Considerations for Navigating Intimate Relationships with PTSD

Traumatic events are life changing, and the physical and mental affects sometimes never go away. When one suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they may have a difficult time feeling safe, which can make them hypervigilant or shut down. It can also cause fear, triggers, emotional numbness, feelings of worthlessness, trouble sleeping, and more.

Intimate relationships are often negatively impacted for those who suffer from PTSD, making it difficult for both them and their partner to have a healthy, lasting connection. Read on to learn about how PTSD can affect intimate relationships, signs to look out for in your own relationship, and tips for coping together.

What is PTSD?

Nearly 12 million adults in the U.S. have PTSD during a given year, affecting about 6% of the population. PTSD can occur when someone experiences trauma or a traumatic event, such as captivity, childhood neglect, living in a war zone or long-term combat situations, repeated physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. It can also be influenced by genetics or other mental health conditions.

Having PTSD can result in significant behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal changes which can affect a person’s day-to-day life, including the relationships they have with friends, family, and partners.

How Can PTSD Affect Intimate Relationships?

PTSD can make it difficult to maintain relationships with the various people in a person’s life. PTSD may cause the following symptoms:

  • Negative self-image
  • Loss of foundational beliefs
  • Emotional dysregulation, anger, panic, depression
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Lowered stress tolerance
  • Memory issues
  • Personality changes
  • Substance abuse
  • Lack of trust

It can also prevent someone from wanting to form new bonds or relationships and can have a significant effect on existing and relationships.

Signs Trauma May be Impacting Your Relationship

If your partner suffers from PTSD, you may notice some signs of trauma that are impacting both of you as individuals and your relationship as a whole. These signs may include:

  • Emotional distance. Disassociation, feelings that you don’t understand them, and having very strong boundaries can prove challenging to growing a relationship.

  • Feelings of incompatibility. If you and your partner recently moved in together and they suffer from PTSD, living together can present a number of obstacles. You may notice dramatic changes in mood, disassociation, or defensiveness. Or, perhaps you become more aware of impulsive behavior or personality changes. This can make living together complicated, which can lead of feelings of incompatibility with one another.

  • Lack of trust. Those with PTSD often find it difficult to trust others, especially if their trauma stems from someone they thought they could trust (like a family member). Lack of trust can manifest in different ways, and it can be difficult to not take this personally, quickly putting a strain on the relationship.
  • Lack of intimacy. While your partner likely desires an intimate connection, they may not be able to relax and open up completely to you. A negative self-image, lack of trust, or memories of trauma can make being intimate difficult.

  • Unregulated emotions. Emotional outbursts are common with those with PTSD. This can also be difficult not to take personally, as sometimes it can feel like a very personal attack. It can also be difficult to help your partner through these emotions, which can make you feel like a poor partner.

Ways to Help Your Partner Who Has PTSD

If your partner suffers from PTSD, there are a few things you can do to support them and your relationship:

  • Recognize their past and the trauma associated with it and help them to separate that from what’s happening today. Ensure they feel safe, supported, heard, and loved.

  • Communicate about your feelings and experiences but allow them space to express their emotions without judgement.

  • Try not to take things personally, as most distancing, emotional outbursts, lack of trust, and other challenges are not about you but instead about the trauma your partner experienced. This is usually easier said than done, but it can help you provide better support and make your relationship last.

  • Learn as much as you can about PTSD and how it affects a person. This includes how traumatic triggers affect the brain and how the body re-experiences those memories. Learn about how those re-experiences manifest and understand coping techniques so you feel more empowered to help your partner. It’s also important to be familiar with your partner’s specific needs and triggers.

  • Be consistent with your patterns and habits, as consistency can help create a sense of stability.

  • Respect their boundaries but be sure to also set your own boundaries.

  • Practice self-care by getting enough sleep, making healthy diet choices, exercising, and engaging in other daily activities you enjoy. Taking care of yourself will help you cope better and can allow you to provide better support to your partner.

One of the best ways may be to encourage your partner to seek professional help, as it can help them understand their feelings and process their trauma while also offering ways to cope. Therapy, whether individually or as a couple, can provide support and guidance you wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere.

Your partner should work with a qualified mental health practitioner to help them to recovery. Working with a qualified professional yourself can help ensure you have the knowledge and tools you need to support their recovery and grow your relationship.

Couples counseling can help both you and your partner navigate the relationship issues that arise as a result of PTSD. This can help you understand each other and learn how to work through the challenges together.