Month Four: Marriage as a Safe Harbor
“True friends see who we really are, hear our words and the feelings behind them, hold us in the safe harbor of their embrace, and accept us as we are. Good friends mirror our best back to us, forgive us our worst, and believe we will evolve into wise, wacky, and wonderful old people. Dear friends give us their undivided attention, encourage us to laugh, and entice us into silliness. And we do the same for them. In the safety of such friendships, our hearts can fully open.”
- Sue Thoele
Objective: Evaluate how trauma impacts you and your marriage as a couple and discuss how it can be a safe harbor during the storm.
A harbor is a place on the coast where sea vessels retreat from the rough open waters to find safety. Often marked with a lighthouse to guide vessels during a storm, the harbor provides calm, peaceful waters and secure docks for ships to tie onto for stability. This month, we will be looking at how you can be that safe harbor for your spouse. We would love to tell you that the best of marriage is staying in the harbor away from the storms, but you and your spouse will learn to appreciate the retreat in one another’s arms after you’ve been through the storm. Therefore, this month we will talk about a topic that most are uncomfortable with: the presence of trauma in our community.
Our intention is not to expose the details of your trauma – we believe that this is best addressed through seeking out professional counseling. Rather, our goal with MYM is to encourage you to know how to see your marriage as a safe harbor when storms, such as trauma, threaten the stability of your relationships. MYM is also intended to provide a community (via your squad) when you feel isolated or alone. The threat and presence of trauma cannot be eliminated; however, safe, healthy relationships can provide a positive environment for coping with it.
Our goal with MYM is to encourage you to see your marriage as a safe harbor when storms threaten the stability of your relationships. MYM is also intended to provide a community when you feel isolated or alone.
Many military, veteran, and first responders thrive when running into a crisis. The training and values instilled in you throughout your career have developed the character that makes most civilians want you by their side when their own trauma unfolds. Perhaps you take great pride in being the calm during someone else’s storm. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised at all if your spouse shares that similar character trait in their service to others.
Yet, as we covered last month, it is impossible not to be affected, burned out, and even traumatized by what you are exposed to. This is what it means to be human, even though the world asks you to do very super-human things. What we see couples struggle with is their own personal trauma as well as the impact of exposure to others’ trauma over time. Personal trauma, such as the loss of someone close to you or exposure to trauma that feels deeply personal- like abuse or death of an innocent child is what many wrestle with at night. It has a way of influencing your connection to others and your marriage as well. So part of “mastering your marriage” as a service couple must include having healthy conversations with your spouse on how these experiences shape both of you.
In a culture where “trauma” can be described in a variety of ways, let’s start with a working definition.
Trauma, is a deeply disturbing, life-threatening, and often times, unexpected event, that leaves a lasting mark on an individual.
Of course, this month is not just about the serving spouse. According to the Sidran Institute, 70% of adults have experienced some level of trauma, 60% before the age of 17. This means that the average person has a good chance of being exposed to something traumatic in their lifetime. Therefore, it is very likely that both of you have experienced something traumatic even though you process it in different ways.
Considering your squad is likely a good mix of active military, veteran, and first responder couples, it is important to note that everyone (and each service culture) has varying reactions. For example, military members may or may not see combat in their career. Some, have even told us that they feel guilty or somehow “less qualified” than those that have. Police officers, fire fighters, and rescue teams are exposed to trauma at least on a weekly basis, if not daily. It is quite common to hear them say they have grown comfortable with death and other things that would likely traumatize a civilian (or even their spouse). This can make it difficult to openly share and feel understood.
For those that relate to feeling “numb”, recent studies have found that military and first responders grow accustomed to their exposure of trauma when experiencing it on a regular basis. This may be due to the frequency of traumatic calls, your training, and your active role during the crisis. For the supporting spouse, it may be worth noting that some reports estimated that the rates of first responders admitting to post-traumatic stress symptoms (anxiety, depression, flashbacks, avoidance, etc.) is lower than you would expect- only 6-32%. Similar numbers were found for military members exposed to combat.
