Can A Bad Marriage Cause PTSD?

Mar 17, 2024 | cohabitation, Communication, Relationships

If you or anyone you know is currently experiencing domestic violence, please access the National Domestic Violence Hotline at https://www.thehotline.org/, (800) 799-7233 OR text “START” to 88788.

“Ugh, that relationship still gives me PTSD” 

How many times have you heard or even said that after a particularly bad break-up or relationship? Many of us don’t actually mean we have PTSD, but that the experience was so cringe-worthy that we’re still feeling the effects. 

But can a bad marriage actually cause PTSD? The simple answer is yes. An unhealthy marriage can have negative impacts on one or both partners. However, as with most things in life, it’s not usually simple or straightforward. In other words, not every “bad” relationship results in PTSD. 

This article will start to explore when a “bad” marriage can have a lasting, negative impact on your mental well-being. 

 

What is PTSD? 

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. These events can range from accidents and natural disasters to sexual assault, combat, or other forms of violence. 

Symptoms must be present for more than one month after the traumatic event(s) and cause significant impairment. PTSD symptoms are categorized into three areas: 

Intrusive symptoms

  • Symptoms are connected to the traumatic event(s)
  • Memories of the event that cause distress and happen without you wanting to remember them 
  • Recurring distressing dream
  • Flashbacks 
  • Intense emotional pain when you experience a trigger 
  • Intense physical reactions (e.g., hyperventilating, intense sweating, heart racing) in your body when you see/hear/think about the traumatic event(s) 

Persistent avoidance 

  • Symptoms are connected to the traumatic event(s)
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic event 
  • Avoiding or trying to avoid any memories, thoughts of feelings
  • Avoiding people, places, activities, objections, situations that can bring up the event 

Negative changes in mood and thinking

  • Begin or worsen after the traumatic events 
  • Unable to remember important parts of the traumatic event 
  • Exaggerated negative beliefs about yourself, others, or the world that are consistent and difficult to shake
  • Blaming yourself unrealistically for the trauma 
  • Consistent feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame 
  • A significant change in your interest or participation in activities 
  • Feeling detached from others 
  • Feeling like it’s impossible to feel happy, content, or other loving feelings 

Each person with PTSD may present with different clusters of symptoms.  

 

Did My Marriage Give Me PTSD? 

So, can a bad marriage lead to PTSD? Research seems to think so. Studies have shown that there is indeed a link between experiencing a bad marriage and developing the symptoms of PTSD.  

Intimate partner violence (IPV) specifically has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of developing PTSD1. IPV usually includes repeated events of physical, psychological, and/or sexual violence. Those experiencing IPV chronically feel at risk and helpless. This chronic stress, fear, and emotional turmoil can contribute to the development of PTSD symptoms. 

Trauma may also occur from other events or patterns of behaviors in marriage. For example, infidelity, a high and consistent level of conflict, substance use, gambling, or financial stress can also set the stage for PTSD symptoms. All these things can wear down a person’s ability to cope and continually shatter their sense of safety. 

However, it’s important to note that a troubled marriage does not automatically result in PTSD.

A few examples of things that can make it more likely for someone to develop PTSD symptoms: 

  • Past trauma history 
  • Past history of mental health concerns (e.g., depression, anxiety) 
  • Familial history of mental health concerns (e.g., PTSD, anxiety) 

There are also some factors that can make it less likely or more difficult for a person to develop PTSD. Some examples are: 

  • Strong social support 
  • Genetic factors
  • Personal temperament  
  • Emotional response style to trauma 

It’s important to note that many of these factors are out of a person’s control. And for some, they may have all the protective factors and still develop PTSD. 

 

Impacts of PTSD 

As you might already know, PTSD significantly impacts a person’s daily life – how they feel, think, and act. When a person is dealing with PTSD and is still in a harmful relationship, those impacts can be compounded. A vicious cycle occurs –  PTSD symptoms (from a troubled marriage) can then make a marriage worse. It can cause struggles with communication, intimacy, and emotional regulation which can add to the conflict level. 

