We all may have heard about the term ‘PTSD’ and may or may not know what it signifies. It is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. While it was most commonly associated with warfare, this debilitating condition can happen to anyone who has experienced or witnessed trauma. It could be a result of a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist attack, sudden death of a loved one, personal assaults such as rape, or life-threatening events.
In intimate relationships, too, both men and women are equally susceptible to trauma. There have been various studies to investigate emotional and physical abuse against women, and a few also focus on emotional abuse against men. Among others, Karakurt et al examined how other individual characteristics, such as age, were associated with gender in influencing emotional abuse above and beyond its main effects. Results of the study indicated significant interaction effects between age and gender.
Gender moderated the path from age to emotional abuse for males. Younger men reported experiencing the most emotional abuse, and this declined with age. Older females experienced the least amount of emotional abuse — comparable to older males. Overall, emotional abuse was more common in younger participants. The study also reported younger women experiencing the highest rates of isolation than men (Karakurt et al, 2013).
Both male and female survivors lose their sense of worth and ability to protect themselves in subsequent relationships. Survivors of emotional abuse continuously suffer from self-destructive symptoms, which resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder survivors. These include anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, guilt, blame, shame, helplessness etc.
A study by Beck et al. explored the association of shame and guilt with PTSD among women who had experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). Sixty-three women were assessed by a research clinic serving the mental health needs of women IPV survivors. Results indicated that shame, guilt-related distress and guilt-related cognitions showed significant associations with PTSD (Beck et al, 2011).
Humans are social animals who cannot survive alone. From birth till death, we are dependent on others for our survival. The relationships we form in our life can either be sustaining and nurturing, and promote personal growth, development and health or they can be abusive, destructive and traumatic. In today’s time, we have normalised abuse and violence.
Domestic violence or abuse is one of the most frequent crimes in our nation and probably one of the most under-reported crimes as well. Research points out that healthy and positive relationships result in a positive mental and physical health, while abusive, restrictive and destructive relationships may deeply impair our mental and physical health.
Sexual, physical or severe emotional abuse often have long-lasting and devastating effects on the survivor. If left untreated, this trauma can lead to permanent disability, causing intense psychological distress and detachment from society and self. This specific syndrome that results from trauma and occurs in the context of an emotionally intimate relationship was described by VanderVoort and Rokach as Posttraumatic Relationship Syndrome (PTRS).
This syndrome can thus be defined as an anxiety disorder that occurs subsequent to the experience of physical, emotional or sexual trauma in the context of an emotionally intimate relationship. The characterised PTRS has four major symptoms: a) initial response (intense fear/terror or horror and rage at the perpetrator); b) intrusive symptoms (which include re-experiencing the trauma in images, thoughts etc. and extreme psychological distress); c) carousel symptoms (such as weight loss, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, insomnia); and d) relational symptoms (not feeling safe in the world, mistrust and fear of intimate relationships etc.).
Therefore, PTRS is as real as PTSD and applies to those who have suffered physical, sexual or severe emotional abuse in an intimate relationship and display the abovementioned symptoms. Although the degree of trauma experienced by each individual is different, if the symptoms lead to dysfunction in daily life and cause problems in regular functioning, it is essential to seek professional support for the same.
More power to survivors of PTRS. We stand in support of you!
1. Beck, J. G., McNiff, J., Clapp, J. D., Olsen, S. A., Avery, M. L., & Hagewood, J. H. (2011).
Exploring negative emotion in women experiencing intimate partner violence: Shame, guilt, and PTSD. Behavior therapy, 42(4), 740-750.
2. Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: the role of gender and age. Violence and victims, 28(5), 804–821.
3. Vandervoort, D., & Rokach, A. (2004). Abusive relationships: Is a new category for traumatization needed? Current Psychology, 23(1), 68-76.