the difference between enabling and supporting a loved one partner husband wife PTSD

How I Stopped Enabling my Husband with PTSD, and Started Supporting Him

His outbursts were starting to come out of nowhere. His anger was getting unbearable. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had begun walking on eggshells, every single day. So when we discovered that my husband’s changing behaviour had a rational reason, it was something of a relief.

Post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD. I was under no illusion, it was going to be a long road for both of us. But together we would handle this. He would take extended leave from work, he would see the psychologists and the psychiatrists, he would take the right combinations of medication, he would keep his energy up and his anxiety down with regular exercise, and he would recharge with daily mindfulness practise.

But how long was it before I saw that he was slipping backwards? The checklist was right there, the answers to how we could move out from this dark fog of PTSD, but he wasn’t doing even half of it.

Not to worry. What he needed most was a supportive wife, I decided. I could do that. I was determined that no-one would ever have seen such a supportive wife as me. I would let him have time when he needed it, and space when he wanted it. I would take over all the responsibilities of our home and children to keep his stress at a minimum. I would delay my return to work so I could be there for him as much as possible. I would let him sleep. I would let him drink. And I wouldn’t ask anything of him so he could dedicate every last ounce of his dwindling energy into getting better.

I was absolutely sure that not only would we beat this demon, but that we could become the perfect example of how to overcome a psychological injury. With these naive blinkers on, it took me a long time to admit that my husband still wasn’t getting any better. And despite the fact that I was supporting the hell out of him, he was gradually becoming entirely dysfunctional.

Who was it that first mentioned enabling to me?

Surely that’s a term for people dealing with chronic alcoholics and drug addicts, I told myself. I was a loving wife. And I was the most supportive wife anyone had seen. There was absolutely no way I could be enabling my husband. I just wanted him to get better. I just wanted our old life back.

 

ENABLE  (verb)
1. to give someone the authority or means to do something
2. make possible or easy

Enabling means not setting clear boundaries, or not enforcing those boundaries. It means that by preventing the person from experiencing the consequences of their own actions, they will never have the chance to reach their full potential.

Okay, but I still had no idea what that looked like in my house. In our life.

With years of hindsight, I now realise that enabling looks very much like love.

It took all my courage to finally acknowledge that I was petrified of him falling any further than he already had. And I didn’t agree with the choices he was making about his recovery. I thought he could be doing so much more. I thought he should be trying so much harder.

I had unwittingly been enabling my husband for years. Over time, my love had turned into fear. My support had turned into control. And it was ruining us both.

 

So, over the years, how have I enabled my husband? What does enabling truly look like in a family living with PTSD?

What was I doing for him, in the name of helping, that he should have done himself? In the name of support, what responsibilities had I unnecessarily stripped from him? And how had I absorbed the consequences of his actions, in the name of love?

I would automatically take charge of all the home duties.
The cooking, the cleaning, the shopping, the washing. I was obsessive in making sure my house always appeared perfectly normal, despite the havoc his PTSD would wreak. But he was still my husband. He was still capable of pulling his weight, and he needed to feel needed.

I would allow him to constantly withdraw and shut down.
Those endless hours staring at whatever screen he had at hand were not a form of relaxation or mindfulness. Each hour was just another hour of distracting himself from the demons he couldn’t bear to fight. Just another hour of our marriage that was being wasted away.

I would let him back out of plans.
Was I protecting him from the unknown that might increase his anxiety or trigger an episode? Or was I protecting myself from dealing with the consequences of what PTSD might throw at my husband? Because it always seemed to be me who had to pick up the pieces.

I would buffer him from difficult and stressful situations.
When some of his nearest and dearest were triggering him, I would begin to screen their every word. And when the stressful demands from his employer’s insurance company began to overwhelm him, I took over all the communications. I thought he needed help, but what he actually needed was the motivation to find better ways to manage.

I would take care of our three young children on my own.
The children were my rocks. They kept me grounded amidst the wildest storms. And in return, I gave them my absolute all. They didn’t deserve to be overshadowed by his PTSD, and I made it my priority to protect them. But they still needed their father just as much as my husband still needed to be their father.

I would blame every set-back on his PTSD.
Triggers would overwhelm and stress levels would overflow. I was so caught up in the reality of PTSD being a life-long journey, that I never once stopped to question that my husband might be content with where he was. Set-backs could be managed, but only if he was willing to try.

