Living With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Caused by High Conflict Divorce

Submitted by: Cathy Meyer

“Once you go through a high conflict divorce you are never the same,” said Dana in an interview yesterday.

Dana divorced her husband in 1999. Her ex, Jim had been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and he has made Dana’s life miserable for over 12 years.  Due to the long, drawn out legal battle and Jim’s emotional abuse before and since the divorce Dana was recently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She is being treated as an inpatient and discussed what life has been like for her over the last few years.

PTSD is most commonly associated with survivors of war, but others who experience violent attacks, rape, car or plane accidents, or natural disasters or prolonged emotional stress can also be diagnosed with PTSD. PTSD can affect anyone who experiences a traumatic event in their life.

“I feel as if I’ve been in the middle of a war zone for an extended period of time. I’ve lived with daily fear for years, there has been no relief because some sort of conflict with my ex was always lurking around the corner.” Dana says. I didn’t have time to process one event before I was dealing with another one.”

“When divorced from someone like my ex you don’t have time to stop, process your feelings, grieve and move on. You have to have your guard up at all times, be focused and ready for what is coming next and you learn quickly that there will be something coming.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a normal emotional and psychological reaction to trauma (a painful or shocking experience) that exists outside of some one’s normal life experiences.

Most people who experience a traumatic event will react with shock, anger, nervousness, fear, or even guilt. For most people, these common reactions go away over time, but for someone experiencing PTSD, these feelings continue to escalate until the person has difficulty living a normal life. Someone with PTSD usually have symptoms for longer than a month and cannot function as well as they did before the traumatic event.

“It’s like I’m constantly in survival mode,” Dana, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee says. “I perceive a lot of things as a threat. My reaction is immediate defense for survival.”

“My reaction to a tap on the shoulder from behind is quite different from someone without PTSD. I jump, scream or run as if I’m under attack. It is hard to explain but everything feels like an attack on my safety or security. A car turned in front of my one day, there was plenty of room, no danger of the car hitting me but, I froze. I was unable to drive ahead, could only sit and cry. I’ve lost myself and my ability to calm myself after even the smallest adrenalin rush.”

Symptoms of PTSD are often grouped into three main categories that include:

  1. Reliving the Traumatic Experience – Survivors of trauma may experience nightmares or flashbacks of the traumatic event. This might be triggered by something that reminds the survivor of the event like the anniversary of the event or a similar location or even a language.
  2. Avoidance – People may remove them from people or situations that are similar in some way to the traumatic event. Survivors may become detached from their loved ones and lose interest in their previous passions.
  3. Increased Arousal – Those with PTSD may become more sensitive to their emotions or bodily sensations. They may have high anxiety levels, insomnia, trouble focusing, be hyper-vigilant (always on guard), among other symptoms.

“I’m constantly under some kind of pressure,” Dana says. “I’m not the same happy, loving person I once was. It feels like there’s a barrier wall in front of me and I can’t scale it.”

Recovering from PTSD is a process and differs for each survivor. The goal for PTSD treatment is to reduce the physical and emotional symptoms as well as improve the survivor’s ability to interact fully with their everyday life.

“First and foremost is some kind of personal conversation, talking or psychotherapeutic relationship,” Dr. Arthur S. Blank Jr., a Vietnam veteran and a renowned expert on PTSD says on a video for the Washington Post. “People need to be able to talk about whatever they have to talk about to someone who is an experienced listener.”

To supplement psychotherapy treatment for patients diagnosed with PTSD, sometimes doctors will prescribe medications like antidepressants as well as many other kinds of prescriptions that can help people along the road to recovery.

“I’ve been told by doctors that time will tell,” Dana says. “Medication does only so much. Each individual has a different reaction to what traumas they suffer.”

When asked if she had any advice for women going through a high conflict divorce, Dana offered this, “know when to give up the fight. I expected the legal system to protect me, to make sure my ex was punished when he defied court orders. I was proven wrong over and over again. My ex husband left and took 87% of his income. Leaving me to raise two boys on my own. I worried about feeding them, clothing them and housing them. I worried about their emotional welfare and I worked. At times I worked two jobs to make ends meet. My boys and I were trying to live our lives, struggling to get by and at the same time my ex was reaching in from a distance to make it just that much harder. You can’t look to the legal system to protect you and the only way to win over someone who wants you to suffer is to give up the fight. Let it go, your health is more important.”


  1. 3

    Robert in Toronto says

    This IS a very informative post. You should ALSO realize that it is valid when written in a GENDERLESS form. Statistically women initiate 75% of divorces, their reasoning indicating BPD (borderline personality disorder). After gaining custody via various means (false accusations) these women go onto initiating Parental Alienation campaigns. Women with sole custody are 25x (two thousand five hundred percent) more likely to start this form of emotional child abuse. It is also the fact that women are responsible for 45% of physical child abuse (as compared to men’s 12% figures). SO not to dismiss your post, but recognize that women ARE MORE ABUSIVE to both the children in the majority of divorce situations. The PTSD effects will be seen in both the men & their children (higher rates of ADHD, BiPolar & Depression). Those are the facts ladies – OWN what you are doing.

  2. 5

    Madeleine says

    I also married a man with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. My question is: Do people who come from a parent with this disorder expect to be treated in such a manner, therefore not knowing to “get out” when the signs are there to move on? I agree, to give up the fight is the only path to maintaining some sanity. The abuse I experienced with my Narcissistic mother made me willing to accept the emotional abuse my husband was so willing dish out. Today, after years of therapy I’m better able to set bountries, and aware that no one should accept such abuse from anyone, married to them, children of them or not. I’d be very curious to know if children of Narcisstic parents, marry narcisstic people to keep the cycle of abuse going, thinking it’s normal.

  3. 6

    Dianna says

    I too have been married to a man for 21 years who is narcissistic (not formally diagnosed), OCD and paranoid. He has made my life hell for 22 years and is cold and self centered. I have filed for divorce recently to end this craziness. I have a 19 year old son and a 13 year old daughter. My fear is that my daughter is becoming increasingly narcissistic. She must be the center of attention at all times and is always concerned about her looks. I have both kids and myself in therapy with an excellent therapist so that is helping. My NH has a narcissistic father and brother as well. It is insane to see them all in action. I am having to live in the same house with my soon to be ex so that makes it worse. Wishing everyone peace!

  4. 7

    renee says

    It has been 5 years of the same experience for me. I want to let go of the legal fight and I am learning there is no justice in any way. Generally these personalities get proxy abusers as their lawyers. The problem is when you are fighting for something so real and so destructive it needs to happen. I think I’ve learned you’ve got to know when to stand up and when to back off.

  5. 8

    Ted says

    A friend told me recently that my very wise 12 year old said: “There are no winners in a divorce.” Nobody wins, and the kids are the biggest losers. My wife of 20+ years initiated the divorce and has launched a campaign to keep me from the kids that I raised. They spent 90% of their growing up years with me. This is the part that I typically see lacking in these conversations: how it really impacts the kids. They are used as pawns, they’re lives are disrupted, they’re embarrassed, confused, and scarred for life. My fight is simple. All I’m asking for is 50/50 custody and decision rights when what my kids really need is 100% with both parents. But my wife is set on checking out the greener grass. I think Robert makes a valid point, that it is assumed that the fathers are the bad guys. It’s 2 imperfect people involved in a battle to divide instead of battling to stay together. Figuartively speaking, my wife swings at me and hits my kids in the jaw. I’m not sure how this syndrome is affecting me…my real concern is for my sweet children.

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