Deployment injuries, sex, and intimacy

Military Service Members returning from deployment often have a difficult time being intimate with their partners. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), amputations, Agent Orange exposure (Vietnam era), and chronic pain all can affect sexual functioning and relationships. Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) Veterans and Military Service Members with PTSD likely have at least one sexual problem. In addition, changes in sex hormones (such as thyroid-stimulating hormone, testosterone, and estrogen) might appear after a TBI, which can negatively influence sexual functioning. There also is continued encouragement for DoD and VA to communicate about sexual concerns with wounded Military Service Members and Veterans.

The spouse’s/partner’s role

Displaying patience and awareness can help rebuild intimacy. Walking on eggshells around your returned Warfighter isn’t necessary, but refraining from intrusive questions and criticism can help. Spouses and partners should be aware of which questions can help or hurt a warrior’s reintegration and recovery. Warriors might react negatively to questions such as whether they “killed any people” or similar inquiries. Instead, they need to be able to discuss their feelings about what they experienced rather than the specific details. In war zones, many Military Service Members witnessed or caused violence to women, children, and others. These negative images and experiences might make sexual activity after deployment especially challenging.

Rebuilding intimacy can be further complicated by Military Service Members having to maintain Operations Security (OPSEC). Returning Warfighters often are unable to share the details of their deployment. Sharing information is a predictor of success in relationships. So, military couples must manage around the confines of OPSEC and accept that some things will remain unknown. Instead of focusing on the details of the mission, partners can best serve their warriors by focusing on their feelings about their experiences. Sharing those emotions will help restore intimacy.

Spouses and partners should learn about what to typically expect from a returning warrior. Support and patience go a long way. A spouse cannot “fix” a Military Service Member who is struggling after deployment. Sometimes professional help is needed. Provide love, support, and assistance to get help if and when your Warfighter requests it.

Debrief

Sex and intimacy after deployment might be more difficult after experiencing combat stress. Injuries can initially be an obstacle, but a satisfying sex life is possible with adaptations (depending on the injury) and good communication. The following tips can help you reestablish a pleasurable sex life:

  • Think of sex as more than just physical intercourse.
  • Focus on pleasure and expressing your love.
  • Think “outside the sex box” you were in before injury.
  • Discuss what brings pleasure to each of you.