I would make excuses for his aggressive behaviour.
His PTSD makes him so angry, I would convince myself. He can’t control his anxiety or aggression. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s not choosing to yell at me, it’s just his PTSD. But no. He has a choice to let PTSD be his puppeteer. And PTSD is never an excuse for bad behaviour.

I would take responsibility for his recovery.
Was he getting up at a reasonable time? Was he getting to bed early enough? He needed to clean up his diet. He needed to be doing regular exercise. And he really needed to stop drinking. What about EMDR? And daily mindfulness sessions? I had the perfect recipe for the best recovery. But he wasn’t listening to a word of it. He was already where he wanted to be.

I would walk on eggshells in a desperate attempt to keep him calm.
Triggers were everywhere, and I couldn’t protect him from them all. But I believed a supportive wife should do whatever she could to keep her husband calm. Even if that meant pushing down my own emotions, and reigning in the natural noisy delights of our young children.

I would struggle to hold him accountable for his destructive behaviour.
A cold shoulder isn’t a consequence. Silent treatment doesn’t teach accountability. His behaviour was damaging me, but time after time I was letting him cross the line I had never really drawn.

I would put up wall after wall to shield myself.
Even the most supportive wife is not immune to the anger and the rages. The unpredictable nature of my husband’s PTSD kept me on guard. And his drinking just made everything worse. Surely it didn’t matter if the inside was crumbling if nothing could rattle my hardened exterior.

I would resort to ultimatums.
The impulsive spending had to stop or we might lose the house. The drinking needed to stop or he might lose his licence. The lying had to stop or he might lose me. Ultimatums are born out of desperation. And more than anything else, I desperately wanted my husband back.

 

I was shocked to finally see that he was content to remain at a level of PTSD dysfunction. And I was angered by how blatantly he was abusing my support by flaunting his self-destructive behaviour. The more time and space I gave him to heal, the more I was enabling his bad choices.

The fear of losing the battle had paralysed me, and I was trapped in a never-ending cycle of enabling. The constant worry about the consequences of letting go had begun to control my behaviour.  While my resentment was steadily growing, I had become completely oblivious to how my wasted efforts had broken me inside.

I was no longer standing on the edge of the hole, trying to help him out. I was right there in the hole with him. And if I’m honest with myself, I think I always had been.

I had to make a change. And this time it would be about me, and for me.

 

After living alongside PTSD for six years, I slowly began to learn how to stop enabling my husband and start supporting him.

To support means to take a huge step back, drop all my expectations and hold my own judgements about what my husband’s PTSD recovery should look like.

To support means to recognise when I am enabling him, and gently push the responsibility and accountability back into his court.

To support means to encourage him when he makes healthy choices and is motivated to explore healthy actions.

To support means to draw very clear boundaries about his destructive and hurtful behaviour, and to hold him accountable each time they are crossed.

To support means to recognise what I need each day to keep myself strong and happy, instead of putting my needs last and my life on hold.

To support means to continue loving him whilst committing – every single day – to the decision of not enabling him any longer.

 

This post follows on into my next post – “The Boundaries I Needed to Create Alongside My Husband’s PTSD and How I Enforce Them”

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the difference between enabling and supporting a loved one partner husband wife PTSD

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32 thoughts on “How I Stopped Enabling my Husband with PTSD, and Started Supporting Him

  1. Livingitalso says:

    This article is spot on. I have read several of your posts and you describe living with a spouse with PTSD exactly how I feel. Thanks for writing and sharing and making me not feel so alone. It is a lonely world being married to someone with PTSD.

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Thank you for your comment, you’re right, it is a very lonely world. I’m glad my words can reach so many and bring comfort that we’re not alone on our journeys, even though it often feels that way. Take care.

      Like

  2. Nancy MacMillan says:

    I read each word of your blog. It brought back a lot of flashbacks that haven’t surfaced in years. What could I have done better? What could I have done different? I dealt with my husband’s PTSD from Vietnam for 18 years with love, with fear, with anger, with compassion, with strength, and with tears. He finally asked me to leave stating he could not live with another person. With a crushed heart I did. Then he began to stalk me. He was the love of my life and I would have done anything for him, other than die because I had 3 children. I only wanted him to be happy and at peace again. He took his own life at the age of 43. My PTSD still peaks once in a while. Yet I still wonder what could I have done differently. God only knows …

    The only way I survived falling off into the deep was to write my memoir. It took over a decade because I wasn’t a writer. Diary of a Vet’s Wife, Loving and Living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was finally published December 5, 2012. Now I speak to groups and on the radio about PTSD and how it shaped my life forever.

