Research has demonstrated the importance of social support as a protective factor against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, depending on the form that social support takes, it can be harmful to the person affected by PTSD despite the intentions of the person offering support. For instance, while certain behaviours such as encouraging the person to talk about the trauma while respecting their boundaries are helpful, other behaviours, such as minimizing the traumatic event or its consequences, are associated with maintaining the symptoms of PTSD. These two types of support are called, respectively, positive and negative social support. Although we know that these behaviours can be beneficial or harmful, little is known about the factors that determine the quality of the social support.
In order to know more about this topic, members of the Trauma Studies Center collaborated on a study currently in press in the European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation titled “A qualitative analysis of the quality of social and marital support for PTSD victims”. In this study, researchers looked into the interactions between two people: the person with PTSD and the accompanying person, who could be a spouse/significant other, a friend or a family member. Their discussion was on the topic of the traumatic event and its impact, on how the two persons help each other, and how they see the future. Researchers then analyzed the discussion in order to see which themes were present in their discussion. Given that we know little on the topic, this was an exploratory study with the aim of giving researchers leads for future studies on social support.
The results of this study show differences between men and women affected by PTSD in perceived social support, as women report the presence of support more and lack of support less. Fewer negative interactions between the two people were observed when the person with PTSD was a man. No differences in positive interactions were observed between men and women. Researchers observed less negative social support in dyads where the relationship between the two members was not romantic (e.g., friends, family) than in dyads where the two members were a couple. Among couples, differences were observed in couples formed after the traumatic event, as the romantic partner of the person with the trauma took a more active role with regards to their partner’s PTSD. More negative interactions were also noted in couples formed before the traumatic event and couples that had been together longer.
This study has raised interesting avenues to pursue to better understand the contribution of different factors to social support. The results of this study could also be relevant in a therapeutic context: for instance, if the person with PTSD is in a romantic relationship, it seems beneficial to involve their partner to ensure that their support is appropriate, especially in couples who have been together a long time and that were formed before the traumatic event.