PTSD and Emotional Trauma Affects Partners of Veterans, Too

Caring for someone with PTSD can sometimes lead to secondary trauma.

And researchers at the University of Utah wondered just how bad that secondary trauma could be.

While completing her graduate studies, Catherine Caska Wallace, PhD and her research team studied two groups of male veterans, along with their female partners. In 32 couples, the veterans suffered from PTSD, and in the control group of 33 couples, PTSD wasn’t a factor.

The veterans in both groups had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan at least once in the past decade.

After the researchers interviewed the couples to measure PTSD, depression, marital satisfaction, and areas of disagreement, they asked the couples to undergo a brief experiment.

Researchers asked each couple to have a conversation about a current issue on which they strongly disagreed.

Before and after the conversation, researchers took physiological measurements from both partners, including blood pressure and heart rate.

Some of their findings probably weren’t surprising. Both veterans and partners in the PTSD group reported significantly higher emotional stress, measured through disaffection and disharmony. They also reported problems with frequent and intense emotional conflict.

But when they looked at the physiological measurements, researchers found something particularly interesting.

While the couples in the PTSD group showed elevated blood pressure during the conversation relative to controls, the partners of the veterans in particular showed the highest blood pressure – even compared to the veterans themselves.

It’s important to note that this study didn’t use random assignment when selecting its sample, so there’s a limit to how much we can generalize its results.

Although preliminary, this research suggests that PTSD can have far reaching and significant physiological impact even among people who don’t suffer from it.

Of course, the blood pressure finding stood alone in this study. I’d like to see more research that examines other physiological and mental factors with the partners of post-traumatic stress sufferers. If PTSD really carries significant health risks for the partners of veterans, more attention paid to them in future research.

If you’re interested in reading the full study, it was published in Health Psychology, Volume 33, Issue 11, pp. 1273 – 1280.

PTSD and partners

For more on working with trauma’s impact on clients, and their relationships, be sure to check out this week’s broadcast in the all-new Treating Trauma Master Series.

You’ll get insights from: Dan Siegel, MD; Pat Ogden, PhD; Allan Schore, PhD; and Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD.

It’s free to watch at the time of broadcast – you just need to sign up.

Now we’d like to hear from you. What’s your experience in working with veterans, or their partners, who suffer from PTSD? Please leave a comment below.

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24 Comments

  1. Results so not surprising… I’d like to see a study that monitors also the #children of PTSD clients. I have seen deep psychological impacts in the children of my fellow PTSD family members, and including mine . New study need not be just for “War veterans”. PTSD is also the result of growing up either #witnessing or directly #experiencing brutality, conflict, abuse and violence at #home. I’d like to call us “HOME-WAR Children”…

  2. Liz says:

    I am a family doctor and the partner of a man who is struggling with childhood trauma and ADD, exacerbated by recent severe work stress. While he is now off work, the last few weeks have been like living in a minefield, waiting for the next explosion. There are times when I have been very frightened by the rage of this normally loving and kind man. It’s like he has a personality change, often triggered by apparently minor things. Fortunately he is learning to recognise his inner landscape and ask for help before he loses it completely. He is also getting help from a therapist who works with trauma. I have also recognised that I am caring for a man with a severe mental illness and the huge impact on me – so am getting help myself. I occupy a tricky space – I have done a lot of recovery work on myself, I am a health professional (and not his doctor) but I am also his partner and right in the line of fire. I can be there for him (I am not frightened by his distress) but when he is raging it is all I can do to stay there with him and not run away (my own trauma response or perhaps a rational desire for safety?). When he is raging, I can also see that there is a small traumatised person who desperately needs someone to be there with him.

    • Tizzy says:

      I’m really sorry you are in this situation. I hope things work out for you. What struck me was feeling scared at times.

      I mentor survivors of domestic abuse and violence through a charity. One of the screening questions asks whether the perpetrator is in military because there is a correlation. Typically the levels of violence and abuse escalate over time as the parties’ tolerance levels become acclimatised.

