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Balance and Boundaries: Coping with a Loved One’s PTSD

In this excerpt from Shock Waves
by Cynthia Orange, the author provides practical advice on managing
one’s own reactions to a loved one’s PTSD symptoms and illustrates that
understanding one’s limits may do the most to promote healthy recovery

(Click here to read article on the Sober 24 website.)

many years of relative silence about his combat experience, there came a
time when it seemed like all Michael thought or talked about was
Vietnam. On the surface, I appeared to be the picture of encouragement,
but things got out of balance. My resentment grew in direct proportion
to my “selflessness.” I gave up my computer and office so he could write
about war. I stayed out of his way. Sometimes he’d wake me up late at
night to read me what he’d written, and I’d listen, both as a supportive
spouse and as a writing teacher. When I tried to talk about my feelings
or my writing, he’d often cut me off, interrupt me, or tell me to go to
sleep. I shrank further into his shadow, wondering, when will it be my

Trauma throws lives and family dynamics off balance and can shift the
healthiest of boundaries. Appropriate boundaries are the way we
differentiate ourselves from others. They protect and preserve our
individuality and help us keep our self-esteem intact. When trauma
comes, appropriate boundaries are easier to describe than they are to
set. Trauma survivors might establish rigid boundaries, shutting out
those who care for them the most. On the other hand, their family and
friends might have few boundaries or forget about boundaries altogether
as they focus more and more on their loved one and less and less on

Messages we received as children about rules and boundaries might be
reactivated, and we find ourselves responding to the trauma in much the
same way we saw our parents and even grandparents handle crises when we
were kids. I came from an enmeshed family system with weak boundaries
where members got all tangled up and involved in each other’s problems
and lives. Michael, however, came from a disengaged family system where
isolation and secrets were the norm. As his trauma symptoms grew more
severe, he retreated. In an attempt to rescue him, I invaded. Michael
was too numb to know his needs, let alone express them. I knew my needs,
but suppressed them in favor of what I imagined his needs to be.

Healthy boundary setting often starts by reminding yourself that you
didn’t cause your loved one’s trauma, and—as much as you may want to—you
cannot cure it. Remember the Serenity Prayer? Change what you can

My brother has definitely challenged my boundaries and tested my
boundary-setting skills. I think this is because of his PTSD. But the
more I learn about trauma, the better I’m getting at setting appropriate
boundaries with him. It’s still hard, but I keep trying because it’s
important for me to have a relationship with my brother.

Simply put, when we set boundaries, we set limits. We learn when to
say no, and when we say yes, we do so out of choice, not guilt or
obligation. As we become more aware of our own needs and feelings, we
become more respectful of others’ needs, feelings, and limitations. We
concentrate more on improving ourselves and less on controlling or
fixing a loved one. Setting boundaries is such a grown-up thing to do!

A dear friend modeled healthy boundary setting on a recent visit.
When the National Guard fired shots on May 4, 1970, that killed four
Kent State University students in Ohio, he was close enough to see one
of them fall, and rushed to her side to help. She died as he tried to
hold her neck together until the ambulance came, and he still harbors
the memories of that traumatic experience. When we asked him to join us
at a rally a while ago, he grew quiet and seemed a little anxious, but
was able to explain how political gatherings are one of the triggers
that reignite the trauma of that day decades ago. He didn’t make up an
excuse or risk a relapse of symptoms by thinking he had to come along to
please us. We so appreciated his honesty, and because he was so clear,
we were able to give him our genuine support. He honored his boundaries
by staying home; we honored ours by going.

We take care of ourselves when we accept responsibility for the
consequences of our own actions and reactions, and sort out what we can
and cannot control. By taking personal responsibility, we move beyond
blame and shame. We are bound to make mistakes, but we don’t punish
ourselves unmercifully for them; we learn from our mistakes and move on.
We learn to quiet that incessant chatterbox inside our head that drones
on and on with negative self-talk, and replace it instead with a loving
voice that convinces us we are strong and worthy. We understand that we
have choices, and that we can choose to take the path that contributes
most to our personal growth and happiness.


We can give love to our traumatized loved one, our friends, our
family, and ourselves all at the same time. We befriend and care for
ourselves best when we recognize we have the basic right to

• Be ourselves
• Be treated with respect, as capable, competent, and imperfect adults
• Set limits and establish appropriate boundaries
• Refuse requests without feeling guilty or selfish
• Feel and express our own emotions
• Ask for affection and help
• Change our minds, make mistakes, and admit when we don’t know, don’t agree, or don’t understand
• Decide when we are responsible, what we are responsible for, and how we choose to accept responsibility
• Protect ourselves
• Grow and learn

If you have difficulty remembering or believing your personal rights,
copy this list, add any more you can think of, and carry it in your
purse or billfold to remind you that you are a worthwhile and deserving

From Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One’s PTSD, by Cynthia Orange. © Cynthia Orange, 2010. Hazelden Publishing, 2010