Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: A Military Program Offers a Message for Couples

On Oct 15, 2009, the front page story in the New York Times by Rod Nordland described Operation Proper Exit, a program which invited American servicemen wounded in the Iraq War back to Iraq to visit those very places where they suffered severe injury and loss as a way to help achieve psychological closure.

When we consider healing and recovery from trauma, revisiting ( literally,in this case) fosters the remembering and mourning necessary for integration of traumatic memories and unspeakable loss. Welcomed back by American Officers and the Iraqi Army Brigade Commander, these servicemen, one blinded and five amputees, had the benefit of others ‘bearing witness” to their sacrifice. The opportunity to feel respected for their service, to see changes in Iraq, to hear that the last unit replaced at that base had suffered no casualties gave meaning to their loss and trauma. The report of reduced fears and guilt “left behind” in Iraq as a result of such revisiting underscores the importance of this unique program.

For couples this program highlights the importance and value of partners understanding the importance “bearing witness” as a way to afford healing. In the case of the military partner, firefighter, police, the ill spouse, the other partner who has not faced the trauma often feels dismissed, minimized or not necessary to this process.

It is valuable to consider that when people have shared an unspeakable experience of horror and loss, there is what Lindy (1986) calls a trauma membrane that unites them. For military, firefighters, police, the band of brothers that gives them cohesion and courage is an essential component to their resiliency as well as their healing. It is seen in the “welcomed return” of the servicemen in Operation Proper Exit, the fact that after 9/11 firefighters stayed searching “the pile” at ground zero for months and the reason cops will drive across state lines to pay homage to a fallen officer.

Understanding your partner’s need to connect with others who can provide a certain type of support is a crucial aspect of healing together. It does not have to detract from the unique bond you share. It can add to the support that benefits both of you. In terms of the partner who has the military unit, the police partner, the firefighter family, even the breast cancer survivor group, he/she may have opportunities for validation that may be crucial to recovery – something that will ultimately help both of you.

What makes such affiliations constructive for the couple is balance. We encourage partners who have faced the trauma to share some aspect, thought, feeling about their experience of being at the memorial, of spending time with other Reservists, of being part of a cancer survivor group. To do so often helps the other partner understand the value of this outside network- while at the same time making them feel connected. Some partners communicate this feeling without words – their acceptance and understanding is implied in the smile, the familiar greeting, the insider glance – even as they deal with the rest of the world. Most partners don’t need to know a great deal – they just need to feel that in addition to other support systems, they are valued in a special way.

Some couples gain a great deal of healing from “bearing witness” to hope and recovery in a survivor mission that they share. Whether one has lost a brother in the war or they have lost a child in an accident– their work together for a foundation, their determination to make their loss insure another child’s safety, changes suffering together to healing together.
For Further Reading:
Lindy,J.D. 1986. The trauma membrane and other clinical concepts derived from psychotherapeutic work with survivors of natural disasters. Psychiatric Annals 15 (3;Marach): 153-60.