Examining the Link between Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms and Dating Aggression Perpetration

Article excerpt

This study examined the role of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms with respect to dating aggression perpetration among a sample of 199 undergraduates. Almost one-third of the overall sample reported physical dating aggression perpetration in the past year, and approximately 80% reported engaging in psychological dating aggression. Structural equation modeling (SEM) analyses indicated that the effects of trauma exposure on dating aggression were fully indirect via PTSD symptoms. PTSD symptoms were associated with psychological dating aggression in part through its association with anger, and alcohol problems were also directly related to this outcome. Results generalize findings from other populations suggesting the salience of trauma and PTSD symptoms in intimate relationship aggression and point to possible etiological pathways for these associations.

Keywords : PTSD; dating aggression; physical aggression; psychological aggression

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that results from exposure to one or more traumatic events involving actual or threatened death or injury and produces intense fear, helplessness, or horror ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disoders-IV ; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994). PTSD includes re-experiencing symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks, persistent avoidance of trauma-related stimuli and emotional numbing, and symptoms of increased arousal such as sleep and anger problems. A large research base indicates that exposure to trauma confers risk for symptoms of PTSD and heightened intimate relationship aggression perpetration ( Delsol & Margolin, 2004 ; Kulka et al., 1990 ; Widom, 1999 ). Studies of military veteran ( Byrne & Riggs, 1996 ; Orcutt, King, & King, 2003 ), community ( Taft, Schumm, Marshall, Panuzio, & Holtzworth-Munroe, 2008 ), and clinical ( Rosenbaum & Leisring, 2003 ) samples of abusive men suggest that PTSD or trauma symptoms help explain the association between trauma exposure and relationship aggression perpetration. Although most of this research has been conducted among men, some evidence similarly suggests that trauma symptoms mediate the effects of early experiences of maltreatment on relationship aggression among both male and female adolescents in dating relationships ( Wolfe, Wekerle, Scott, Straatman, & Grasley, 2004 ). The current study attempted to generalize such findings to a sample of male and female undergraduates, and examine additional mechanisms whereby PTSD symptoms are associated with dating aggression. More specifically, we focused on anger and alcohol problems as possible mediator variables.

Anger and disinhibiting influences are likely to represent important mechanisms through which PTSD symptoms lead to partner aggression. Research among veterans demonstrates a strong link between PTSD symptomatology and self-reported anger ( Chemtob, Hamada, Roitblat, & Muraoka, 1994 ), and suggests that trait anger may help account for the effects of PTSD symptoms on different forms of relationship aggression ( Taft, Street, Marshall, Dowdall, & Riggs, 2007 ). In their information-processing-based model for aggression (see also Holtzworth-Munroe, 1992 ; McFall, 1982 ) among combat veterans with PTSD, Chemtob, Novaco, Hamada, Gross, and Smith (1997) posit that combat veterans with PTSD, by virtue of exposure to prior life threat, are more likely to perceive threats in their environment, even in the absence of realistic threat. In response to these perceived threats, the veteran experiences an activation of anger structures and anger dysregulation characterized by heightened arousal and several cognitive biases. These include a hostile appraisal of events, an inclination toward threat confirmation, increased vigilance in recognizing a threat, and a lower threshold for responding to the threat. Taken together, these processes may increase one's likelihood for perceiving ambiguous stimuli as threatening, negatively impact one's ability to regulate arousal, and impair one's ability to engage in self-monitoring behaviors or other inhibitory processes, resulting in a higher likelihood for aggressive behavior. …