Can You Experience PTSD From Divorce?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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According to studies, divorce is the second most stressful event an individual can go through. Even the healthiest, most mutual divorce may carry emotional baggage, lengthy court proceedings, and other stressors, so recovery can take time. However, for some people, recovery might seem to be farther on the horizon. In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops. 

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Experiencing PTSD symptoms from divorce can be hard

What are the signs of PTSD? 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that often blunts positive affect, with numerous symptoms that fall into four symptomatic categories. These categories include the following: 

  • Avoidance
  • Intrusive memories
  • Adverse changes in thinking or behavior
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions

Intrusive symptoms may involve flashbacks (vivid re-living of an event through memories and sensations) or nightmares. Re-experiencing these scenes can cause people to engage in avoidance behaviors to avoid experiences, objects, people, topics, or places that trigger memories of the event leading to PTSD. 

Negative mood and thinking patterns may occur in the form of depression, anxiety, and increased irritability. Changes in physical and emotional reactions can mean "feeling on edge" or engaging in reactionary behavior and communication. Some people may also engage in risky behaviors, like engaging in unsafe sexual activities, gambling, or driving recklessly. In some instances, people may utilize substances as an unhealthy coping mechanism.

To meet the minimum requirements for a PTSD diagnosis, psychologists look at whether an individual meets these symptoms for at least one month. Prolonged symptoms can lead to other mental and physical health conditions due to the intense nature of PTSD, so individuals may receive more than one diagnosis. 

PTSD can also involve physical symptoms, including but not limited to headaches, stomachaches, and unexplained body pains. 

Does divorce give children PTSD? 

Children may be susceptible to PTSD-related symptoms following a divorce, particularly if the divorce between their caregivers or parents was tumultuous, prolonged, or marked by excessive arguing. Because children may not understand the complex dynamics of adult relationships, the dissolution of a marriage can give children the impression that their relationship with their parents is also at risk. In addition, divorce can come with many transitions.

While adults might see the difference in the two types of relationships, children's minds may not be as able to differentiate. In addition, studies show that a parent's divorce is one of the most traumatizing experiences for many children. With many children experiencing this phenomenon, some can develop PTSD.

What are the symptoms of PTSD in children? 

Changes in behavior and sleeping patterns are two symptoms of PTSD in children whose parents have divorced. Children might seem quiet and withdrawn with one or both parents. Contrarily, they might increasingly demonstrative aggressive, angry, defensive, or destructive behaviors. As they experience symptoms, they might have difficulty sleeping (insomnia) or sleep more than usual.  

Some children may show a decline in academic performance, including changes like failing exams or not completing assignments. This shift could be the result of a fear response. Children might take on the role of one parent, who is meeker than the other, or a more aggressive parent. Through this process, they act out the roles that have become the new normal for them. 

Often, children struggle to communicate with their parents about what they are experiencing. For that reason, it can be essential for parents to take heed of any behavioral, communication, or mood changes and take steps to resolve them. Children may benefit significantly from professional intervention with a childhood divorce therapist.

Why do children get PTSD from divorce?  

Children rely heavily upon family stability to develop a sense of equilibrium in their lives. They require a safe home to return to when life has grown confusing, overwhelming, or dangerous. If home life does not provide that stability, children might begin to experience symptoms of PTSD and feel confused about what is happening. 

Does divorce give adults PTSD? 

Adults involved in a divorce may also experience PTSD due to losing their partner. However, divorce trauma may be more likely in prolonged or high-conflict divorces, as both spouses may experience mood changes, stress, and significant life changes. For this reason, cooperation may be an essential aspect of divorce: 

Children aren't the only ones who can experience intense feelings during a divorce. Many of the most severe life stressors commonly lead adults to experiencing PTSD. Divorce is one of the leading stressors worldwide, so it may be considered traumatic. 

PTSD has also been linked to divorce in instances involving sudden divorce or infidelity. Because both circumstances involve a dramatic loss of trust in someone previously considered a partner, PTSD might be possible. Individuals in these cases might experience flashbacks about the day they were told their partner was leaving, the day they discovered their partner had had an affair, or when they experienced a job loss or financial burden after their spouse left them.  

Partners may also feel they no longer have a safe space to retreat if their spouse committed infidelity at home or held secrets for many years. Severe anxiety, reactive behaviors, or avoidance of home can occur.  

While some people associate PTSD with war, natural disasters, or car accidents, many stressful events can be traumatic for people, and not every person reacts to the same event in the same way. If you are experiencing PTSD symptoms after a divorce, consider talking to a therapist about your feelings. 

What are the risk factors for PTSD after divorce? 

The primary risk factor for PTSD is experiencing traumatic events, including divorce or the discovery of infidelity. Apart from this factor, a history of anxiety disorders or depression or a family history of these conditions may elevate your risk of developing PTSD. Having experienced other mental health conditions or serious trauma may also predispose you to develop PTSD. 

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Counseling options 

PTSD is a treatable condition. Some people can manage their PTSD through talk therapy and other therapeutic modalities, while others might use therapy in conjunction with pharmaceutical intervention as part of their treatment protocol. In the case of a divorce, PTSD may be prolonged or short-term. However, symptoms can cause a significant impairment in functioning, which is why reaching out for professional support early on may be beneficial. 

Some people might struggle to seek support due to barriers like financial stress, a busy schedule, or embarrassment about seeking services. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may make receiving adequate care more manageable, more convenient, and more affordable. For those living with PTSD, going to in-person appointments in unfamiliar settings can be uncomfortable and stressful. 

Research suggests that online therapy is effective for mental illnesses like PTSD. One study analyzing the impact of online therapy for those with PTSD noted that many participants experienced significant improvements in their symptoms. Another found that online therapy could be effective for those who had gone through domestic violence or abuse in their relationship, which are also potential causes for PTSD post-divorce.

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Experiencing PTSD symptoms from divorce can be hard

Takeaway

PTSD after divorce can occur in children, adolescents, and adults. The conflict and significant life change accompanying divorce can cause your body and brain to lose safety, support, and stability. Still, PTSD is a highly treatable mental illness, so reaching out to a mental health professional for support and guidance may improve your symptoms over time. You're not alone, and help is available.
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