    My heart is part of all those loving and living with PTSD. The men and women who have fought to keep America safe and the friends and families who love them. There is no concrete answer to this epidemic. The government tries but not hard enough and not soon enough. My only hope is in prayer and God’s divine intervention. We can’t beat this alone.

    Thank you, Lea, for offering some new actions to an ever-growing epidemic all over the world. My blog, BLOG OF A VET’S WIFE, has reached 77 countries. Thank you for caring so much. And may God continue to bless your marriage.

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your heartbreaking story. There is no easy journey with PTSD or alongside PTSD, and I’m so sorry that your husband chose to end his story with his life. It may end his pain, but that pain then lives on through you and your children, so it never really ends. It was very courageous of you to write your memoir, and then to go on to speak with groups and on the radio. Your story will be reaching many and helping them all. I sometimes wonder if collating my blog and combining it with my full story might be a book that people would want to buy and read. In the meantime, it’s just taking each day as it comes. Take care.

      Like

  3. patiencehcmason says:

    I went through the same thing after Vietnam. I have written a lot about Recovering from the War, (that’s my 1990 book available on Amazon. I also wrote a book for kids, several pamphlets including “After the War,” and “The War at Home,” and “An Explanation of PTSD for Twelve Steppers.” (AA, NA, OA, Alanon). I also wrote 40 some issues of the Post-Traumatic Gazette, about recovery. Everything but the book, Recovering, is available, at http://www.patiencepress.com/patience_press/Welcome.html, to freely download and share, in case you would like to check it out. And one of my main articles is called Boundaries.

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Thank you, Patience, for sharing your work and experiences. I’ve had a look through your site and you have a lot of helpful information to offer, both to those with PTSD and their loved ones.

      Like

  4. Anonymous says:

    The “How you were enabling” part was very detailed. And the “how to support instead of enable” Part was vague and useless. This shouldn’t be titled How to because it implies that there are directions with how to do something. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that you and your husband found a way. But, I didn’t take anything out of it that I can try out at home.

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      I appreciate your honesty. I doubt even the best therapist out there could write a ‘How To’ piece that would solve everyone’s problems, and I’m no therapist! My article reflects on my personal experiences, which share many similarities with a lot of other people living alongside PTSD. The main key of my piece is that in order to stop enabling, you must first be able to identify which of your actions are enabling. I listed many of my real-life examples, which will help others identify their own. When your enabling stops – by creating clear and firm boundaries – then that’s when you have found your position of support. I will be expanding on the boundary part in an upcoming post. I hope this helps clarify my article for you, and any others who may be feeling the same way.

      Like

  5. B says:

    I’ve been living this for over twenty years. My husband has anxiety/PTSD and he’s tried so many different treatments but with no real success. The thought that he could be content in his condition is sickening. He has missed so much as a parent and husband, but I have no idea how to hold him accountable for his choices. I’m scared that he’ll do something drastic (self-harm, not to me or the kids) if pushed too far. Please, share any advice you have on how to stop enabling him.

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Twenty years is a long time to be living with PTSD, especially when nothing seems to be improving or changing. Just like you, I struggle with how to hold my husband accountable for his actions, and, as you say, I’m petrified that it’ll backfire on me, or on us all. My piece about enabling ran longer than I expected, so I’ll be following up with another piece about boundaries, how I choose to draw the line and how I can enforce them. Take care.

      Like

  6. Marcy says:

    Except that you did it so eloquently, I could have written this article. His diagnosis came in 2010 but there were signs in the year leading up to and after his deployment to Iraq. My stomach turned as I read your words. Except for the alcohol (which thankfully was not an issue), everything you describe was my life. Sadly when I realized what was happening and I set boundaries and allowed consequences to naturally occur, everything fell apart. Separation, assault, restraining orders – it all got worse for me and my two college age kids. But it also got better. I slept. I smiled. I conversed. I gave opinions. All without waiting for the hammer to fall. It was and still is, both a very sad and very renewing time in my life. Thank you for sharing with me!

