Distress in Spouses of Service Members With Symptoms of Combat-Related PTSD: Secondary Traumatic Stress or General Psychological Distress?

Keith D. Renshaw, Elizabeth S. Allen, Galena K. Rhoades, Rebecca K. Blais, Howard J. Markman, Scott M. Stanley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

97 Scopus citations


Combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is linked with elevated psychological distress in service members'/veterans' spouses. Researchers use a variety of terms to describe this distress, and recently, secondary traumatic stress and secondary traumatic stress disorder (STS/STSD) have become increasingly commonly used. Although STS/STSD connotes a specific set of symptoms that are linked to service members'/veterans' symptoms, researchers often use general measures of distress or generically worded measures of PTSD symptoms to assess STS/STSD. To determine how often scores on such measures appear to be an accurate reflection of STS/STSD, we examined responses to a measure of PTSD symptoms in 190 wives of male service members with elevated levels of PTSD symptoms. Wives rated their own PTSD symptoms, and then answered questions about their attributions for the symptoms they endorsed. Fewer than 20% of wives who endorsed symptoms on the PTSD measure attributed these symptoms completely to their husbands' military experiences. Moreover, compared with wives who attributed symptoms only to events in their own lives, wives who attributed symptoms completely or partially to their husbands' military experiences had a greater overlap between some of their responses on the PTSD measure and their responses to a measure of general psychological distress. These results suggest that most wives of service members/veterans with PTSD experience generic psychological distress that is not conceptually consistent with STS/STSD, although a subset does appear to endorse a reaction consistent with this construct. Implications of these findings for intervention and research with this vulnerable population are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)461-469
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Family Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Marital relationship
  • Military personnel
  • Posttraumatic
  • Stress disorders
  • War

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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