My Boyfriend's Iraq War PTSD

Dear Edahn,

My boyfriend recently came home from an 18 month tour in Iraq. He says he did not see much violence so I know that is not an issue. He says though, that he does not have PTSD. He is however, very worried about "security" in every situation we encounter from visiting an aquarium to spending a night at home by the fire. He also has "fits" of incessent arguing and proving points all of which never happened before he left. I believe that even though he never saw violence he may have experienced PTSD just from the sheer fact that he was displaced from his home in America and displaced to a foreign country. He is too proud to get counseling, says that that is only for people who saw violence but I think it can be many aspects of war. Any ideas on how to talk to him? I do not want to push my opinions on him as I am well aware that the army did that enough and I don't want to be equated to that. I just want him to hear that YES he was affected by his deployment, violence or not. I love him and would like him to be present and engaged in our relationship. Not engaged in the marital sense just to clarify but engaged as in aware. Thanks!

It's strange how people call them "tours," isn't it? It sounds like the government took him site-seeing in Iraq. And over to our left we have the site of a former -- [bomb sound] -- ongoing bloody battle between resident Sunnis and Shiites over who's morally superior.

Anyway, as tempting as it is to pin his attitude change on his recent military service, I think we have to be careful. Eighteen months is a long time to be away from anyone, regardless of where they've been. A lot of changes can happen during that time. He can acquire new traits; you can acquire new traits; and you both can stop masking old traits, all of which can change your dynamic. Moreover, your lives are no longer integrated the same way they once were. That's bound to create some hesitation, role-confusion, and emotional distance. Fighting is a natural result as human nature is to attribute that distance to something or someone else. If I see you as the cause of my suffering, I'm more likely to fight with you, thinking that the fighting will resolve my problem.

To some degree, your question does the same thing by attributing the recent problems to him and his military service, though I don't think you're being unreasonable in doing so. It's possible that severe stress has altered his thought patterns and emotional reactions. Even if he wasn't under attack, being constantly worried about the threat of attack sounds equally stressful to me. Hell, I worry about people trying to talk to me at Starbucks. It's easy to see how that stress could leave him agitated and in a state of distrust of his surroundings and yes, his girlfriend. But truthfully, we don't even need to go that far. You don't need to experience something stressful to have your thought patterns altered. If he was stationed in a frat house for 18 months, you can be damn sure his thinking and behavior would change over time. The same goes for the army which probably has many of the same features.

All of these explanations are plausible and all might be contributing to your current friction together. His military service, the time apart, and normal changes in both your personalities may be influencing the situation. My advice is to try and separate them. For the relationship arguments, just try and deal with them as calmly and rationally as possible. Hear what he has to say and try to avoid the temptation to dismiss his position as "just his PTSD talking." Take responsibility when you should, point out when he's being unreasonable, and try to reach a compromise. It's going to take some time to sniff each other out and reintegrate your lives before you feel comfortable again and hopefully you'll be able to work it out.

For his PTSD-like symptoms, you can try pointing out how he meets the various criteria (his security-checking would fall into Criterion D). You can point out that even if he doesn't meet all the criteria, he can still use some help to palliate the symptoms he does have. You can also let him know that there's no shame in talking to someone just to see if there's anything to discuss. I would personally suggest that he try 5 sessions and then decide if he wants to continue. The first session is free and the next 4 can be somewhat bargained for. Most therapists have sliding scales to accommodate people with financial difficulty. If he absolutely refuses, that's okay. What you can do is try to stay calm yourself. When he starts going off about security concerns, just look at him compassionately and softly that and tell him that everything's okay. Your body language will have more impact than your words. If he doesn't follow your suggestion right away, that's fine, just keep at it.