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:
- Arousal: People with PTSD may be irritable, easily startled and unable to concentrate. They may have insomnia and outbursts of anger, and be constantly on the lookout for danger (hypervigilence).
- Re-experiencing the trauma: People with PTSD may suffer intrusive memories, nightmares, or flashbacks (feeling that one is back in the middle of the traumatic event). They may become aggressive during a flashback, or when startled, and have difficulty controlling their feelings at those times.
- Numbness and avoidance: People with PTSD may not react emotionally the way they used to, and may lose interest in activities and people they care about.
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.
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.
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:
- Be irritable, impulsive and hostile.
- Use substances.
- Commit incidents of physical violence.
- To be involved with the legal system.51
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
- Which came first – his violence or his trauma?
- What was he like before he was traumatized?
- Does she try to control you in many non-physically-violent ways, yet still claim her abusiveness results from PTSD?
- What is he like when his PTSD is not being triggered? Is he still cruel and controlling? Does he still feel he has the right to be the boss?
- Is he also violent toward non-family members? (His violence may look “domestic” when that’s only one part of it.)
If you answered “yes” to many of these questions…
- Seeing your partner’s behavior accurately could help you stop thinking he/she is abusive only because of PTSD.
- You may want to talk over your situation with an advocate at a local domestic violence program, or with your counselor, if you have one.
- Do not assume that PTSD treatment will make your partner treat you better. It may be necessary, but if your partner feels entitled to control you, it won’t be enough to end the violence.
- If you want to know more about the relationship between domestic abuse and PTSD, scroll up to read this section.
- American Psychiatric Association (2005). DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, p 468.
- See Wolfe, J. (1993). Female military veterans and traumatic stress, PTSD Research Quarterly, 4 (1), National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- Veterans are far from the only people who experience PTSD, but they are the focus of a good deal of current research.
- Price, J.L. & Stevens, S.P. (2010). Partners of Veterans with PTSD: Research Findings, Veterans Administration.
- 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.