Some people who survive trauma develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research into PTSD and relationships shows that mental health problems, such as trauma, can create problems in intimate relationships and family life. The person with PTSD, or complex PTSD, may have overwhelming symptoms, and friends and family may be frightened and worried. They also may feel shut out of their loved one’s life.
If you are in a relationship with someone suffering from PTSD, you are likely suffering too. Relationships can be greatly affected by an anxiety disorder like post-traumatic stress disorder. There may be issues with communication, trust and intimacy. The things needed to keep a marriage healthy may be hard to achieve if PTSD goes untreated. This is why it is important to treat PTSD and relationships before negative consequences pile up.
How PTSD Strains Relationships
Some of the anxiety symptoms that can make PTSD and relationships a challenge include:
- Constantly on edge
- Social isolation
- Trouble in the bedroom
- Irritability and anxiety
These challenges are explained below with tips on how to cope with these struggles.
Flashbacks. The person with PTSD may be plagued by flashbacks that can be triggered by day and appear in nightmares. Flashbacks can be set off any time by certain images, smells, sounds or feelings. When having a flashback, the emotions related to the trauma flood back. Family and friends of people with PTSD may be alarmed if they witness the results of these flashbacks.
How to cope with flashbacks: It can be frightening if your partner awakes in the middle of the night in a state of terror or has a flashback in a public place. The best thing you can do is try to learn the things that trigger these episodes and help your loved one avoid those people, places and events. It is important not to try and touch them to calm them when they first awake from a night terror. You don’t know what they were experiencing in their dream, and they may try to defend themselves from you. Be patient, and reassure them they are safe. Wait until they appear awake and aware of their present situation before rushing to comfort them physically.
Constantly on edge. A loved one with PTSD may constantly relive the psychological trauma as if it were happening now. Even in a safe environment they can feel like they are right back in the traumatic experience. Their nervous system is in a perpetual state of fight, flight or freeze and it is hard for them to relax. Ordinary occurrences such as a car door slamming can cause high anxiety reactions. They startle easily and can be distrustful. All of this can be difficult for people with PTSD and their partners.
How to cope with being on edge: It is difficult to live as if you are walking on egg shells, worried about triggering your partner. But empathy will go a long way in understanding some of their reactions to the environment around them. Try to talk to your loved one when you see this behavior coming on and reassure them they are safe.
Social isolation. To avoid triggers and flashbacks, people with PTSD often avoid social events. They may prefer to stay home rather than socialize. This limited ability to be out in the world can make it difficult to sustain relationships. It may bring added pressure from people who don’t understand that the person suffering from PTSD cannot cope with social activities.
How to cope with social isolation: It is important that you do not cut yourself off from family and the rest of the world just because your partner is not ready to socialize. Your social and family ties are an important part of your survival and they will help sustain you. At the same time, do your best to schedule alone time with your partner where you enjoy activities together that do not cause stress.
Trouble in the bedroom. Difficulty sleeping, restlessness and nightmares are often part of post-traumatic stress disorder. The person who is suffering from PTSD symptoms may have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep, often because they fear the memories that come to them at night. This can cause a great deal of stress in the bedroom, when one person is awake, restless or waking with night terrors and the other partner is trying to sleep. In addition, people with PTSD may lose interest in sexual activities or struggle with intimacy. A partner may feel rejected and lonely as a result.
How to cope sleep issues: The first tool of survival for a spouse is not to take this personally, as difficult as that may be. The disturbances in your intimate life are part of a larger syndrome. Addressing the larger problem together, in therapy and with support, will help you both deal with, and hopefully heal, the symptoms.
Irritability and anxiety. The person with PTSD is often tense and uncomfortable in their skin. Relationships are meant to be give and take. But when it comes to PTSD and relationships, they can become one-sided, with both people living in survival mode rather than sharing life together.
How to cope with irritability and anxiety: When you have a partner who is riddled with anxiety, it can begin to erode your self-esteem. You may think it’s your fault they are unhappy. Make sure you strengthen your own emotional and spiritual core. This is will help you develop strength to deal with your loved one’s thoughts and behaviors in a healthier way. At the same time, your loved one needs professional help and you should encourage them toward it.
Addiction. Research shows that people with PTSD often turn to alcohol and drugs to try to quell their anxiety symptoms. Alcohol and drug addiction adds new problems to an already compromised relationship. A dual diagnosis like PTSD and substance abuse makes recovery doubly difficult.
How to cope with addiction: When your loved one has an addiction, it’s important that you push them toward recovery. While no one can help someone who does not choose to help themselves, a person dealing with addiction may be influenced to get the the right help.
A key to dealing with your partner’s PTSD, as well as maintaining your own peace of mind, is to find the best way to communicate with them. This should always be handled at a peaceful moment, not when they are in a flashback or a moment of crisis. Remember, you share a love that brought you into a relationship. Speak to your partner from the heart, and express your sincere concerns. Also research the best places to get help for your loved one so that you can make some practical suggestions.
PTSD can be disruptive to relationships, both old and new. Some people have been together for a long time, and they know their partners well and can see how deeply they are impacted by PTSD. Those who have been in a relationship for a shorter time may not recognize all the ways they are affected. In those cases, you may need help, perhaps from their mom or best friend, to help your partner recognize the problems.
Healing PTSD and Relationships
According to the VA, women are more likely to experience PTSD due to sexual assault or sexual abuse. Men have more exposure through accidents, physical assault and combat. They also may be impacted by disaster or being witness to someone else’s death or injury.
Psychological trauma is a mental health issue that can also begin early in life. It can have a deep impact, especially when a child is assaulted, sexually abused, neglected or witnesses violence in the home. A childhood trauma survivor may be retriggered when confronted by traumatic experiences as an adult. Stress disorders from childhood and adulthood must be treated in order to have a healthy relationship.
When it comes to PTSD and relationships, the person suffering from PTSD may be afraid to reach out for help. They may feel ashamed of what they are experiencing and may not even know what is causing their symptoms. This is why it is so important to get the right diagnosis and treatment.
The PTSD sufferer needs compassionate support. They need to explore and come to terms with the trauma they’ve experienced. And they need PTSD treatment and therapeutic approaches that will help them cope with trauma and develop communication skills. This will help them heal both PTSD and relationships.