Mason researchers are helping military couples stay strong in the face of PTSD

The normal stressors of life can strain the most stable of relationships, but when a spouse returns from military duty with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bonds can crack. A team of George Mason University researchers is working toward developing new treatments for those with PTSD that will help keep military couples’ relationships on solid ground.

PTSD can happen after someone experiences or witnesses a terrifying event. Nightmares, flashbacks and severe anxiety are hallmarks of the disorder. Finding a way to deal with PTSD while keeping a relationship intact is challenging, said Keith Renshaw, a George Mason psychology professor.

Renshaw, who doesn’t come from a military family, saw firsthand how soldiers and their families grapple with PTSD while he was graduate student at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks. The experience prompted him to shift the focus of his work from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder to PTSD.

Renshaw soon began working in Utah with National Guard and Reserve units that had been deployed to the Middle East.

“They were deploying a lot, and some of them weren’t ready emotionally,” Renshaw said. “Everybody had this real sense of duty and purpose in terms of serving this country. It had a meaning that was greater than the couple. But what gets left behind is what it takes to be a couple.”

Sometimes service members with PTSD feel they’re a burden to their families, have trouble trusting, don’t share because they want to protect their spouse, or simply shut them out and withdraw, Renshaw said.

“A lot of people look at emotional numbing and withdrawal as ‘he doesn’t love me anymore,’” Renshaw said. “But if they understand it’s related to PTSD, then they don’t take it as personally.”

Renshaw and his team, which includes graduate students Sarah Carter and Sarah Campbell, are studying hundreds of couples and how they live with and respond to PTSD symptoms. They’re looking at a variety of aspects from suicide risk factors to ways in which partners accommodate service members’ PTSD symptoms and what that means for the relationship and their recovery from PTSD.

Workshops for family members are valuable in helping them understand PTSD and learn about treatments and ways they can support themselves and the service member, said Campbell, who is currently completing her doctoral clinical work at the VA Hospital in Seattle, Wash.

Feeling like an outsider or a burden to your loved ones is a risk factor for suicide, Carter said. Receiving support from a romantic partner can help service members to feel like they belong and are an important family member.

Support may be as simple as being a listening ear or encouraging someone after a tough day. Perception can be just as important—even when a spouse didn’t report giving support, if the service member felt they did, the risk factors often still decrease, Carter said.

How much to accommodate a service member’s PTSD symptoms at home can help or hinder recovery, said Campbell. For example, a partner may want to reduce stress by doing all the grocery shopping because crowded stores make the soldier feel anxious; but the soldier going to the store may help recovery if done in a controlled manner in the context of treatment.

Some of the techniques used to help military couples can be applied to relationships in general.

“It’s probably trite, but it’s also true—communication is critical,” Renshaw said. “Be as open as possible, even if your communication is about why you’re not communicating.”