Q. My wife and I were scheduled to take a long-awaited vacation, but since the events of September 11 she has been too afraid to fly and we had to cancel our entire vacation. We'd been looking forward to it for over a year and now she let her fear ruin it. I feel bad for her, but at the same time I'm frustrated by her unwillingness to have enough faith to just get on the plane and go. Am I wrong to feel this way?
A. With all of your anticipation and planning it's understandable that you'd be disappointed with not being able to take your vacation. At the same time, dealing with fear isn't always as easy as just getting on a plane. The fear your wife is experiencing may seem irrational to you, but millions of other Americans have been grappling with similar fears.
The tragic events of September 11, produced psychological and emotional shock waves that have touched the lives of every American in different ways. One national study showed that eight out of ten adults nationwide reported symptoms including increased fear, anxiety, loss of sleep, lower frustration tolerance, decreased energy, bad dreams, increased negativity, and difficulty in concentrating.
The best starting place is for you to make time to listen to your wife. James tells us to "be quick to listen" (James 1:19). So many of us men think we are doing our wives a huge favor by giving them the solutions that work for us. Most women would tell you that's just what they don't need.
Proverbs 18:13 says, "He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him" (NASB). You have an opportunity to "love your wife just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25) by listening to her, working hard to understand her, and not trying to fix her.
Ask God to help you empathize with her and not merely minimize her concerns. Often just talking about a fear gets it out of the closet and into the light where we can see it more clearly and apply biblical truths and wise counsel to it. Then ask her if there is anything you can do to help. At the very least you can offer to pray with her and to pray for her.
In our own marriage we've discovered that these kinds of problems provide great opportunity for growth in a marriage relationship. When Gary had to fly into LaGuardia Airport on September 15, I had some real concerns for him. But as we prayed together before he left on the flight and asked some friends to pray for him I felt a real sense of peace.
Our last suggestion is to start planning your next vacation. If your wife isn't comfortable setting a date, you can start to look at some potential dates and get the information you'll need.
My Out-of-Work Husband Is Depressed
Q. My husband was recently laid off. We just had our third child and were starting to dig out of a financial hole. Since being laid off he has become discouraged, depressed, and keeps talking like things will never get better. How can I help?
A. By being concerned and reaching out for help you've already taken a great first step. In addition to the emotional impact you and your husband have experienced, a job loss and the resulting financial concerns have made the impact on your relationship even greater. You are discovering that difficult and draining times can produce significant stress on a marriage. When times are tough, it becomes easier to be negative and critical. When things go wrong, it becomes much easier to justify and rationalize your own behavior and blame the problems on someone else. Often that "someone else" is your spouse. Stress and pressure bring existing weaknesses to the surface and can make them appear larger than life.
Difficult times can also provide couples with an opportunity to pull together, to join hands, to share hearts, to pray and praise together, and to experience a new depth of love and trust. We would encourage you and your husband to talk with a pastor so that he can give you some contacts and resources you're not aware of, pray with you, and help assess the severity of your husband's depression.
If his depression lasts more than a few weeks we would strongly encourage you to see a professional Christian counselor who is trained in helping folks deal with depression. If it is caught and dealt with early, depression can be very manageable. But you can't just hope that it will go away. If it's left to fester and deepen it can rob an individual, marriage, and family of hope and joy.
Why Have His Nightmares Returned?
Q. My husband is a Vietnam veteran, and since the terrorist attacks of September 11 he has had sleep problems and recurring nightmares of experiences in Vietnam. He gets irritated more quickly, criticizes me and the kids, and then withdraws. It's been thirty-five years since he was in Vietnam. What's going on?
A. When I (Gary) was in Manhattan a few days after the attacks I spoke with a friend whose grandfather, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, told him that since the terrorist attacks he was having nightmares of being on the ship and being bombed. His traumatic experience took place over fifty years ago, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd had any dreams or nightmares related to that experience. For a long time we've known that crisis can activate painful memories that have long lay dormant.
A man's initial response to fearful, painful, or uncomfortable memories is to deny, repress, suppress, or ignore them— in other words, to fake like everything is fine. Many men have learned that it is safer to keep their painful and scary feelings to themselves and pretend like there isn't a problem. Unfortunately, that never helps.
From your description it sounds like your husband might be experiencing a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While a professional counselor would need to diagnose it, PTSD involves the following: 1) a traumatic event in which the person witnessed or experienced actual or threatened death or serious injury and responded with intense fear, horror, or helplessness; 2) at exposure to memory cues (such as the events of September 11) the person re-experiences symptoms, such as intrusive recollections, nightmares, flashbacks, or psychological distress; 3) the person withdraws to avoid conflict-related situations and feels emotionally numb; and 4) the person has increased mental and emotional arousal, manifested by hyper-vigilance, irritability, or difficulty sleeping.
The good news is that PTSD is not that rare and is very treatable. What on the surface appears to be a problem can be used by God to help you better understand each other and can be another part of the healing process for your husband. There are a number of simple and practical steps you can take. First of all, listen to him and don't minimize his concerns. It's hard for many men to share their fears with their wives. It makes us feel wimpy and weak. Let him know that you respect his courage in talking with you. Perhaps you and the family can get together and pray with and for him.
It's essential that he get connected with some other guys. We would encourage him to meet with one of your pastors. The Bible has many references to provide encouragement and hope in times like these. If he has some Christian male friends it would be good to get together with one or two of them. At this point in his life, he has a huge need to be connected and experience the healing nature of the body of Christ. Then we would encourage you to meet once or twice with a licensed Christian counselor who can help you assess the severity of the symptoms and suggest some other resources.
In light of the events of September 11, the numerous stories we have heard and the hundreds of conversations we have had convince us more than ever that, no matter how high the mountain, no matter how deep the valley, no matter how dark the night, no matter what, God is faithful. Circumstances may tempt you to wallow in a helpless and hopeless despair, but if you stop, look, listen, and reach out you will discover that there is help and there is hope. Not merely some shallow, superficial, pie-in-the-sky hope, but a hope that was paid for at the cross, guaranteed by an empty tomb, recorded in God's infallible word, and testified to by the millions of men and women who have gone before us.
The ultimate reality, the reality against which the events of September 11 must be viewed, is that darkness can never destroy the light. The events and circumstances of life don't change truth. However, circumstances do provide a unique opportunity for us to practice what we preach, to move from being hearers to being doers, to speak truth and hope and help into the darkness of real-life pain, to model concern and compassion, to reject racism and prejudice, to respond, rather than merely react, and to do what Jesus would do.
Gary J. Oliver, Th.M., Ph.D, is the author of numerous books and is executive director of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies and Professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Carrie Oliver, M.A., is a clinical therapist at the PeopleCARE Counseling Centers, specializing in marriage and family and women's issues. She is a seminar leader and co-author, with Gary of Raising Sons … and Loving It! (Zondervan). The Olivers have three sons.
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2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.