“It really can help a couple to understand what is interfering with their relationship right now.”
If your partner is a veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, you may feel powerless to help at times. “Oftentimes, someone's experience of post-traumatic stress disorder can impact the entire family, and particularly, one's romantic relationship,” says Amanda M. Spray, PhD, psychologist at NYU Langone Health.
As a partner, one very powerful thing you can do to help your loved one with PTSD, your relationship, and yourself is couples therapy.
Couples Therapy for PTSD
“There's an excellent form of couples therapy that's been shown … to be very effective. It's called emotionally-focused couples therapy,” says Dr. Spray.
Emotionally-focused therapy, or EFT, is a type of psychotherapy that can be done for an individual or a couple. It focuses on how emotions contribute to the human experience, and how the couple can be aware of and regulate emotions.
“It really can help couples to understand what is interfering with their relationships right now,” says Dr. Spray. “How are the symptoms of PTSD now not only triggering the individual with PTSD, but their partner as well?”
EFT also incorporates the psychological concept of attachment. Attachment theory posits that people form either secure or insecure attachments during childhood. For example, a kid with consistent, warm, and loving parents tends to have more positive and secure relationships as an adult. On the other hand, a child who experienced neglect, abuse, or rejection might have more insecure or dysfunctional relationships later on.
Treatments that focus on attachment, such as EFT, help someone understand how their childhood attachments may have influenced their current-day attachments. This awareness can then help the person disrupt the cycle and improve the relationship.
The First Step
“Sometimes when family members are struggling with a loved one that is suffering from PTSD, they can be very frustrated by a seeming unwillingness to go into treatment or to see a mental health provider,” says Dr. Spray. “Sometimes couples therapy can be a gateway into treatment.”
While many people may be hesitant to seek individual therapy, couples therapy may feel less daunting. “Then, once the individual is comfortable, [and] sees how therapy works … they might be more willing to go into individual treatment,” says Dr. Spray. Even if that’s not the case, the couples therapy alone could have a powerful impact.
It’s not only the veteran with PTSD who would benefit from treatment. Couples therapy may be helpful for partners, but partners may also benefit from individual therapy themselves. Being a caregiver for a veteran with PTSD is inherently stressful, and self-care can help both you and your loved one. Plus, seeking therapy yourself can be another way to break the stigma for your partner.
Amanda M. Spray, PhD, is a psychologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City and a clinical associate professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
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Oftentimes, someone's experience
of post-traumatic stress disorder
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can impact the entire family,
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and particularly, one's romantic relationship,
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and we found that one intervention that can be very helpful
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for those challenges that a couple can experience
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when someone is struggling with PTSD is couples therapy.
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(relaxing guitar music)
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There's an excellent form of couples therapy
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that's been shown when researched to be very effective.
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It's called emotionally-focused couples therapy.
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EFT is what we call it.
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And it really can help a couple to understand
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what is interfering with their relationship right now.
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How are the symptoms of PTSD
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now not only triggering the individual with PTSD,
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but their partner as well.
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So it's a really excellent form of treatment
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focusing on attachment,
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and so early attachments that may have been
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interfered with as a result of trauma,
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and then how those early attachments impact
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our current attachments with our current partner.
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Sometimes when family members are struggling
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with a loved one that is suffering from PTSD,
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they can be very frustrated by a seeming unwillingness
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to go into treatment or to see a mental health provider,
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and one thing that can be helpful is
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sometimes couples therapy
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can be a gateway into treatment,
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and so sometimes the family member can say
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let's go to couples therapy. Let's start there.
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And then, once the individual is comfortable,
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sees how therapy works,
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sees that it's not quite as threatening
as maybe they had thought,
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from there, they might be more willing
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to go into individual treatment.
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It's equally as important for the partner
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to also feel that they can go into therapy
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and get their own assistance for the stress
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that they are now under as a result of their family member
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struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
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- Greenberg LS. Emotion-focused therapy, revised edition. American Psychological Association, 2017. (Accessed on August 27, 2020)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health. (Accessed on August 27, 2020)
- Your attachment style may predict how well you relate to your adviser. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2011. (Accessed on August 27, 2020)