02/19/2012 10:14 am ET Updated Apr 20, 2012

Married to a Veteran: When Memories of Past Interrupt the Present

Every day I see veterans in my office who are battling to recover their lives after honorably serving our county. Resuming life after war is not easy. Some will take a few weeks to adjust to life "back in the world" as they cope with new family responsibilities and performance demands at the military installation. Other veterans, with unresolved combat trauma, demonstrate greater adjustment difficulties. Their relationship survived the difficulties of military deployments but new difficulties emerge that threaten to jeopardize their future now that they are together again.

Everyone returns changed from a combat deployment. Spouses of combat soldiers frequently report their partner is typically less communicative, more emotionally distant, socially isolated, irritable, and more reactive. They generally report that the honeymoon period after coming home may have lasted three days, perhaps even a couple of weeks before the difficulties began. Many soldiers who have experienced multiple deployments often express they would be more comfortable being back down range living in the combat zone since it is easier than being home where everything takes so much effort.

When the news announced that Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was over, many veterans had difficulty accepting the announcement -- it was not over for them. For these veterans, it seems there is no safe place anymore. They continue to struggle to make sense of it all. In many ways, one or more tours of duty have redefined their lives. It is difficult to transition from a deployment in which every day other peoples' lives depended on them to returning home to a regular routine without a sense of wartime urgency and "mission." For many veterans who have served honorably, the past continues to influence, if not control, their lives. It is as if the veteran is still fighting the war. Spouses report that sometimes they feel like the enemy. Many veterans report they have lost the ability to turn loose of an argument.

Emotional reactivity is common among many veterans. Such response is known as "being triggered." Something in the present situation sets them off and they tend to react without thinking. Add to the situation that the spouse may have their own unresolved memories of past events. For example, if a spouse grew up with abandonment issues as a child, the veteran's emotional numbness and withdrawal can trigger an emotional reaction for both persons. The couple begins to react to each other in a manner which seems out of control. It is like they are in a dance in which no one is leading. One wife told me, "he has been back four months; I have been waiting for him to tell me that he loves me. I finally asked 'Do you love me?' He stated, 'I don't care about anything.'"

It's hard to imagine a wife not taking this personally. But in reality, the veteran's statement was not about his love for his wife, it was about emotional numbness due to living in an environment where you might die at any moment. Thinking about how much you love someone in that life-threatening environment can create depression, generate more anxiety, and eventually can get you killed. It is easier to numb out.

Francine Shapiro, Ph.D, in her new book Getting Past Your Past describes how unresolved memories from the past continue to impact the quality of our present life until they are resolved. Dr. Shapiro's description makes sense for many veterans who wish to reclaim their lives now that they are home, but continue to live as if they are still in the war. The experiences we have in life are stored in the brain as memory networks. Those memory networks determine how we interpret new experiences. So, when something happens in the present that experience is linked to preexisting memory networks and we react. While most life experiences have been integrated into the brain's memory system, there are some maladaptively stored memories that make it difficult to separate the past event from the present experience. When this happens people continue to live those unresolved memories from the past as if they are happening in the present. If I am carrying these kinds of memories all it takes is something to remind me of a similar situation and I have a similar response. A veteran in my office recalled being triggered when he perceived his spouse as becoming argumentative. He later stated, "I thought my job was to get as many rounds down range as possible" during the argument. There are some events in our lives in which unresolved memories continue to impact our present lives. For veterans, this means that some rules of engagement as well as intense combat experiences can be triggered and relived as if they are happening in the present.

Incorporating an evidence-based model of psychotherapy such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helps resolves the reactivity. It assists both parties in reclaiming their lives. Recently, after completing treatment, a veteran said to me "I am home now!" In a follow-up session his spouse noted the amount of fun they regained in their marriage now that memories from the past had been resolved. Dr. Shapiro's book can give you a good overview of how EMDR can help. Individual veterans and a military couple volunteered to share their stores to help others. In addition, the book describes self-help techniques in detail as well as relationship advice. It also gives guidelines to decide if memory processing is a good choice for you.

Help is available to veterans and their families recovering from the impact of military deployments. Find out what resources are available in your community. There are many clinicians who work with veterans and have been trained in evidence-based treatment models of psychotherapy, such as EMDR. If you have difficulty locating a clinician who uses evidence-based treatment models you may contact me at I welcome comments from spouses and veterans on how deployments to combat zones have impacted their relationships. Please post your comments below. Together we can make a difference.


Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting past your past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy. New York: Rodale

For more by E. C. Hurley, Ph.D., click here.

For more on PTSD, click here.

Read more: "Why Our Unconscious Rules Us and What to Do About It"