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Thank you, Marcy, for sharing your experiences. Your story is a heartbreaking one. Enabling our loved ones is not a sustainable option and neither is it a way forward. Pulling back and setting boundaries is all that is in your control to look after yourself, because no one has control of what others will do. It’s tragic that your partner couldn’t find the motivation to seek a better recovery for himself and his family, but no matter how much we want someone to behave or act or improve or get better, it just won’t happen unless it’s what they choose for themselves. So I completely understand when you describe it as very sad and very renewing at the same time. Take care.

      Like

  7. K G says:

    This eloquently describes a very hard realization those of us with a PTSD suffering spouse have to make. Thank you. It’s been nearly 8 years since I went through this, and for those of you just getting there, have hope there is light at the end of the tunnel.

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      You’re right, KG, it’s a tough realisation to come to. Especially when you finally see that years of “helping” were actually years of “hindering”. It sounds like your journey has become brighter in time, and that gives many of us hope for our own situations. Thank you.

      Like

  8. Tina says:

    Can you give some examples of consequences that you enforced.? Many of us could relate to what you were dealing with in detail. But many probably dont know how to make the switch.

    Like

    • NJ says:

      I have the same question – particularly regarding accountability. I am wondering if you would share more specific examples of how you were able to hold him accountable. Thanks for sharing – the tone and message are so helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Thank you, both Tina and NJ, for your comments. When I was writing this piece, I was intending to talk more about boundaries and consequences, but it was already very long! So I’ll be writing a new piece just about boundaries and enforcing them, with plenty of my own life examples.

      Like

  9. Bianca Fellows says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. You say so well, what I myself am feeling but can’t seem to express! Hopefully it may assist many others too!

    Like

  10. Beth Forsythe says:

    This is also my experience. I recently read, “Codependent No More.” It was life changing. I am still struggling to understand how to keep my boundaries. Like you, I use to use empty threats, but how do you maintain the boundary? What is the consequence? I would appreciate if you could guve an example. Thank you for your blog. You are so good at explaining how this life with PTSD feels.

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Thank you, Beth, for the book recommendation, I’ll look it up. The first step in keeping your boundaries is to define them clearly. And then there needs to be a planned action that you take if a boundary is crossed. This action needs to be realistic and achievable, or it will be very difficult to enforce the boundaries you create. When I was writing this piece, I was intending to talk more about boundaries, but it was already very long! So I’ll be writing a new piece just about boundaries and enforcing them.

      Like

  11. Stephen Hutchins says:

    Thank you again for allowing us into, what must be a very difficult and private part of your life Lea. I can fully understand what your husband is going through, what you have described here and in other blogs is me. It is very difficult to get motivated to just get up each morning and have a shower. I have suffered PTSD for much of my life but it all came to a head and a diagnosis made following a horrific car accident in 2010. Since then the disorder has consumed me and dictated my life. My family have suffered tremendously, especially my wife Joy who like you has been nothing but a loving, supporting and devoted carer for me. However I have hurt my family so much that an ultimatum was given for me to “shape up OR ship out”, and this hurt her more than me to have to come to that decision.
    She was not going to allow me to ruin the family any further and she like any responsible and nurturing mother would do was going to protect her brood.
    I have just completed a 4 week admission to the Epworth Mental Health unit in Camberwell and am now doing outpatient programs on Men’s Health for 9 weeks, and will follow on with 2 other workshops later. If you are interested I will give more details to you and keep you up to date with my progress. At this stage I have been able to maintain some motivation for a week so far with a few days fallen backwards but an 4 out of 10 I would score .
    Cheers Stephen Hutchins

    Like

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Thank you, Stephen, for opening up and sharing your struggles. I know so much about my side of this journey with PTSD, but from the sufferers side, I only get to truly know what my husband chooses to share, and others like you. I think the best outcomes in a relationship overshadowed by PTSD is achieved when both sides can empathise with what the other person has to deal with – both the sufferer and the supporter. I wish you all the best for your outpatient program and further workshops. Please keep us all updated! Take care.

      Like

  12. Anonymous says:

    This has been me, word for word. I feel so strongly about this article, you have articulated my very existence. You have found explanation without drama, this article says everything I need to say to my husband in a way I’ve struggled to without dissolving into floods of tears or sending mixed messages.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lea Farrow says:

      Thank you for your kind comment. It can be so hard to clearly understand the jumble of thoughts in your mind, but not be able to find the right words to do them justice. I hope my words this article really do help you explain your heart to your husband. Take care.

      Like

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