      Please look after yourself and prioritise your own safety. The police often ignore and there is no law or enforcement of a “yet.” Love does not protect the spouse/partner and it can become a vulnerable hole in the armour of one’s beliefs of how things “should” be vs the reality of what “is.” Perpetrators are acutely successful at matching hope with instilling fear in order to make themselves feel powerful /in control/better about their own frailties. I offer that it is safer to deal with the reality of observed behaviour rather than live on a hope of what could be.

    • Lloyd says:

      Liz, you are doing really well to stay there and he needs all the love and kindness you can give. I was similarly overwhelmed by work and childhood trauma. I have been using schema therapy to identify my schemes and triggers. Most of the time I would run at a fear level of 8/10 and meditation, breathing and re-parenting by my therapist failed to bring me down. My wife is not a resilent as you and was very frightened. I would pick this up and it became a vicious circle. Recently I tried cold water shock where I put my face in cold water for as long as I could. This did the trick. There is increasing evidence that it may help. There is research suggesting that arythmias can be produced by holding your breath and cold shock but there is also evidence that it can cure SVT’s! What I now do is have a cold shower and this is as effective. It will bring my fear level down to 1/10 and then I can try the other techniques. There is light at the end of the tunnel but there will be tears as well. I probably had not really accepted the brutality of my childhood until my sister wrote a letter. I could no longer deny it and this was emotionally overwhelming. If you have a lake or safe river nearby cold water swimming may help. Look on BBC iplayer for the clips of the GP who did not use drugs.. Remember to hug and sooth him like you would a an upset child.

      • Liz says:

        Thanks Lloyd, your kind response brought tears to my eyes.
        I may gently suggest the cold water thing to DP … I have to be careful about my suggestions.
        We do spend a lot of time hugging, and we’ve found that when I rub his shoulders he gets on a physical as well as emotional level that I do love and care for him.
        Funny thing – when he’s good, he is once again the loving kind man with whom I am emotionally safe and I can sob in his arms…
        Best to you and your wife too.

        • Lloyd says:

          Hi Liz,

          I thought the others might benefit from my experience. I was the third child of a man who had lost his mother when he was six. He was mostly unloved and unsupported. He craved female attention and smoked to heavily to deal with his life. This created conflict between him and my mother as he would often leave her without money for food or clothes. She fought back but usually came off the worst. He left her briefly for another woman before I was born which severely traumatized my elder brother. I think by the time I came along there was no love left in Mum for me. My younger sister died when I was eight and I hstill have the vivid image of kissing a cold bloated corpse in her coffin. Another child bleed to death in the school yard when I was the. They were the good times! Mum was put on amphetamines to help her cope with family life and then given barbiturates to bring her down at night. For some reason Mum decided to take out her frustrations on me using some anything in her hand -pans, wooden spoons, rolling pins. The pans had flat sides and she would break the spoons on my back. She would also tell my father to beat me if I had misbehaved,
          . He used a thick leather belt on my bare backside leaving scars. The NHS was just as bad with horrendous images and also threats from colleagues when I foolishly became a manager. I went to court and experienced every other complaints procedure they could devise.
          I am still alive and have spent the last five years of my retirement dealing with my “demons”.
          I still have difficulty trusting everyone including my wife who often responded with anger. This would trigger me which would make her more angry. After the third strike I would shut down for days. I would jump when I Heard her footsteps or the door open.
          How did I start to recover? I used to take carbamazepine. This suppressed my emotions so I did not need to deal with them. As a child they were of no value. It was only by slowly stopping my drugs that I could start the healing process and I have wept a lot.
          I occasionally developed raged which frightened me more than my wife. I had no control and perhaps if I lived in the states might have shot someone. Fortunately I do’nt otherwise I might be spending my life in prison for my childhood!
          My therapist has been trying to re-parent me using schema therapy but I realized more parents were the last thing I needed! I neede a carer who I could trust and in reality someone who would cuddle and stroke me when things got tough. I only experienced this when I was 64 when my elderly sister did this to me when I broke down.
          I have really written this for your husband who may have experienced something similar but it will also help others to understand where we come from.
          I am partly triggered by my mistrust/abuse just writing this but at least it is at a controllable level.
          The story is much longer but this does give you a flavor. You are no longer alone and we can all learn together.
          Keep up the hugging, even more so when he becomes enraged. This is when he is the most frightened. I have felt overwhelmed by my emotions and have felt that not being here would stop the fear and pain. It might but we just have to have an open mind and heart and learn to heal each other.
          I hope this helps.

