The Effect of Marital Adjustment on the Association between Police Officers' Traumatic Distress and Trauma Disclosure

Article excerpt


This study investigated the influence of relationship adjustment on the association between police distress and police trauma disclosure to partners. One hundred and three Victorian police officers and their intimate partners completed measures assessing trauma exposure, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology (PCL), and relationship characteristics (FAM-III-Dyadic Relationships Scale). Partners also completed a 32-item instrument assessing characteristics of disclosure--inhibition, negative, and positive emotional disclosure, as well as causal, and insight disclosure--pertaining to the most upsetting event experienced by their police officer spouse at work. Results indicated that officers were more likely to disclose negative emotions when the level of traumatic stress was elevated, especially if their partners do not solve problems effectively or demonstrate resiliency, but nevertheless exhibit consistency, predictability and flexibility. In addition, officers were more likely to withhold information when their traumatic stress was pronounced, particularly they shared concordant values and norms with their partner. These findings reflect the complexity of traumatic stress, relationship functioning and disclosure and the heterogeneity of interactions between these phenomena. Future research warranted to clarify these associations.

People speak to others about their emotional reactions to upsetting experiences, and this behaviour increases concomitantly with the degree of disruptiveness of the event (Luminet, Bouts, Delie, Manstead, & Rim e, 2000; Rim e, Philippot, Boca, & Mesquita, 1992), except when shame and guilt are involved (Finkenauer & Rime, 1998). Over the past two decades a considerable body of research has demonstrated a range of positive physical and psychological health benefits from induced written or verbal disclosure of traumatic experiences (see reviews by Frisina, Borod, & Lepore, 2004; Smyth, 1998) for healthy individuals (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988; Petrie, Booth, Pennebaker, Davison, & Thomas, 1995), patients with chronic illnesses (Petrie, Fontanilla, Thomas, Booth, & Pennebaker, 2004; Smyth, Stone, Hurewitz, & Kaell, 1999), as well as marginalized individuals (de Vicente, Munoz, Perez-Santos, & Santos-Olmo, 2004; Richards, Beal, Seagal, & Pennebaker, 2000).

Certain characteristics of disclosure have been observed as relevant to positive outcomes. Emotional expression is necessary, but insufficient, for health benefits. Furthermore, use of cognitive words, indicative of reflection and insight, and enabling a coherent restructuring of the traumatic memories have been associated with greater health benefits (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; Pennebaker & Francis, 1996). Several theories have been proposed to explain the health benefits of the expressive writing paradigm: inhibition-confrontation (Pennebaker, 1989), cognitive adaptation (Park & Blumberg, 2002; Smyth, True, & Souto, 2001), and exposure/ emotional processing (Sloan & Marx, 2004). Yet, none of these accounts has convincingly explained its utility in all circumstances, possibly because the technique operates on multiple levels: cognitive, emotional, social, and biological (Pennebaker, 2004).

For example, although recent findings by Sloan, Marx, and Epstein (2005) support the exposure/emotional processing model, which posits that repeated exposure to traumatic memories--through disclosure--induces high emotional arousal that gradually habituates over subsequent sessions, the authors acknowledge that other mechanisms--such as cognitive restructuring--may operate simultaneously. However, testing more than one mechanism simultaneously is problematic, because the various manipulations might interact with one another and complicate interpretations.

Fewer studies have examined naturalistic disclosure, and the findings have been equivocal. …