When you are a kid, you think the mark of an intimate relationship is that you and your beloved tell each other everything. When ‘everything’ consists of how you feel about your mother, how much you actually owe on your credit card, and what secretly makes you go wild, ‘everything’ is just enough.
But what happens when your intimate relationship is with a combat vet? What happens when they tell you everything that happened to them on deployment? Can that be too much--no matter how much you love them?
It can be. Recently I interviewed Keith Renshaw a psychologist at George Mason University who studies military couples currently dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Tell everything about deployment, right?Since I’m a big believer in telling all you know, I was expecting him to say that having combat vets talk their experience with their partner would help. After all, ‘talking about it’ is the prescribed answer for most of our problems. Keeping secrets is supposed to be bad for us, right?
So I was surprised when Renshaw told me that how much to tell about your combat experience and to whom to tell really is a puzzle.
“What we still don’t know is how much people should disclose about their trauma,” Renshaw told me. “It probably depends on the person (who you are telling)--how much they can take.”
While some family members don’t struggle with it, some do get overwhelmed. At SpouseBuzz, partners have told us that they have vivid dreams of combat or Afghanistan or Iraq when they have never even been out of the country.
Renshaw said that the technology that enables soldiers to bring home video of their combat experiences can be especially troubling for family members, even triggering PTSD. Yet Renshaw points out that the research shows that the people who avoid talking about the events at all are at greatest risk for chronic PTSD. So who should our vets be talking to? Only each other?
Is reticence a show of love?Some people think so. In her book Real Happiness At Work Sharon Salzberg says that high risk jobs (like being a cop or a soldier)or jobs that see a great deal of human suffering (humanitarian aid workers, those currently deployed to help with the Ebola virus in Western Africa) demand a special kind of compartmentalization when it comes to telling what happens on the job.
“Sometimes reticence is a show of love,” wrote Salzberg. “ Allowing work to stay at work can paradoxically preserve our personal relationships and strengthen our sense of team solidarity on the job.”
Salzberg goes on to suggest creating better relationships at work so that those who do risky or demanding work can help each other through it. Certainly peer-to-peer counseling for military has great results.
So why am I still worried? On one hand I can see how gatekeeping and compartmentalizing may ease the relationship. On the other hand, I’m troubled by the notion that we give our vets the unspoken message that they should not tell. Or that they should only tell other vets. Or that mental health professionals are the only people capable of hearing them. This seems like such a tricky balance to me over a life changing issue.