Dealing with a partner who is going through PTSD can be challenging, but knowing what to anticipate and how to provide support can make a world of difference in your relationship.
In the words of our Clinical Director, Samantha Pekh, M.A., Registered Psychologist, trauma results from experiencing something that was unexpected and/or which you felt unprepared for, which overwhelmed you, and which you find difficult to move forward from.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma encompasses experiences that trigger intense physical and psychological stress reactions, often resulting from events perceived as physically or emotionally harmful and threatening, with lasting negative effects on a person’s well-being.
The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) defines trauma as the emotional impact of distressing events, and when these feelings persist or worsen over time, they can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can disrupt a person’s ability to manage emotions and maintain relationships.
Traumatic experiences can include:
- Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Living with a family member with mental health or substance use disorders
- Sudden, unexplained separation from a loved one
- Racism, discrimination, and oppression
- Community violence, war, or terrorism
- Workplace injury and/or violence
- Medical Illness
Trauma’s Impact on Relationships
Trauma often manifests itself in relationships through various responses:
- Difficulty in asking for help or reliance on your partner.
- Feeling easily abandoned or rejected by your partner.
- Heightened emotional reactions to relationship issues.
- Struggling to trust your partner.
- Difficulty with intimacy.
- Feelings of shame and guilt, believing you’re inherently flawed.
- Emotional shutdown or stonewalling.
Common Triggers in Relationships:
- Feeling your partner is emotionally withdrawing.
- Experiencing criticism, ridicule, or judgment.
- Ignoring text messages or phone calls.
- Feeling invalidated.
- A sense of losing control or helplessness.
How Trauma Survivors May Behave:
People with PTSD symptoms might feel anxious, detached, or stressed within their relationships. This constant state of fight or flight can make it difficult to connect, feel safe, or be intimate with a partner. Coping with these symptoms may lead individuals to distance themselves from their partners to protect them from their symptoms or out of fear of vulnerability. Some survivors may become more dependent on and emotionally demanding of their partners to ease their anxiety and abandonment fears.
Supportive Responses from Loved Ones:
Supporting a partner with PTSD can be emotionally draining due to their constant emotional reactivity. You might feel like you’re walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting them. Over time, these symptoms can affect loved ones, leading to similar feelings and reactions to the trauma.
The Role of Relationships in PTSD Recovery:
Understanding and communicating through these symptoms is vital for supporting your partner. It’s crucial to comprehend your partner’s perspective and needs in the relationship and express how you can best support them through their PTSD symptoms. Social support can act as a protective factor to offset PTSD symptoms, and a healthy, supportive relationship can provide a sense of security and belonging, which is advantageous for coping with stress.
Ways to Support Someone with PTSD:
- Create an environment that encourages vulnerability.
- Be honest about your feelings.
- Be willing to listen empathetically, sometimes in a therapeutic setting.
- Be intentional with your words and actions.
- Be reliable.
- Establish clear boundaries.
- Reaffirm your partner and provide a secure base.
- Handle conflicts without causing emotional, verbal, or physical harm.
Va.gov: Veterans Affairs. Relationships. (2007, January 1). https://www.ptsd.va.gov/family/effect_relationships.asp#:~:text=The%20symptoms%20of%20PTSD%20can,that%20may%20sometimes%20harm%20relationships
A review of the literature – trauma-informed care in behavioral health . (n.d.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207192/
Trauma. CAMH. (n.d.-b). https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/trauma