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PTSD and Domestic Violence

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Updated November 03, 2009

There is a relationship between the experience of a traumatic event, PTSD and domestic violence. In fact, intimate partner abuse happens more than you may think. National estimates indicate that, in a period of one year, 8 to 21% of people in a serious relationship will have engaged in some kind of violent act aimed at an intimate partner. Relationship violence has also been found among people who have experienced certain traumatic events or have PTSD.

Trauma, PTSD, and Relationship Violence

Separate from PTSD, a connection has been found between the experience of certain traumatic events and relationship violence. In particular, studies have found that men and women who have experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional neglect in childhood may be more likely to be abusive in intimate relationships as compared to people without a history of childhood trauma.

In addition, people with PTSD have also been found to be more likely to be aggressive and engage in intimate partner abuse than people without a PTSD diagnosis. The connection between PTSD and violence has been found for both men and women with PTSD.

How Are They Related?

Several studies have been conducted in an attempt to better understand what may lead people with a history of trauma or PTSD to engage in aggressive and violent behaviors. In studies of U.S. veterans, it has found that depression played a role in aggression among people with PTSD. People who have both depression and PTSD may experience more feelings of anger and, therefore, may have greater difficulties controlling it.

In line with this, a couple of studies have found that violent and aggressive behavior, especially among men, may be used as a way of attempting to manage unpleasant feelings. Aggressive behavior may be a way of releasing tension associated with other unpleasant emotions stemming from a traumatic event, such as shame, guilt, or anxiety. While aggressive and hostile behavior may temporarily reduce tension, it, of course, is ineffective in the long-run -- both in regard to relationships and dealing with unpleasant emotions.

Despite these findings, it is important to note that just because a person has experienced a traumatic event or has PTSD does not mean that they will exhibit violent behavior. There are many factors that contribute to aggressive behavior and much more research is needed to identify the specific risk factors for aggressive behavior among people exposed to traumatic events or who have PTSD.

What Can Be Done?

Mental health professionals have long recognized that trauma and PTSD increase risk for aggression. Therefore, many treatments for PTSD also incorporate anger management skills. Learning more effective ways of coping with stress is a major part of reducing aggressive tendencies, such as deep breathing and identifying the short- and long-term negative and positive consequences of different behaviors.

If you are the victim of relationship violence, it is important for you to also take immediate steps. Learn more about domestic violence and how to get help.

Sources:
Beckham, J. C., Moore, S. D., & Reynolds, V. (2000). Interpersonal hostility and violence in Vietnam combat veterans with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder: A review of theoretical models and empirical evidence. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 5, 451-466.

Bevan, E., & Higgins, D. J. (2002). Is domestic violence learned? The contribution of five forms of child maltreatment to men’s violence and adjustment. Journal of Family Violence, 17, 223-245.

Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Phillips, C. M. (2001). Do people aggress to improve their mood? Catharsis beliefs, affect regulation opportunity, and aggressive responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 17-32.

Gratz, K.L., Paulson, A., Jakupcak, M., & Tull, M.T. (in press). Exploring the relationship between childhood maltreatment and intimate partner abuse: Gender differences in the mediating role of emotion dysregulation. Violence and Victims.

Novaco, R. W., & Chemtob, C. M. (1998). Anger and trauma: Conceptualization, assessment, and treatment. In V. M. Follette, J. I. Ruzek, & F. R. Abueg (Eds.), Cognitive-behavioral therapies for trauma (pp. 162-190). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Schafer, J., Caetano, R., & Clark, C. L. (1998). Rates of intimate partner violence in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 88, 1702-1704.

Swinford, S. P., DeMaris, A., Cernkovich, S. A., & Giordano, P. C. (2000). Harsh physical discipline in childhood and violence in later romantic involvements: The mediating role of problem behaviors. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 508-519.

Taft, C.T., Pless, A.P., Stalans, L.J., Koenen, K.C., King, L.A., & King, D.W. (2005). Risk factors for partner violence among a national sample of combat veterans. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 151-159.

Taft, C.T., Vogt, D.S., Marshall, A.D., Panuzio, J., & Niles, B.L. (2007). Aggression among combat veterans: Relationships with combat exposure and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, dysphoria, and anxiety. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20, 135-145.

Tull, M.T., Jakupcak, M., Paulson, A., & Gratz, K.L. (2007). The role of emotional inexpressivity and experiential avoidance in the relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder symptom severity and aggressive behavior among men exposed to interpersonal violence. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 20, 337-351.

Wolfe, D. A., Wekerle, C., Scott, K., Straatman, A.-L., & Grasley, C. (2004). Predicting abuse in adolescent dating relationships over 1 year: The role of child maltreatment and trauma. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113, 406-415.

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