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Post-traumatic stress disorder traditionally has been viewed as a disorder of the individual. But while common PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, disturbing memories and insomnia do affect the service member, they also can negatively impact the spouse or significant other — and that can worsenthe service member’s PTSD.
PTSD symptoms also can cause tremendous strain on relationships. Unpredictability in mood, angry outbursts and emotional withdrawal are just a few ways PTSD can drive a wedge between service members and their loved ones.
If left unchecked, spouses or significant others may develop their own emotional difficulties, leading to increased fighting, resentment, and overall dissatisfaction with the relationship. In extreme cases, domestic violence may occur. Other downstream effects can include divorce and the development of behavioral and emotional problems in children.
Historically, troops suffering from PTSD have been treated with individual methods such as exposure therapy, cognitive therapy and medication. Any relationship problems were either referred to couples counseling, assumed to improve once the service member improved, or flat-out neglected. Fortunately, the tide has shifted and new methods for addressing relationship problems associated with PTSD are available.
Cognitive-Behavioral Conjoint Therapy — known simply as CBCT — is a relatively new talk therapy that addresses PTSD symptoms and improves relationship satisfaction. Developed by psychologist Candice Monson, CBCT is a time-limited couples therapy in which the main goal is to reduce the service member’s PTSD symptoms while simultaneously improving the relationship.
Through a series of activities geared toward understanding the effects of PTSD, improving interpersonal communication and problem solving skills, and making sense of the traumatic event, the couple confronts the many challenges associated with this often disabling condition and learns how to manage future problems once therapy is over.
CBCT has been shown to be effective in several research studies with veterans and their significant others. Anecdotal reports also indicate that it’s well tolerated by those who receive the therapy. This is important, as some treatments for PTSD can be distressing to the point that service members drop out of treatment prematurely.
PTSD is far from being a disorder of the individual. The often detrimental impact it has on intimate relationships has been known for quite a while. Fortunately, we now have an effective way to care not only for those who have served in harm’s way, but for those who have made it possible for them to serve.
For more information on CBCT, visit www.coupletherapyforptsd.com/therapy.
Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.