Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Information for Professionals

Understanding Domestic Abusers

Excuse #4: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What PTSD looks like

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder48 is a physiological and psychological condition that results from exposure to a traumatic stressor, such as actual or threatened death or serious injury to oneself or another, along with intense fear, helplessness or horror. (Less threatening events may cause milder post-traumatic symptoms.)

PTSD causes a great deal of distress, sometimes over a long period of time. People suffering from it experience three main types of symptoms:

As a result, they may withdraw emotionally, become irritable and aggressive, or use substances to calm themselves down – all of which can lead to relationship problems. Irritability and outbursts of anger are common in PTSD, and some individuals may become physically violent when they are emotionally triggered, startled, or having a flashback. But violent behavior is not common, and there is no evidence that PTSD causes anyone to engage in a pattern of coercive control.

How does looking at gender help us understand what’s going on?

Social norms about gender help to shape the different ways that women and men cope with adult trauma and PTSD – including whether they become violent or not.49  Much of this understanding has come from work with male and female veterans who have PTSD. Observed differences50 between these men and women fit with what our society says are acceptable or normal ways for men and women express their distress.

Women

For female veterans, PTSD typically involves depression, numbing, avoidance, anxiety disorders and suicidal thoughts or actions – not usually violence, though they may have angry outbursts.

Men

Violence has come to be almost expected in male veterans who have PTSD, in much the same way that people expect drinking to make men aggressive. And it is true that male veterans who have PTSD are more likely than those who don’t to:

However, when a male veteran becomes violent toward his partner, we should not attribute it to his PTSD without careful assessment.

Implications for Intervention

Treatment for PTSD will not make any difference if the individual is using it as an excuse for assaulting and controlling his/her partner. It is important to ask about how the person acts when he/she is not being triggered, and whether there is a pattern of coercive control or not.

Someone who already abuses their partner can also develop PTSD from a traumatic event. This does not mean the PTSD excuses the domestic abuse. Exploring an individual abuser’s learning history (role models, reinforcement history, etc.) in detail may help stop him/her from using it as an excuse for abusive behavior.

Partners of traumatized people often empathize with their experience and want to help them. At the same time, if they believe that violence is normal for men who have PTSD, they may rationalize or excuse coercive control. This puts them at increased risk.  Safety planning is needed, regardless of whether the violence is truly related to PTSD or not.52 If it is, then treatment for PTSD should help and should be explored.

Questions to ask yourself if your partner has PTSD
If you answered “yes” to many of these questions…

Next: Excuse #5: Traumatic Brain Injury

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  1. American Psychiatric Association (2005). DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, p 468.
  2. See Wolfe, J. (1993). Female military veterans and traumatic stress, PTSD Research Quarterly, 4 (1), National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  3. Veterans are far from the only people who experience PTSD, but they are the focus of a good deal of current research.
  4. Price, J.L. & Stevens, S.P. (2010). Partners of Veterans with PTSD: Research Findings, Veterans Administration.
  5. Sherman, M.D., Sautter, F., Jackson, M.H., Lyons, J.A. & Han, X. (2006). Domestic violence in veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder who seek couples therapy, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 32(4): 479–490.