While some of you may genuinely feel healthy, we understand that the stigma attached to admitting whether traumatic events bother you can influence your ability or comfort level in talking about it.. The goal this month is for both of you to trust each other with the conversation on how you are processing trauma. This includes listening to the outside perspective of your spouse and helping them learn how they can be a safe harbor for you.
The Impact of Trauma
You may already be familiar with the common symptoms of PTSD (flashbacks or reliving the event, anxiety, avoidance, nightmares, etc.). However, some of the symptoms sound similar to habitual behaviors you have picked up in your service professions. For example:
Avoidance: Avoiding large crowds is learned awareness skill from your training. Avoiding crowds or specific areas to bypass triggers that remind you of the traumatic event (a certain area of town or specific conversations) is considered a symptom.
Hyperarousal: Scanning crowds, restaurants, etc. can also be due to military and first responder training. However, if you are unable to sleep and the hypervigilance is interfering with your ability to concentrate in your daily functioning, it is considered a symptom.
Emotional disconnect: Like we talked about above, many serving spouses describe feeling less affected by trauma if they have been exposed to a lot of it. It is also common for serving families to feel disconnected from those who do not understand their community or culture. However, if you find that you are not experiencing a range of emotions like joy in your work, marriage, or family, or even sadness, this could be a red flag. Remember, anger is definitely an emotion but if misplaced or it seems like your default emotion, this could also be a red flag.
Lack of sex drive: A low libido can be due to exhaustion, stress, or even marital conflict. For many veterans, medication can have a huge impact on sex drive. There are studies where researchers found that if you have experienced a concussive blast, it can alter your hormones creating a hormone imbalance that mimics PTSD symptoms. However, if it seems your low libido is connected to a lack of connection, emotions, energy, or depression, it is likely a symptom.
*If you believe that symptoms of PTSD are making it difficult to function in daily aspects of life, we strongly encourage you to work with a professional. There are great treatment models that have shown great success in reducing PTSD symptoms. You can find more information on PTSD and those interventions on the MYM Dashboard.
A Deeper Isolation of Trauma
There are additional aspects of trauma we would like to address that are impacting individuals and marriages on a deeper relational level: moral and spiritual injury.
Moral injury is a form of injury to your soul when you have been asked/ordered to perform an action that goes against your morals, values, and deeply held beliefs. For example, many service members struggle with the memory of missions that included collateral damage, of the loss of seemingly innocent women or children. Many victims of sexual abuse also carry this injury. This is a particularly difficult wound to heal from as it leaves lingering feelings of shame and guilt. Some may also feel unworthy of forgiveness.
Spiritual injury is an interpersonal injury that occurs when someone experiences trauma in a way that causes them to question core truths about life, God, and community. For example, service members may feel they do not fit in with society or their faith anymore because of actions they performed. Seeing carnage and questioning the existence of God and their relationship with Him. Or how many of our first responder families are experiencing the deep pain of persecution by the very community they serve. For marriages that have been through their own personal trauma in regard to the treatment of one other, it is possible that there was spiritually injury between them- deeply wounding core beliefs about how humanity should love and treat each other.
Trauma can impact you physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally.
Seeing the worst of what humanity is capable of has the potential to make it easy to grow cynical, even toward those we love. Why trust people when humans are capable of causing so much hurt? Why allow yourself to be vulnerable when pain is inevitable? The relational impact of trauma in your life can isolate you from loved ones and friends. Ultimately, you are moving yourself farther away from your safe harbor.
The Antidote: Connection
If the impact of trauma in your life tempts you to withdraw from others, the antidote is the exact opposite – connection. Paired with professional counseling and, possibly medication for those dealing with more severe symptoms of PTSD, relationships with those who understand you is part of the healing process, which is why your squad is such a big part of MYM!
