American Psychological Foundation

The strain of war doesn't stay on the battlefield. That's one reason why this year's 2013 winner of the Randy Gerson Memorial Grant wants to examine how post-traumatic stress disorder interferes with U.S. service members' romantic relationships after they return from deployment, a little-studied area of psychology.

Sarah Burns Campbell, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., will use the $6,000 award to study 65 couples recruited through the nearby Fort Belvoir Community Hospital adult outpatient behavioral health program. She hopes her work will clarify how PTSD symptoms disrupt military couples' relationships and will lead to the development of targeted interventions.

"The number of U.S. military service members with PTSD is growing, and we haven't done all we can do as a psychology community to make treatments tolerable and successful for wounded warriors," says Burns Campbell.

By highlighting the challenges that military couples face, the proposal fulfills the Randy Gerson Memorial Grant program's goals to advance theory, assessment or clinical practice in family and couple dynamics. "It's an interesting topic and something that has important implications for society," says Dorothy W. Cantor, PsyD, president of the American Psychological Foundation.

Burns Campbell's project is part of a larger study conducted by her research advisor, Keith Renshaw, PhD, that focuses on spouses, romantic partners and family members of military personnel with behavioral health symptoms. Her part of the research will assess how PTSD symptoms affect emotions, behaviors and feelings of support and intimacy on a day-to-day basis by asking couples to complete an online questionnaire at the end of each day for two weeks. Her data collection is expected to begin this fall.

Burns Campbell hopes her work will help psychologists develop or refine targeted interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Conjoint Therapy for PTSD to help military couples struggling to cope with PTSD symptoms. Potential interventions include relaxation and communication strategies to reduce emotional reactivity. Also, planning mutually enjoyable events may help promote interaction between service members who are emotionally withdrawn and partners who find it difficult to separate themselves from these traumatic stress reactions.

"While we know that service members' spouses and romantic partners are an incredibly important piece of their support network, we also know that existing treatments for PTSD are only beginning to find ways to capitalize on that support," says Burns Campbell.