Can You Experience PTSD From Divorce?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated August 3, 2022

Divorce is a painful, difficult experience, no matter who is involved. Whether the marriage involves ten children or no children at all, a mansion, or no shared property, divorce permanently separates two lives once determined to unite as one, and there are always going to be emotional consequences. The healthiest, mutual divorce will carry with it some emotional baggage, so all divorce requires some time to heal and recover. Is it possible, though, to develop PTSD as a result of a divorce?

Want To Be Prepared To Handle The Aftermath Of A Divorce?

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition with numerous symptoms, though they typically fall under the purview of four specific symptomatic categories. These categories include avoidance, intrusive memories, negative changes in thinking or behavior, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Intrusive memories come most often in the form of uncontrolled flashbacks or nightmares. Re-experiencing these scenes can then cause people to engage in avoidance behaviors. Avoidant behavior means that victims of PTSD work to avoid any experiences, objects, or places that trigger memories of the event leading to PTSD. Negative mood and thinking patterns are most often seen in the form of depression, anxiety, and increased irritability, while changes in physical and emotional reactions can mean being constantly on edge, and engaging in reactionary behavior and communication. Many will also develop unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse.

In order to reach the minimum requirements for a diagnosis, you must experience these symptoms for a minimum of one month. Prolonged symptoms can lead to other conditions due to the intense nature of PTSD, so it is not uncommon to receive multiple diagnoses once you've received a PTSD diagnosis. There are physical symptoms in PTSD (most commonly, headaches, stomachaches, and unexplained aches and pains) that may be diagnosed as a separate condition, then diminish as PTSD is resolved through support and treatment.

Divorce and Children

Children may be particularly susceptible to experiencing PTSD related symptoms following a divorce, particularly if the divorce in question was tumultuous, prolonged, or marked by excessive arguing. Because children do not understand the complex dynamics of marriage relationships-or parenting relationships-the dissolution of a marriage can give children the impression that their relationship with their parents is also on the precipice of disaster; after all, if mom and dad don't love each other anymore, why would they love their children? While adults can readily see the difference in the two types of relationships, children's minds are not so readily able to differentiate, and divorce can cause a great deal of terror in children leading to post divorce trauma.

Changes in behavior and sleeping patterns are two of the most common symptoms of PTSD in children whose parents have divorced. Children might become quiet and withdrawn with one or both parents, and appear to be walking on eggshells. Children might take the opposite road, and grow increasingly aggressive, angry, or defensive, and might continually instigate fights with one or both parents or classmates at school. Related to these similar symptoms, a lot of kids can show a decline in academic performance, by failing exams and not doing assignments. Some might even begin getting involved with substance abuse at a young age to cope. Both are the result of a fear response. Children might take on the role of one parent, who is meeker in nature than the other, or the more aggressive parent, and essentially act out the roles that have become the new normal for them. Very often, children are not able to communicate to their parents exactly what they are experiencing, and it is up to parents to take heed of any behavioral, communication, or mood changes, and take steps to getting them resolved, usually through treatment.

Children may be the most likely people in a divorce to develop PTSD, as the stability of their world is being called into question. Children rely heavily upon family stability as a means of developing a sense of equilibrium in their lives, and require somewhere to return to when life has grown confusing, overwhelming, or dangerous. If home, with mom or dad, does not provide that stability, children can easily begin to experience symptoms of PTSD and not know how to properly heal.

Divorce and Adults

Adults involved in divorce may also experience PTSD as a result of the loss of their partner. This seems to be more likely in the case of either prolonged or high-conflict divorces, as both spouses are more likely to experience emotional distress, high levels of stress, and fear in these types of divorce. This is one of the reasons cooperation is such an important aspect of divorce: it is not only children who experience intense feelings during the divorce process and potentially develop mood and personality disorders. Adults, too, can experience intense feelings and distress intense enough to warrant a formal PTSD diagnosis.

