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 is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.
For perspective, let’s say you are attacked by a bear while hiking in the woods. Common sense says future trips into the forest may be problematic for you. At the very least, your body will carry memories of the attack, and your nervous system will send out signals of impending danger.
Trauma from a relationship with a parent, romantic partner, friend or family member will carry similar fight/flight/freeze responses. Read “Understanding the stress response,” published online in July of 2020 by Harvard Medical School.
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
Many traumatic events (e.g., car accidents, natural disasters, etc.) are of time-limited duration. However, in some cases, people experience chronic trauma that continues or repeats for months or years at a time. Some have suggested that the current PTSD diagnosis does not fully capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with prolonged, repeated trauma.
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. Read “Complex trauma and intimate relationships: The impact of shame, guilt and dissociation,” published online in the Journal of Affective Disorders for more information.
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. She used some breathing techniques to calm her nervous system. 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.”
Isolation from any future dating could result, even though some of the dates actually went well. She may decide the emotional cost is too much.
How a single-event trauma plays out in relationships
In a long-term relationship, without support and healing, a single traumatic life event can also call the shots. Read “Relationships and PTSD: What to Know,” published in Medical News Today, for more information about relationships and PTSD.
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 has 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.
For example, when Frank travels for work, Jason relies on a call before bed. If Frank doesn’t call when he says, Jason is triggered. Feelings of being victimized and powerless surface. If Jason doesn’t attend to these feelings early, his emotions can spin. In Jason’s case, this could mean he lashes out in anger at Frank by leaving a scathing voicemail with damaging insults. Or, Jason may impulsively decide the relationship is over and throw out all of Frank’s belongings.
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.
Read the 2019 article titled, “How Traumas Create Negative Patterns in Relationships: Unresolved traumas can create challenges in communication, intimacy, and trust,” published online at PsychologyToday.com.
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.
In the case of Karen, at some point in the dating process, when she feels safe, she could honestly share some of her experience in recovery. This makes a great way to weed out poor dating candidates.
If, for instance, her date reacts with insensitivity or is dismissive, then Karen learns this person is probably not worth more time.
That’s not to say long, sordid trauma events need exposure on every first date. However, it’s possible to gently bring these subjects up early.
Let’s say Karen decides to go on another date with the guy who waited several days to reconnect. On the next date, she could say something like, “I’ve had some bad experiences in the past. It’s really important to me that the person I date stay consistent in contact. After about four days, I lose interest.”
With her therapist, Karen realizes four days of no contact is her limit. If her date doesn’t accommodate the boundary, Karen has a clear red flag about this person as a romantic partner.
Trauma Treatment and Improved Relationships
Everyone feels the sting of rejection when someone doesn’t call after a first or second date, but for trauma survivors, these “normal” relationship hurdles can become huge roadblocks. And, long-term relationships always have bumps in the road.
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.
By definition, trauma means an individual felt threatened in some way, which triggered the body’s response to a perceived or real life-threatening emergency. How one person reacts to trauma may be entirely different from another person’s reaction.
The Ranch Pennsylvania, understands the many layers of trauma recovery. Call us today if a partner or loved one is suffering because of past trauma. Help is available. Call 717.969.9126
By Heather Berry
Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health