husband is no doubt suffering as he passes his days in isolation, having random outbursts and feeling threatened in his close relationships. Even though he’s in great pain, allowing him to continue terrorizing you and your children is only going to induce more of his shame and self-loathing. Please recognize that boundaries are an invitation to interrupt harmful patterns.

You might grumble about his behavior or complain to others. However, until you refuse to tolerate the outbursts, the threats and the aggression, nothing will ever change. 

While it’s not your job to control or change your husband, your refusal to tolerate destructive patterns in your marriage and family can be a powerful invitation for change. Your husband must ultimately recognize that change is necessary and possible. Drastic measures sometimes must be taken to open our full potential.

I’d like to share a story retold by Todd Christofferson about a personal experience Hugh Brown had while working on his property:

(Hugh) told of purchasing a rundown farm in Canada many years ago. As he went about cleaning up and repairing his property, he came across a currant bush that had grown over 6 feet high and was yielding no berries, so he pruned it back drastically, leaving only small stumps.

Then he saw a drop like a tear on the top of each of these little stumps, as if the currant bush were crying, and thought he heard it say: ‘How could you do this to me? I was making such wonderful growth. … And now you have cut me down. Every plant in the garden will look down on me. … How could you do this to me? I thought you were the gardener here.’

(Hugh) replied, ‘Look, little currant bush, I am the gardener here, and I know what I want you to be. I didn’t intend you to be a fruit tree or a shade tree. I want you to be a currant bush, and someday, little currant bush, when you are laden with fruit, you are going to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for loving me enough to cut me down.’

Please recognize that I’m not suggesting that it’s our responsibility to cut each other down so others can grow the way we want them to. However, his current behaviors, intentional or otherwise, are not bearing good fruit for him or his family. If you refuse to participate in these harmful patterns, it will likely feel like you’re controlling him. However, it’s an opportunity for him to honestly assess his direction and embrace his true potential.

Don’t allow yourself to stay numb, as that will continue to put you in harm’s way. Instead, decide what you will and won’t tolerate any more in this relationship. It’s important to seek professional guidance to better understand your options. If your husband has never sought treatment for his trauma, you can communicate that as an expectation for you staying in the marriage.

There are plenty of therapists in most communities who have specialized training in trauma. If he won’t get help for himself, then please seek trauma treatment for yourself. Living with a traumatized person can be traumatizing. Neither of you need to be held hostage by the trauma any longer. 

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