          Take care,

          Lloyd

        • Lloyd says:

          Liz, I am away until next Wednesday but would be happy to share my experiences with your husband. He would then not feel alone. Use my email address. Take care!

  3. Kelly Morris says:

    I specialize in marriage counseling for couples who have children with disabilities/special healthcare needs (having one of my own). The trauma of this experience affects each spouse differently. There are trauma similarities, from mild to severe, and the marriage is greatly affected.

  4. Elaine Dolan says:

    Yup- the sooner we relate *mental problems* to physical and chemical harm, the sooner we
    will have found the truth. Perhaps then healing will solely be about proper re-education, socializing, and
    physical therapies.

  5. Liz Hennel says:

    I lived with complex PTSD for over 50 years, and only got the appropriate therapeutic intervention following a potentially life changing physical illness. The fallout on my family was not addressed, not recognised. It was luck that I found the therapy I needed,not design, indeed, the local health service provision in the UK is a real lottery which really concerns me, as the “wrong” help potentially causes further trauma. As it is, the main intervention is CBT…….which, in my case, was the final straw and precipitated a major breakdown…..followed by further brief therapy, which was aimed at “coping” rather than “curing”. Had I ben a military vet, I suspect I.might have been better off…..but that isnt sying much.

    • Lloyd says:

      Sadly, Liz, I agree with your comments about NHS care. What worked for you?

  6. Kelly Wilson says:

    I would love to see more research geared towards those like me who have PTSD from childhood sexual abuse. I wonder what correlations there are between those who suffer with PTSD from military service and those who suffer PTSD due to trauma.

  7. Rich Buckley says:

    We use regression hypnosis to guide the client with PTSD symptoms to encounter their own inner fix-it switch in a state of deep somnambulistic trance. It often works in the first session. We also offer Dr Porter Braintap Technology headsets and audios on a free trial basis, as a take-home tool to address PTSD. As a Vietnam veteran myself I work to enable the veteran-client to feel connected and received in a setting of understanding.

    • Elaine Dolan says:

      I like that idea of a take-home tool, because social traumas are felt again (recapitulated) in therapy way too often. Brian Weiss had a great self-regression protocol at the back of *Many Lives ,Many Masters*, which seems much like the process you speak of here.

  8. Jenny says:

    I have seen this 32 yrs of service in Marines affect this retired 56 yr old marines fkshbks…survivor guilt…depression on PTSD…& it’s affect on partner…its very stressful…worrying & also caring very much for them…some days r great…othr days r just like a shut down factory…of emotions…how does one deal w/a one-sided relationship? Do u stay or leave?

  9. Jenny says:

    Exactly what I’m finding…secondary is a factor in caring partners…not bcause of conflict but rather worrying about them…its huge…if u don’t hear from them…r they harming themselves…r they experiencing depression alone…how do u “not” care so much? What does one do while their setbks…flashbks calm down…? Its hard not to worry…

  10. Sharon says:

    I am so pleased with the information coming from NICABM. In addition to working with trauma and PTSD as a Behavioral Health professional, I have a close friend effected by PTSD. He did extensive therapy in the 80’s regarding his PTSD and feels he has all the skill needed at this time. Concurrently, the work on the Physiology of Trauma helps me, as a friend, understand his disproportionate rage at times. He sees it his dramatic outpouring of outrage and anger as passionate caring and this is also true. In listening and being friend, I now can sit back when he rages and allow a safe space recognizing the fight (or flight) aspect that is in play as well…… it has made life easier as a friend of a person that has PTSD.