Joshua Mantz, a retired Army Veteran, recounted his experience of survivor’s guilt after his medic died trying to save his life in his TedTalk. In his darkest moments, Joshua reconnected with a battle buddy and therapist who went out of their way to walk alongside him and changed his perspective on healing. His message reminds us that you may have experienced the very worst of humanity, but healing is possible when you counter it with experiencing the very best of what humanity can offer. Perhaps your marriage and squad can begin to model this.
You may have experienced the very worst of humanity, but healing is possible when you counter it with experiencing the very best that humanity has to offer.
The Safe Harbor
If you are married to someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, or other PTSD related symptoms, you may find yourself in the role of being a lighthouse for your loved one to find the safe harbor. Providing a safe harbor does not imply that you fully understand what the other person is going through. Instead, it is a state of intentional listening and presence. It is the ability to “be” the calm when someone feels they cannot find it within themselves. If this is your role, it is imperative that you also focus on your own self-care. You cannot be a safe harbor if you do not have the support and help you need to calm your own inner storms. Therefore, reciprocity in your role as safe harbors for one another is integral in fostering a supportive environment in your marriage.
Vulnerability may not seem a useful character trait in service professions, but it is essential to your wellbeing and your ability to connect with one another. Here are a few quick tips on how you can begin to be that safe harbor. Ultimately, it will be up to your spouse to tell you what works best for them:
Tough conversations are best with little distractions where you can be fully present (i.e. don’t try it when you are multi-tasking).
Ask if you can hold his or her hand or sit knee-to-knee. This physical touch provides a “grounding effect” that is helpful for any flashbacks that may come up.
Respect the other person’s trauma as sacred- it is set apart from normal life experiences and you need to honor and handle it with great care.
If you are offering “calm waters” and a place to “anchor to”, value the role of staying calm throughout the conversation.
*If you are unsure if your marriage is handling trauma in a healthy way, consider the attached resource : A Healthy Check Up
Last month, we covered Gottman’s second destructive form of communication – contempt. This month, we will cover the third, defensiveness. Most couples know this one all too well as a spontaneous, self-protective response in an attempt to avoid a perceived threat from your spouse. It is blaming the other person and labeling them as the problem instead of acknowledging the problem for what it is. For example, talking about trauma this month is likely to cause some defensiveness out of a deeply rooted need to protect oneself and an attempt to avoid talking about difficult subjects.
The alternative is to take responsibility. This is tough to do when you feel the emotional defenses rising. However, accepting responsibility for your role and feelings in the situation is the mature response. Individuals in healthy relationships can handle difficult conversations and conflict by accepting responsibility for their actions, even in the face of disappointing their spouse.
 Committee on the Assessment of Resiliency and Prevention Programs for Mental and Behavioral Health in Service Members and Their Families; Board on the Health of Select Populations; Institute of Medicine; Denning LA, Meisnere M, Warner KE, editors. Preventing Psychological Disorders in Service Members and Their Families: An Assessment of Programs. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2014 Feb 11. 3, UNDERSTANDING PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH IN THE MILITARY. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222167/
 Sidran.org. “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Fact Sheet”. September 13, 2018 https://www.sidran.org/resources/for-survivors-and-loved-ones/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-fact-sheet/
 Kronenber M, Osofsky HJ, Osofsky JD, Many M, Hardy M, Arey J (2008) First responder culture: implications for mental health professionals providing services following a natural disaster. Psychiatr Ann 38(2): 114–18. doi: 10.3928/00485713- 20080201-05
 American Physiological Society (APS). (2013, April 22). Nearly half of U.S. veterans found with blast concussions might have hormone deficiencies. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 18, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130422102029.htm
 Timothy Mallard, “Spiritual Injury: Toward a Definition, Criteria, and Treatment Response for Wounded Warriors and Families,” D.D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center Department of Behavioral Health and U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence Unit Ministry Team Interdisciplinary Moral and Spiritual Injury Symposium, Fort Gordon, GA (26 May 2016).
 Mantz, Joshua. TedxSantoDomingo (2016) “Overcoming Moral Injuries”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORBf73HiJns