There may be a lack of social support that can contribute to or maintain PTSD symptoms. Cut off from loved ones and healthy connections, a person’s ability to cope is impacted, and this can prolong their pain. An individual dealing with PTSD may also find it challenging to identify and establish healthy boundaries as their symptoms overwhelm their daily lives. 

Even after leaving the relationship, the impact of PTSD can remain. Symptoms may not fully be resolved, and even if they are, the impacts of the experience can still linger. It’s not uncommon for individuals with PTSD to see the world and others as a danger. And who wouldn’t after their experience? Behaviors that protected them in the past may be difficult to let go of, even when it’s no longer helpful. Take, for instance, self-blaming; this may have helped protect them in a bad marriage but is a barrier to building any new healthy relationships. 

 

Moving Forward

If you are in a bad marriage and are experiencing PTSD symptoms, what can you do? Here are some initial steps to begin: 

Focus on Safety First 

If you are experiencing IPV or experiencing threats to your safety, please reach out to local resources. Local shelters and domestic violence hotlines can provide support and assistance in leaving a relationship safely. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides local and legal resources as well. 

Seek Professional Support

Therapy is always valuable, but can be even more valuable in these situations. A qualified therapist can help process the trauma, assess your symptoms, and develop and implement treatment options. 

If you are still in an unhealthy relationship, they can help you assess next steps and identify local resources. In some cases, ending the marriage may be the healthiest option for both partners. If you’re considering divorce or separation, seek guidance from legal and financial professionals to understand your options and rights. 

Support Network

As much as possible, surround yourself with supportive friends and family members. Support groups for those experiencing similar things can also provide a safe space to listen and be heard. An unhealthy marriage and PTSD symptoms can make this very difficult, so any step, no matter how small, is progress. 

Compassion For Yourself

Practice compassion and self-love. Notice when you are judging yourself and take a moment to step back. Identify your strengths and make small goals for the next steps. 

Take Care of Yourself

Find ways, small or big, to take care of yourself. Wherever you are in the process, identify ways to build up your reserves – both mentally and physically. Engaging in activities that aid in building joy, relaxation, and centeredness. Schedule it in if you have to! 

Conclusion 

While not all bad marriages will lead to PTSD, research has shown a link between the experience of trauma in a marriage and the development of PTSD. Trauma in a relationship can be complex – prioritizing everyone’s safety and seeking help are crucial steps. Healing from trauma and overcoming PTSD takes time, patience, and work. The road may be filled with ups and downs, but it is possible to survive and build a happier, healthier life.

 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about PTSD from a Bad Marriage

Let’s dive into some FAQs about PTSD and bad marriages. 

Q: Can I still be suffering from PTSD if my marriage is bad, but I don’t meet all the criteria?  

A: A marriage can be “bad” without reaching the level of trauma defined for diagnosing PTSD. While you may not be diagnosed with PTSD, you may be experiencing some of the symptoms. These can then impact your day-to-day life, possibly even resulting in depressive and other anxiety symptoms. 

 

Q: What if I’m experiencing PTSD symptoms, but it’s been less than a month since the traumatic event? 

A: To be diagnosed with PTSD, the symptoms have to be experienced for a month or more. That’s because we know all these symptoms are likely to be present after a traumatic event. It’s when they don’t resolve on their own that more specific treatment may be needed. 

If you’ve experienced a traumatic event, leaning on your support system, focusing on self-care, and exploring therapeutic services is still beneficial even if you don’t have PTSD. You don’t have to go through this alone!

 

Q: I’m not sure if I have PTSD or not. 

A: Not sure? You can also take an online screening test through Mental Health America. This can help you better understand your experience and seek other support as necessary. 

 

*Note: Use this as an informal tool. No matter the results, if you or anyone you know are concerned about PTSD please seek professional services to be assessed. 

References 

Pico-Alfonso, M. A. (2005). Psychological intimate partner violence: The major predictor of posttraumatic stress disorder in abused women. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 29(1), 181-193.

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