PTSD, Gender, and Violent Spouses: How (Not) Expressing Emotions Matters
By: Timothy J. Sullivan, Rock Ethics Institute Honors Thesis Fellow
Have you ever tried to have a conversation with a rock? Probably not, but imagine talking to a person (ideally, a romantic partner) that has the emotional responsiveness of, say, a rock. That is to say with zero indication of emotion. Zip. Nada. Zilch. None. Put simply, it is frustrating. Some would say infuriating. Others might comment that it makes their blood pressure skyrocket. Personally, I find it intriguing.
What follows in this post is a recount of how I spent this past summer researching the negative consequences of having low emotional responsiveness and, more importantly, why this should matter to you. My explanation thus far has been dramatized to prove my point, but put more scientifically, this idea is called emotional inexpressivity and can be defined as an individual’s tendency to not express emotions. Tied in with some broad research interests in the interpersonal effects of trauma, violence, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I wanted to look at how emotional inexpressivity could operate within trauma-exposed couples. PTSD is an extreme reaction to a traumatic life event that is characterized by intrusive memories of the incident, avoidance of trauma reminders, increased physiological arousal, and negative alterations in mood1. A typical symptom of PTSD is emotional numbing, which is characterized by dulled or flattened emotions. A significant amount of research has shown that PTSD symptoms negatively affect couples in terms of poor relationship satisfaction, decreased intimacy, impaired communication, and higher rates of divorce2,3,4. To boot, PTSD is also a significant predictor of physical intimate partner violence (IPV; colloquially known as domestic violence) perpetration3.
The idea for my honors thesis came about from a simple project I was working on for Dr. Amy Marshall’s Relationships and Stress Lab at the start of my junior year. The task was coding topics of videotaped conflict discussions among couples. The videotapes came from one of the lab’s studies where couples engaged in conflict discussions based on the highest rated negative aspect of the relationship reported by both partners (examples of these topics include: financial problems, child-rearing, infidelity, health issues, etc.). Simple enough, but what I found fascinating was that some people reported one issue in the relationship whereas others listed a multitude (some in fact requiring additional pages to include them). Upon watching these videos in which people were discussing heavy relationship issues, I found that some people had almost no facial expressions whereas others were incredibly responsive (crying, laughing, smiling, visibly upset or concerned) to their partners. I then gathered a team of coders last spring to rate how expressive people were throughout these videos at specific time points where they told us, after their conflict topic, that they were experiencing emotions. My goal: to figure out how emotional inexpressivity and PTSD could play a role in higher rates of IPV perpetration.
Of note, gender is an inevitable consideration in this line of research for three distinct reasons:
Both men and women perpetrate physical acts of IPV7 and both genders experience related psychological, emotional, and physical consequences8. Violence between partners inherently implies an interaction between two individuals. Despite this consideration, most researchers either ignore or fail to analyze IPV simultaneously in both genders. While IPV can certainly be one-sided (often portrayed in instances of wife battery), this conceptualization is not always the case and failing to consider all pathways is a biased approach to science. Better understanding these relationships can help to inform treatment and intervention efforts that can reduce violence, all-around, among this population of couples.
The Thesis Research
This past summer, I spent a week at the University of Massachusetts Amherst learning how to conduct multilevel modeling, a form of complicated statistical analyses often used in research among couples, and returned home with this newfound knowledge to apply to my data.
I took a dyadic approach when conceptualizing my thesis, which meant I tested how one’s own and one’s partner’s inexpressivity interacts with PTSD symptoms to affect physical IPV perpetration. This component of my thesis has by far been the most challenging yet most rewarding part of my research work to this point. As many researchers know all too well but never advertise: statistics are hard and rarely work out the way you want. You have to be patient, take your time, and resist every urge to chuck your computer off of the roof when things do not work correctly.
In the end, my analyses worked without any harm done to computer machinery. In a nutshell, for men with high PTSD symptoms, expressing positive emotions during partner conflict predicts less physical IPV perpetration while expressing negative emotions predicts greater physical IPV perpetration. For women with high PTSD symptoms, only not expressing negative emotions predicts greater physical IPV perpetration. In addition, inexpressive women who have partners with higher PTSD symptoms tend to also perpetrate more IPV. It appears that, in terms of IPV perpetration, emotional expressivity is an important consideration for men but emotional inexpressivity is more important for women. Colloquially- and scientifically-speaking, men express less emotion, in general, than women. Therefore, deviation from these typical patterns of emotional responding (i.e., men expressing more emotions and women expressing less emotions) could delineate situations where aggression is more likely to occur among individuals with PTSD.
This work has important implications in understanding how trauma can negatively impact emotional responding during couples’ conflicts. At the clinical level, these results provide useful information in one potential area of focus during individual and couples therapy for PTSD. Identifying personal patterns of emotional responsiveness (or unresponsiveness) could attune individuals to situations where they may find themselves becoming more aggressive towards their partners. Techniques working towards improving proper identification and regulation of these emotional states can serve to help repair relationships or reduce the incidence of IPV perpetration. With millions of men and women nationwide suffering from both PTSD and violent relationships, research towards identifying and alleviating pathways to IPV is long overdue. Beyond this broad scale, take a second to think about how emotional expression (or inexpression) may play a role in your relationships – it may be more important than you once realized.
Further comments: I would very much like to thank the Rock Ethics Institute for their support in my research. I would also like to point out relevant resources in the community for those who may be struggling with the issues discussed in this post:
- Women’s Resource Center – 814-234-5050
- 24/7 hotline dealing with sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence
- Community Help Centre – 814-237-5855
- 24/7 crisis hotline for individuals that need help in the community; offers connections to specific community resources
- Counseling & Psychological Services – 814-863-0395
- Penn State’s student counseling services
- Rock Ethics Institute Immediate Crisis Page
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
- Galovski, T., & Lyons, J. A. (2004). Psychological sequelae of combat violence : A review of the impact of PTSD on the veteran’s family and possible interventions. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9, 477–501.
- Taft, C. T., Watkins, L. E., Stafford, J., Street, A. E., & Monson, C. M. (2011). Posttraumatic stress disorder and intimate relationship problems: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79, 22-33.
- Monson, C. M., Taft, C. T., & Fredman, S. J. (2009). Military-related PTSD and relationships: From description to theory-driven research and intervention development. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 707-714.
- Olff, M., Langeland, W., Draijer, N., & Gersons, B. P. R. (2007). Gender differences in posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 2, 183-204.
- Rauer, A. J., & Volling, B. L. (2005). The role of husbands’ and wives’ emotional expressivity in the marital relationship. Sex Roles, 52, 577-587.
- Archer, J. (2002). Sex differences in physical aggressive acts between heterosexual partners: A meta-analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7, 313-351.
- Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Smutzler, N., & Bates, L. (1997). A brief review of the research on husband violence, part III: sociodemographic factors, relationship factors, and differing consequences of husband and wife violence. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2, 285-307.