Effects of military-related stress on relationships

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How does stress of war and peacekeeping affect behaviour?

Many veterans have successfully maintained relationships with their families over long periods of time. In fact, evidence from the Vietnam Veterans Morbidity Study (1998) indicated that Vietnam veterans do not have a higher rate of divorce than the general community.

While some veterans manage experiences by sharing information with their families, others do not talk to anyone, except perhaps a fellow veteran. They often do not want to talk about their experiences. This may be to protect others, to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed again by the retelling of the experiences, or to avoid being rejected by others’ comments or disinterest.

Some veterans can be overwhelmed by the continuing or recurring effects of war or peacekeeping-related events. When this happens, they may think only of themselves and how to survive what is happening. As well, their lives may be disrupted by sleep disturbances, nightmares, depression, anxiety or mood swings.

Some veterans may become emotionally detached, without feelings for themselves or those around them. They may be wary of further hurt, protecting themselves by avoiding closeness and being distrustful of others. Withdrawal may feel safer, or may seem like the only way to reduce the ‘overload’ of symptoms. They may withdraw into work, other activities or spend increasing time alone.

Sexual difficulties may occur. Some veterans may become sexually demanding without offering emotional closeness, to reassure themselves they are still okay. Others lose interest or feel unable to respond in a physical way.

If life feels out of control or overwhelming, some veterans may try to recreate a sense of security by controlling as many aspects of their own and their family’s life as possible.

Aggression or outbursts may occur over apparently small issues. There may be patterns of domestic violence, which need to be urgently addressed.

Some use alcohol or other drugs to try to ease their distress, even though these may make the symptoms worse and, in many cases, become an addiction that then needs to be addressed as well.

How does this stress affect partners?

Partners may feel very alone if a veteran becomes focussed on themselves and unable to consider the feelings and needs of others. Partners may feel cut off, neglected and unsupported, and there may be little emotional or physical intimacy. Life may feel like an ‘emotional vacuum’.

Partners may feel they have to take full responsibility for day-to-day family life. If they are also working, this level of responsibility can become very tiring, and some may become angry and frustrated at their veteran partner’s inability to share the load. They may feel overburdened and often experience their own stress as they struggle with 'endless' coping.

Some partners may become the family ‘peace-makers’ as they try to avoid some of the more dramatic behaviour that can result when the effects of stress are very pronounced. They may feel like they are ‘walking on eggshells’, and when episodes are frequent they may feel life has become one crisis after another.

The partner may question whether the relationship should continue, or argue strongly for change, especially when the children leave home.

How does a parent’s war and peacekeeping-related stress affect adolescents and younger children?

Adolescents and younger children may feel confused and angry with a parent who, absorbed with their own problems, is rarely able to talk or play with them.
Children may wrongly blame themselves and feel inadequate when they are unable to please their parent and get the love they want. They may also assume a 'care taking' role toward their parent at the expense of some of their own development.

If there is violence, alcohol or other drug abuse occurring, day-to-day life may feel chaotic and unpredictable. Home may not feel like a safe and caring place.
If life feels like a whirlwind at home, with one crisis after another, there may be little energy to give to schoolwork and friendships.

The struggle to become independent may be more difficult than usual if the parent is extremely suspicious or overly conscious of their children’s safety because of their own early exposure to danger.

More conflicts than usual may occur, as the parent who feels out of control emotionally may want to control what happens in their children’s lives. These conflicts may be exacerbated if the parent has hopes that their children will achieve more than they have, to ‘make it all worthwhile’.

As young people reach adulthood, the experience of living in a family with a parent suffering from stress related to war or peacekeeping may impact on the development and maintenance of their own intimate relationships.

Young adults who have experienced stressful family life may wish to change some of the patterns of thought and behaviour that they have learnt as young children. They may wish to make these changes so that their own relationships are nurturing, reciprocal and healthy.

Young adults may wish to seek ways to parent their own children that are different to the way they were parented. They may also wish to learn how to be more relaxed as they establish their own independent lifestyles. They may wish not to use excessive alcohol and other drugs to solve problems, or not to use violence as a solution to resolving conflicts.

What can I do if relationships are being affected?

Counselling including individual, couple and family, group programs and support groups can help to inform veterans' families and help them to understand and make changes. By seeking help, relationships may improve and behaviours may change so that future relationships are not affected.

VVCS – Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service is available to veterans, partners and children.

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