  11. Abbie says:

    Thank you for all the resources you are sharing. I have watched many of you videos. Unfortunately many are live/free during my work days.

    I’m walking a path of personal recovery from alot of trauma, and doing well enough to work with my bodywork clients in their own recovery with informed compassionate touch.

  12. Tizzy says:

    I lived with a Dad who had PTSD. Life revolved around not triggering his rage and nobody was sure specifically what would set him off.
    It seems to me as a non professional especially short sighted to fail to recognise that partners will be stressed on multiple levels : loss of the character of the spouse, uncertainty and hyper arousal, risk of being attacked, confusion over unanticipated reactions to ‘normal’ behaviours, disconnect from spouse in emotional understanding and connection. Striving to protect children and to explain the behaviour and to take on the role of modelling and teaching different behaviour than are being observed. Plus the effects of caring for physical injuries or disability. It’s a massive burden.

    I’m bemused that anyone can seriously spend time and money on a study which is merely observing what is blatantly obvious to any observer. Wouldn’t it be better to do a study measuring from baseline to discover which interventions reduce the stress most effectively? And to do that for spouses AND offspring?

    Also significantly, what steps were taken in the study to specifically exclude Cluster B Psycopathy from the study? If not, why not? These would skew the results. I would anticipate that significant numbers of those on the Psycopathy scale will be attracted to the military. They would likely suffer less PTSD in terms of acts committed and understanding the consequences. Their spouses would I guess have a higher baseline of stress in the first instance which I imagine would increase on the return of the abuser.

  13. Lloyd says:

    It is good to see that we are now considering the effects of PTSD on the partners. This study suggest that the physiological responses are much worse in the partner. I agree wholeheartedly with David Oz. We are dealing with the aftermath of two world wars which affected our grandparents and parents. Of course the modern world is becoming as equally challenging.

    I feel we should ensure that partners have the same support and help as the patients.

  14. David oz says:

    Childhood trauma I believe is endemic in the UK at least and probably globally. I feel that you tend to attract partners that seem to have complimentary amounts of trauma albeit in different ways. Its usually the men who get the blame because they are usually more pro active in dealing with it, a purely cultural reaction, whereas the women find shutting down strategies. First step to acknowledge this trauma is everywhere, and secondly not to blame anyone. We are all accidents of birth and environment.

  15. Jentan Seekree says:

    There is research already showing that people who are the carers for the mentally ill are often more disturbed than them. It seems obvious that people who are suffering from post traumatic stress will inflict stress on others!
    This is the awful thing when a woman is in a marriage with an abusive man ….. the man usually has lots of post traumatic stress from his childhood … which he acts out on …. and the woman is in a crazy situation, trying to keep the family boat afloat, and mind the children. Its a terribly difficult situation.

  16. Isa says:

    I am the spouse and caregiver of an Iraq war veteran with PTS and a mild bTBI and I can attest to this phenomena. After a period of prolonged high emotional stress and high demand as a caregiver I ended up in the hospital myself after fainting as a result of heart rate and blood pressure fluctuations. After a broad range of tests I was found to be otherwise healthy and prescribed a beta blocker to mitigate the effects of stress. Thank you infinitely for your good work towards bringing greater understanding to the challenges of veterans and caregivers. It has been a great benefit to both myself and my husband in navigating our approach to healing the invisible wounds of war.

  17. I had a client who was 50 years together with his wife who had suffered PTSD. He was quite affected by it, now he is single again and his life seems much more relaxed. He sleeps better and is less hurried. His BP is much better as well.

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