The first days and weeks after a Wounded Warrior's return are a whirlwind of fear, confusion, stress, and life-altering decisions for all family members. The months that follow are typically packed with physical therapy, adjustment to prosthetics or wheelchairs, and a scramble to get back to normal life. Finally, after the dust has cleared and both husband and wife have settled into their new roles and routines, the landscape of their new life together finally becomes clear: They know how to talk to the kids, who will be going back to work, what the family finances look like, and, eventually, what shape their sex life will take from now on. And since thousands of veterans are returning home with genitourinary (GU) wounds, couples often find their intimate interactions forever altered.
In the current conflicts in the Middle East, the enemy tends to plant its IEDs on fences, roadsides, or anywhere else above ground, positioning them so that the blast often hits the legs and genitals of passing soldiers and marines. Multiple limb amputation with GU wounds are common injuries in this war, the new "signature wound."
And even when warriors return with their sex organs in tact, many who suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTS) must take medications that kill off their sex drive and make them moody or irritable. Others may have injuries or amputations that make tried-and-true sexual activities and positions impossible. Many wives have told me it wasn't uncommon for their men to have difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection, a problem that can arise from not only emotional problems, but also circulatory issues.
When someone we love is wounded, we feel hurt, too, and many wives are hit by what I call "PTS shrapnel." After long deployments, both partners want to feel the other person's loving touch, but when the husband is injured, what's wanted and what's possible may not align.
At a recent SPA Day, which my foundation hosts for the wives of wounded warriors, I listened as a group of wives talked about the solutions and workarounds they were using to get through sexual dry spells. Here are five options the ladies discussed:
1. Lead a celibate life
A woman named Suzie said, "It wasn't that important to me to begin with. I channel my love on a more spiritual level. I love him not for who he is physically, but for his soul. I enjoy his affection without the sex."
This was a controversial opinion that some other wives pushed back against, but a few agreed. "I can't just accept total celibacy," another wife responded, "But I'm fine with having sex less often. Even going months without, if that's what it takes to make both of us feel comfortable."
2. Pleasure yourself
A Navy wife named Julie told us, "I can please myself. Self-pleasure is good for us! And I'm not stepping outside the bonds of my marriage, having an affair. There are so many toys and porn movies available it's no longer a challenge to please yourself or experiment with adult play. It takes the pressure off everyone."
A fiery redhead named Fiona agreed, saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away, and I've learned an orgasm a day keeps the stress away."
3. Step outside the marriage
The women actually talked about this openly, though there were plenty of flushed cheeks and downcast eyes. Kendal, an outspoken blond woman, opened the topic, saying, "I treated myself to a solo day at the spa and got a massage with benefits. Men have been getting 'happy ending' massages for years, so I thought I'd give it a try." She told us that she did her best to be subtle, since she didn't want to get kicked out of the spa or get her masseuse in trouble. She parted her legs a bit and gave little moans of approval when he moved his hand closer. It was thrilling because it was forbidden, like a scene out of Sex and the City.
"I feel like it's not really cheating because I didn't touch the masseuse or even look at him," she concluded. "He just pleased me with his hands as he was massaging my thighs."
Some women tossed around the idea of stepping outside their marriages with a boyfriend. One bubbly, talkative wife called Jane proposed to her husband the idea of having a boyfriend, and although the conversation was hard, it opened up some important channels of communication.
"Kyle didn't like the idea AT ALL, but talking about it made him see how our total lack of sex was affecting me," she said.
Another woman had the opposite experience, and told the group, "My husband gave me permission to seek another lover." Since his injuries had made nearly all sexual activity difficult or impossible, he put this offer on the table in an effort to keep her happy and make sure she felt valued within the marriage. "I'm still thinking it over," she told us. "He said it might eventually be something we could talk about and share intimately--he might like to hear about how I'm seeking pleasure with another man. And I'm tempted. But it's a big leap of faith to take, you know?"
4. Leave the marriage
A soft-spoken Army wife named Lisa started to cry as she said, "I'm twenty-five and can't live a celibate life and can't live a secretive life. My husband would NEVER be okay with porn, a massage with benefits, or a lover."
She told us that her SPA Day massage had been the first time anyone had touched her sensuously in years and that she didn't want to give up sexual intimacy for the rest of her life. She felt so abandoned and empty that divorce felt like the only real option.
An older woman named Mary drew similar conclusions for different reasons, saying, "I know that PTS often shows up as depression and lack of sex drive, but my husband outwardly expresses his rage through abuse. I don't want to have sex with him or even be married to him."
Mary told us her husband was having reckless sex with lots of women, a hurtful fact that she had discovered by checking his phone. "He said these other women didn't mean anything; having sex with them was just his way of getting high and escaping," Mary went on. "I've got a son in middle school who sees this man as a role model. This man who drinks and rages and sleeps around. I'm just not sure it's worth it to stay with him."
5. Take yourself off the market
"I've gained 100 pounds since all this happened," a dark-haired woman named Sheila admitted to us. "Food is my comfort, my pleasure, my sex. I've made myself so fat my husband wouldn't be interested in me, and I'm relieved."
Other wives talked about letting go of their grooming and self-care - skipping trips to the salon and abandoning their makeup routines - and spending months on end in the same pair of sweatpants. They agreed that it felt easier to make themselves feel unattractive than it did deal with the stress of a complicated and unpredictable sex life with their injured husbands.
The challenges of rebuilding an intimate relationship with a Wounded Warrior are daunting, but a handful of the women in attendance urged the others to hold onto hope. With patience, creativity, and a willingness to experiment, these wives promised that fulfilling, exciting sex lives were possible, even with partners missing limbs or sex organs! They shared their stories generously, and many of the other women were fascinated and excited to hear the details.
And everyone agreed that it was essential to be truthful in our sexual relationships, partnerships, and marriages, to talk about what's not working and find ways to make improvements together. Because all the tricks in the world--date nights, sex toys, and porn movies--won't work if both partners aren't willing to know each other. Once the wife can talk about what's she's going through, she can find healthy ways to cope. Once the husband knows what his wife is feeling, he can adapt and respond. Some of the women who came to the discussion in despair were heartened by this reminder, and talked about recommitting to honest communication.
Everyone also agreed that even if sex had to be back-burnered temporarily, rekindling love was essential to forging new, stronger bonds with their injured spouses. And Kelly--one of the wives who was thrilled with the sex life she'd rebuilt with her husband--told us, "Finding a path back to genuine love can lead to great sex. Even for couples in relationships that involve altered bodies and minds!"