The Relationship Between Domestic Violence and Posttraumatic Stress

When people think about posttraumatic stress (PTSD), they often envision a soldier struggling to cope with the physical and psychological ravages of war. Many PTSD outreach campaigns focus on this very image, but a person doesn't have to travel to a foreign land to experience trauma. The domestic violence rate in the United States is extremely high, with about 21% of women experiencing some form of intimate partner violence each year. Intimate partner violence is a leading—and often overlooked—cause of PTSD, and some people with PTSD may not realize they’re experiencing it.

Domestic Violence as Trauma

To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have experienced a traumatic event during which they were or believed themselves to be in imminent danger. People who witness other people experience such trauma can also be diagnosed with PTSD; some children who witness violence between their parents develop PTSD. Domestic violence survivors are frequently exposed to long-term violence that can increase their likelihood of developing PTSD and make it very difficult to trust other people. This breakdown in trust may interfere with a survivor's ability to get help from friends, family, and domestic violence organizations.

PTSD in Domestic Violence Victims

Some symptoms of PTSD that are particularly common in domestic violence survivors include:

  • Intrusive memories of the abuse, including flashbacks
  • Nightmares about the abuse
  • Difficulty sleeping and changes in eating habits
  • A fixation on avoiding situations that remind them of the abuse, including new romantic relationships
  • A heightened startle reflex
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Guilt
  • Excessive safety awareness and a persistent belief that the abuser will return or that another person will become abusive

Effect on Future Relationships

Because domestic violence survivors may try to avoid situations that caused the abuse or that bring back bad memories, they can struggle in future relationships. This might include a complete unwillingness to enter into a new romantic relationship. But other times, it might simply mean that a survivor's personality changes. She or he might become highly passive or fixated on pleasing a partner out of fear that, if she/he doesn't, the partner might become abusive. Some domestic violence survivors have difficulties with self-esteem and assertiveness. This can increase their likelihood of entering into another abusive relationship, compounding the trauma of abuse.

PTSD as a Contributing Factor to Domestic Violence

Some people with PTSD become abusive as a result. A hallmark of PTSD is difficulty controlling emotions. Particularly among men, PTSD can manifest as extreme anger, and this can lead to domestic violence. There are several reports of soldiers who returned from war and became abusive toward their partners. Additionally, the flashbacks associated with PTSD can alter behavior. A person with PTSD might believe she/he is fighting off a dangerous threat, when she/he is actually fighting a partner or child.

Treatment for PTSD

PTSD is a highly treatable condition. A combination of medication, individual psychotherapy, and group therapy can be particularly effective. A domestic violence prevention organization may be able to refer you to treatment services and to a therapist who specializes in treating domestic violence-induced PTSD.

References:

  1. Griffing, S. (2006). Exposure to Interpersonal Violence as a Predictor of PTSD Symptomatology in Domestic Violence Survivors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence21(7), 936-954. doi: 10.1177/0886260506288938
  2. Hughes, M. J., & Jones, L. (2000, January). Women, domestic violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [PDF]. San Diego: San Diego State University.
  3. Intimate partner violence. (n.d.). National Center for PTSD. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/domestic-violence.asp
  4. Post traumatic stress disorder. (n.d.). Boston Children's Hospital. Retrieved from http://www.childrenshospital.org/az/Site1470/mainpageS1470P1.html