PTSD has also been linked to divorce in instances involving sudden divorce or infidelity. Because both of these circumstances involve a dramatic loss of trust in someone who was previously considered a partner, PTSD is not terribly uncommon. Patients in these cases might flash back to the day they were told their partner was leaving, or the day they discovered their partner had an affair, or they experienced job loss and the financial burden caused their spouse to leave, and have difficulty moving on from these events. Partners may also feel as though they no longer have a safe space to retreat to-especially if the infidelity was committed within the home-and can quickly experience PTSD related symptoms such as highly reactive behavior and severe anxiety. For many people, it can feel comparable to being exposed to life threatening events. Based on this, can divorce cause PTSD? Absolutely.

While PTSD might initially seem to be a wartime condition or connected to other life-threatening events, like natural disasters, or car accidents, it has thoroughly infiltrated all walks of life and can affect most people who are involved with a divorce. Divorce is a traumatic event, even for the person seeking dissolution, and can have a lasting and profound impact on both parties, especially if there was serious injury, sexual violence, or actual or threatened death in play, such as in domestic abuse, also known as intimate partner abuse. Highly-intrusive flashbacks are incredibly common in these types of cases.

PTSD Risk Factors

The most obvious risk factor for PTSD is experiencing a traumatic event, including divorce or the discovery of infidelity. Apart from this, though, there are some other risk factors that could increase your likelihood of developing PTSD on the heels of an incident. A history of anxiety or depression-or even a family history of anxiety and depression-can elevate your risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic incident. A family history of these conditions are a serious threat and can also aggravate your likelihood of developing PTSD following a traumatic event. While PTSD might seem like another animal entirely, it does qualify as an anxiety disorder, so any personal or family history of anxiety and other mood disorders will make it more likely to develop PTSD.

PTSD Treatment

PTSD is a treatable condition. Some people are able to manage their PTSD through talk therapy and other cognitive therapy methods, while others might need to use therapy in conjunction with pharmaceutical intervention as part of their treatment protocol. Still others need to involve more holistic practices in their treatment, such as dietary and lifestyle interventions and meditation into the mix to see a full and thorough recovery.

Want To Be Prepared To Handle The Aftermath Of A Divorce?

Although it may at first seem a strange combination, PTSD and divorce can be connected. Divorce is a traumatic loss, akin to losing someone to death; even if you remain on great terms with your former spouse, the intense, trusting, and intimate relationship you shared has gone, and there is going to be a hole left in its wake. This hole can cause symptoms of PTSD, as your body and brain have lost something that they relied upon for safety, support, and stability.

PTSD is especially likely for children involved in divorce, as the processes inherent in divorce remove stability from children-stability that is required for healthy emotional and mental growth. This does not mean that all divorce will result in childhood PTSD; instead, it means that children are particularly susceptible to elevated levels of distress and anxiety during the divorce process, and will need additional love, support, and guidance from parents and any close family member as they navigate the emotional landscape of divorce between their parents.

PTSD is a serious condition that can lead to severe mental health issues and substance abuse, but is extremely treatable, and can be resolved. Selecting a therapist who can treat your PTSD in all of its complexity will help the process go smoothly, as PTSD is highly unique to each of the people it affects, and the circumstances surrounding each diagnosis are radically different. PTSD treatment requires patience and diligence on the part of patients, as treatment essentially works to rewire the connections in your brain to create healthier, stronger connections, calm intrusive thoughts, and improve any deeply-held beliefs not rooted in evidence

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will affect as many as 1 in 3 people who have experienced a traumatic event, and is not a rare or bizarre disorder. There are many factors that can cause PTSD, and most therapists are equipped to treat and handle even the most intense and debilitating symptoms of PTSD, and will not be put off or alarmed by the symptoms you describe in your initial appointment. Healing PTSD is a long process, but is certainly a doable one with the right treatment, and with a strong support system, you can improve your quality of life significantly and not live in constant fear.

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