The Connection Between PTSD and Domestic Violence

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Researchers have found a link between post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and domestic violence. Intimate partner abuse happens more than you may think. To understand the potential risk, it can help to define how common domestic violence is in the population as a whole (both those with and those without PTSD).

National estimates in the United States indicate that every 60 seconds, 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner. This adds up to over 10 million people per year. Relationship violence has also been found among people who have experienced certain traumatic events or have PTSD.

Childhood Abuse 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 women who experienced sexual, emotional or physical abuse in childhood were more likely to experience violence in intimate relationships as compared to those without a history of childhood trauma.

People with PTSD also have 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 the disorder.

Trauma, PTSD, and Domestic Violence

Researchers have attempted 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, 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.

Despite these findings, it is important to note that just because some people have experienced a traumatic event or have 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.

One should not rule out a potential romantic partner simply because they have experienced a traumatic event. It is important, however, to find out if they have sought help for the trauma they endured or for their PTSD diagnosis.

Treatment for PTSD

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

In addition, learning to cope with anger in healthy ways is a good way to not only lessen the chance of violence but can help those with PTSD approach situations which cause anger in a better way. If you are the victim of relationship violence, it is important for you to also take immediate steps.

5 Sources
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  1. Ferrari G, Feder G, Agnew-davies R, et al. Psychological advocacy towards healing (PATH): A randomized controlled trial of a psychological intervention in a domestic violence service setting. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(11):e0205485. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0205485

  2. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Statistics.

  3. Chiang L, Howard A, Gleckel J, et al. Cycle of violence among young Kenyan women: The link between childhood violence and adult physical intimate partner violence in a population-based survey. Child Abuse Negl. 2018;84:45-52. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.07.010

  4. Creech SK, Benzer JK, Ebalu T, Murphy CM, Taft CT. National implementation of a trauma-informed intervention for intimate partner violence in the Department of Veterans Affairs: First year outcomes. BMC Health Serv Res. 2018;18(1):582. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3401-6

  5. U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs. PTSD: National center for PTSD.

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.