You don’t have to be a mental health professional to know trust issues, anxiety, insecurity, shame and disassociation are bad for relationships. If these same patterns of behavior, however, are common for an individual dealing with a past traumatic event or series of events, how does someone navigate trauma recovery and relationships? In some surprisingly subtle ways, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can impact romantic, platonic and work relationships.
Trauma from a relationship with a parent, romantic partner, friend or family member will carry similar fight/flight/freeze responses. This doesn’t mean, though, relationships are hopeless for trauma survivors. The self-awareness required for survivors may create more fulfilling relationships in the long run. Stick around for the end, where we talk about the advantages, yes advantages, of healing from PTSD and enjoying relationships with the people in your life.
The Ranch Pennsylvania, understands the complexities of PTSD recovery. Let’s look at the different ways trauma impacts relationships, along with some tips for managing these situations successfully.
Complex PTSD and Relationships
A survivor of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), Karen witnessed violence in her home growing up. In addition, her dad abandoned the family when she was 14. Several meaningful relationships with men have ended because of emotional or physical abuse. It’s not uncommon for survivors of childhood trauma to repeat relationship patterns, leading to more trauma.
Research has shown a strong relationship between shame and PTSD when trauma is inflicted by someone related. There’s a tendency among CPTSD survivors to not only experience shame around the traumatic events but also carry a sense of “being” shameful. After repeated victimizations from someone trusted, survivors equate their identity with shame.
Trauma Impacts Adult Relationships
It’s no exaggeration to say Karen is terrified of dating. Isolation from most social activities is her safe place. And, although she’s in recovery from her CPTSD, Karen doesn’t trust her taste in men. Like the bear analogy, the chances are slim that you will feel eager and safe heading to the woods if there’s the possibility a similar attack could occur. In some cases, the first date jitters are so triggering, Karen doesn’t show up, or she cancels at the last minute.
Karen experienced a panic attack in the parking lot before walking into the restaurant for her last first date. Her therapist suggested arriving early and meditating for a few minutes in the car. This extra time helped her settle into the experience. Karen also chose the date location, meaning she had a little more control over her anxiety. She picked a place where she felt safe and comfortable.
After a nice evening, her date didn’t call or text the next day or the day after. He enjoyed himself with Karen, but work distracted him. He didn’t think much of taking two or three days to reach out.
Meanwhile, Karen began telling herself stories about Rob’s lack of communication. If you are shame-based and believe yourself to be inherently flawed, choosing a healthy partner is challenging. Further, even when someone with healthy self-esteem comes along, the odds are higher the CPTSD survivor won’t trust the experience at face value. In Karen’s case, she created narratives in her mind to support her self-beliefs.
From her date’s point of view, what started innocently turned into a triggering event for Karen. She survived several relationships, including the relationship with her father, where men simply disappeared. For Karen, even a few days of no contact set off panic buttons. This stress comes with some challenging physical responses like nervousness, elevated heart rate, brain fog, difficulties concentrating, etc.
While an individual without PTSD may take a similar dating situation in stride, Karen tells herself she “blew it.” Even when her mind isn’t creating a narrative, her body is reacting. During this post-date period, Karen is easily startled and feels shaky. During a work meeting, she zones out or “disassociates” and gets called out by her boss for what appeared to be indifference.
Without an educated support person like her therapist, Karen could draw the conclusion she isn’t “cut out” for a relationship. “I’m too crazy to have a real relationship with a partner.”
How a single-event trauma plays out in relationships
Jason is 40 years old. When he was 15, he was raped by a relative. In his history of romantic and platonic relationships, Jason has a pattern of becoming overly dependent. Then, when people pull away because they feel suffocated, Jason reacts with rage and jealously.
For the past 10 years, Jason has been in a committed relationship with Frank. As a social worker, Frank is well-versed in PTSD and understands how Jason’s reactivity in certain situations is about his trauma. The couple have a six-year-old daughter.
Jason and Frank see a mental health professional. Together, the couple is learning new ways to deal with Jason’s trauma triggers.
For Jason, he’s beginning to understand the powerlessness he felt when he was raped. If something in his relationship with Frank triggers a memory from this traumatic experience, Jason has a pattern of reacting with rage. He tries to control the situation to avoid feeling powerless again.
During inpatient mental health treatment, Jason gains some new skills to face these triggering moments. One of the key skills Jason learns is self-awareness. With the help of his support team in mental health treatment, Jason identifies his main triggers.
In treatment, Jason learns how to self-soothe when things don’t go as planned. He learns how to reassure himself he is safe. He makes outreach calls to check out the reality his mind is feeding him. Frank, likewise, learns the importance of doing what you say and saying what you mean when involved with someone in PTSD recovery.
The Relationship Advantages with PTSD Recovery
PTSD recovery provides a wealth of relationship skills. In the case of Jason and Frank, this long-term, committed couple was able to save a meaningful connection and grow together with therapy. Even their young daughter is included in the process. Family therapy means everyone, even the youngest, learns how to handle feelings productively.
Self-awareness is an important skill to have in any relationship. If you understand your own needs, it makes sense you will be more able to support those needs and the needs of others. Even better if you know those needs before you start a relationship.
Many people healing from PTSD need the following in a relationship:
- Willingness to explore feelings, sometimes in a therapeutic setting
- Transparency with actions, no secrets
- Honesty with feelings
- Clear boundaries, especially with sex
- Safety with any vulnerability
- Secure knowledge the other person will mean what they say, say what they mean
- Ability to handle conflict without harming a partner emotionally, verbally or physically
The good news for PTSD survivors, these qualities are important in all healthy relationships.
Trauma Treatment and Improved Relationships
The keys to a healthy relationship for PTSD survivors are support and education. Without these two pieces, the chances of a fulfilling and balanced romantic relationship become slim. A trauma survivor may consider themselves broken or “crazy” without fully understanding how trauma impacts a relationship.
Trauma encompasses a broad range of experiences, some stemming from a single event and others as a series of events. The PTSD responses and impact on relationships are just as varied. Sometimes there are layers upon layers of relationship patterns resulting from past trauma.