PTSD and Divorce

CORNERSTONE – The Ultimate Guyvorce Guide

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is no longer a silent mental health issue.

After all, the world is closing in on completing its second decade of continuous war on terror. When you look at the symptoms, though, particularly for those going through a terrible divorce or ending a lengthy traumatic marriage, you can’t help but wonder:

Can a bad marriage or vicious divorce cause PTSD?

During the harsh times of your marriage, during your divorce, or even after, have you ever experienced:

  • Flashbacks to bad moments during the marriage or divorce
  • Bad dreams involving your ex
  • Avoiding places or objects that remind you of your ex or trigger bad emotions
  • Feeling tense
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted feelings of guilt or blame

Many going through tough marriages or divorce will check yes to most if not all of the symptoms above. If it were a PTSD evaluation, you would have passed a screening and proceed on to further evaluation.

However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health and as defined in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the mental impacts that lead to a PTSD determination require a singular, traumatic experience as their source. Prolonged mental abuse, mental anguish, and stress associated with an experience like a bad divorce, do not meet the definition today. Not worry though, the requirement for a singular event is under intense debate today, as many are questioning how those with similar symptoms are not diagnosed with PTSD.1

Divorce Depression

Depression during and after a divorce is nothing new and should not be surprising to anyone. It is a well-documented potential effect that can occur to anyone associated with divorce. One of the most reputable studies tracked a large group of adult married couples for four years. The depression levels at the beginning of the study between couples that would later divorce were not measurably different than those that would stay married. However, at the end of the four years, those that did divorce showed significantly higher levels of depression. The findings showed that the depression was a consequence of not only the divorce and associated emotions that went with divorce, but also from the actual or perceived change in life conditions. Typically divorce brings emotional and also economic hardship on people. The greater depressive affect was shown to be caused by a combination of the different levels of hardship individuals faced with divorce.2

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Before comparing the mental impacts of divorce to PTSD, you must understand the details behind PTSD. As defined today, PTSD is a disorder that can develop in people after experiencing a shocking, scary, or dangerous traumatic event. For soldiers, PTSD is today’s term, but the impact has been seen and given names for centuries. Symptoms resembling PTSD were mentioned as far back as Homer’s Illiad.

A natural reaction to our body’s hard-wired fight-or-flight defense mechanism is fear and temporary mental impacts after a traumatic situation. That makes sense as it is our body’s way to help us remember to avoid a similarly dangerous situation again and learn from it.

But the impacts should be temporary, and one should naturally recover and see these symptoms fade shortly after. Nearly everyone will exhibit some form of PTSD symptoms after a traumatic event, but if the symptoms remain for more than a month, PTSD is a likely result and treatment will be required. Some people may still be able to recover naturally over a longer period, but others can see this condition become chronic.

There are four main categories of symptoms associated with PTSD. To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following from these categories for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

The first category, re-experiencing symptoms, include the following specific symptoms:

  • Flashbacks-reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts

Re-experiencing symptoms can be very disruptive to a person’s daily life and events. While you can see where these symptoms are likely to present themselves after surviving an explosion or witnessing a violent death of a loved one, it isn’t much of stretch to see how these can also be present as a result of an emotionally abusive marriage or extremely harsh divorce. Nearly everyone has experienced the racing heart, sweat, and dread that comes with seeing your ex’s name on the caller ID of your cell phone during an incoming call.

The second category, avoidance symptoms, include:

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event

Next on the list are arousal and reactivity symptoms which include:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge.”
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Having angry outbursts

Arousal and reactivity symptoms differ from re-experiencing symptoms by the fact that they are usually constant, and not just triggered by things that remind the person of the traumatic event. These symptoms make basic daily tasks difficult, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating. Short-temperedness, sleep difficulty, and diet impacts are also very common during horrible divorces and prolonged bad marriages.

Finally, the fourth and last category of PTSD symptoms is cognition and mood symptoms, which include:

  • Trouble remembering critical features of the traumatic event
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted feelings of guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities1

What About Acute Stress Disorder?

Similar to PTSD, but with distinct differences, is Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). ASD isn’t nearly as discussed or well known as PTSD, but the two are linked. ASD was not introduced into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until its fourth edition after PTSD had been well established within the Manual. ASD was initially intended as a method of predicting which trauma survivors would likely not experience natural recovery from the symptoms and would need treatment.

To be diagnosed with ASD, one needs to exhibit similar symptoms as PTSD, and that person is required to have these symptoms after a traumatic event. However, while these symptoms need to be present for at least two days, they must last no more than four weeks and must occur within four weeks of the trauma. Symptoms persisting beyond four weeks will require the diagnosis shift to PTSD.

The intent for ASD to be a good predictor of PTSD has been successful. In one study, 77.8 percent of participants meeting initial ASD criteria diagnosis met full criteria for chronic PTSD at their follow-up assessment if they did not receive treatment for ASD prior. Even more of a benefit is the negative correlation. Participants who do not meet the criteria for ASD are highly unlikely to develop chronic PTSD.3

Is Divorce Considered Trauma? (It Sure Felt Like It!!)

Despite being so well known, PTSD remains intensely controversial. The pain and agony experienced by the sufferers and their loved ones cannot be argued. Instead, the conditions which lead to PTSD are under scrutiny, specifically the requirement of singular trauma as a trigger. Both PTSD and ASD require a traumatic event. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders further defines a traumatic event as an event that is “generally outside the range of usual human experience” which would “evoke significant symptoms of distress in most everyone.” The latest version of the Manual gives examples of these types of events. Divorce is not one of these examples.4

Even trained psychiatrists can easily incorrectly diagnose PTSD in those who have not experienced trauma as defined in the manual. In one study, two groups were presented for evaluations, one with the trauma event and one group without. The experts diagnosed approximately 78 percent of the trauma group as meeting criteria for PTSD. The same evaluators diagnosed the non-trauma group at 78 percent meeting the PTSD criteria. Clearly, the presence of trauma has little impact on the symptoms or need for treatment!5

How Do I Get Help?

The system takes time to catch up, reach a solid, data-backed decision, and update the manual for the medical community. Until that time, take a look at the PTSD symptoms and compare them to your own as you suffer through your horrible marriage or ugly divorce. If you are struggling, seek help from trained counsellors. In the end, the methods they will use to treat you, whether labeled PTSD, ASD, or Divorce Depression are not significantly different and the “label” for your suffering should not matter. Seek their help!

You are not alone, many men have traveled this road before you and suffered. Many did and continue to do so sadly in silence. Don’t join that group. Be the guy that recognizes when your anguish is not naturally getting better and seek out the mental health community. You don’t have to be returning from a combat zone to be suffering the symptoms above.


  1. NIMH: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  2. Changes in Depression following Divorce: A Panel Study – Elizabeth G. Menaghan and Morton A. Lieberman – Journal of Marriage and Family; Volume 48, No. 2 (May, 1986), pp. 319-328
  3. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder – Their Nature and Assessment Considerations; Shawn P. Cahill, PhD  and Kristin Pontoski, BA
  4. Does Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Require Trauma? Revisiting the role of trauma in PTSD; By Scott O. Lilienfeld, Hal Arkowitz on May 1, 2012   When Coping Fails
  5. Is PTSD caused by traumatic stress? Author links open overlay panel; J. AlexanderBodkinacHarrison G.PopebcMichael J.DetkeacJames I.Hudsonbc; Journal of Anxiety Disorders; Volume 21, Issue 2, 2007, Pages 176-182


Note: This article is for educational purposes only.


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