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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health diagnosis that can can develop after someone experiences or witnesses a life-threatening event or other traumatic event such as sexual assault. PTSD symptoms are a natural reaction to going through a traumatic event, and almost every one who experiences a trauma will have PTSD-like symptoms for a little while after that experience. The good news is that these symptoms typically go away on their own within a few months after the traumatic event. However, for others, the symptoms can last much longer and they may need professional help to get the PTSD symptoms to go away. Whether it s right after a traumatic event, or it's been years and the symptoms are still present, they can be an incredible painful experience for both the individual and their romantic partner. In this article, we'll provide an overview of PTSD symptoms, their impact on relationships, and how couples can work together to navigate PTSD symptoms in their relationship.
PTSD Symptoms and their effects on relationships
While there can be some variations of how PTSD is experienced, there are common symptoms that most people with PTSD all have in common. These include triggers that remind the of the traumatic event, flashbacks where they feel they are re-living the traumatic event, emotional numbing, irritability, being constantly on guard, avoiding anything that might remind them of the trauma, and communication and intimacy challenges. Each of these symptoms can make it challenging to maintain a fulfilling relationship.
TRAUMA TRIGGERS & FLASHBACKS
Trauma triggers are anything that reminds a person with PTSD of the traumatic event that they experienced. This could be a sound, smell, or a something they see that brings up negative memories. The memories are often incredibly painful and sometimes these triggers can cause flashbacks. Flashbacks are when the memory is so strong that it feels like the person is reliving the experience. When this happens, it feels like the traumatic event is happening all over again. Both trauma triggers and flashbacks can be emotionally overwhelming, cause the person to seem lost in their head/the memory, and make it difficult for them to focus on the present moment with the partner.
One of the coping skills that unconsciously develops in those with PTSD is emotional numbing. This detachment helps them function with the chaotic feelings of the traumatic event, memories, and flashbacks. However, when someone emotional detaches, they become detached to both positive and negative emotions. This can make it hard for them to communicate about emotions, feel positive emotions, show affection, and it can make it hard for partners to feel emotionally connected to them. This lack of emotional connection can then make both partners feel lonely and isolated in the relationship which can then lead to more relationship problems.
IRRITABILITY & BEING ON GUARD
It can be a really frustrating and overwhelming experience to be managing the symptoms of PTSD. The person might be constantly on guard for the possibility of future danger. This can also make them easily agitated and irritable. While totally understandable within the context of PTSD symptoms, it can be really hard for partners to know how to address concerns with them due to a fear of an angry outbursts. This means less communication happens, and when couples do communicate there tends to be more arguments and misunderstanding. This can put a big strain on the relationship.
It's so natural that when someone is experiencing trauma triggers and a feeling of having to be on guard all the time, that they would want to avoid situations that would cause them to feel so uncomfortable. Avoidance is a primary symptom of PTSD as people start to avoid people, places, and situations that remind them of the traumatic event. This is can be hard for partners whoo want to spend quality time together by going out to do activities; partners cans tart to feel resentful that they feel so alone in the relationship.
COMMUNICATION & INTIMACY CHALLENGES
Communication and intimacy challenges are a natural byproduct of al the previous PTSD symptoms. Due to the emotional numbing and irritability, it can be hard for someone with PTSD to communicate effectively about emotional topics and to feel a sense of emotional engagement in the relationship. Partners often find it hard to understand the PTSD symptoms and how those are impacting the relationship, and this can make them feel lost on how to be supportive. Intimacy problems can be related to the emotional disconnection or to trauma triggers (especially in the case of sexual trauma). Both emotional and physical intimacy can be impacted.
Challenges faced by partners of those with PTSD
It can be a challenging experience to be in a relationship with someone who has PTSD symptoms and too not know what to do to help them or feel close again. Partners often feel helpless about what to do and struggle to understand the impact of PTSD symptoms in the relationship. Common concerns include feeling emotionally distant from their partner, difficulty coping with irritability and anger outbursts, struggling with communication, and feeling a lack of intimacy in the relationship.
UNDERSTANDING PTSD SYMPTOMS
The first important step for partners is to work on understanding the symptoms of PTSD. This can be hard when you have not experienced trauma in the past because it can be confusing as to why your partner is reacting the way they are. It is important for partners to learn about PTSD symptoms so they can better understand what their loved one is going through.
DEALING WITH EMOTIONAL DISTANCE
Dealing with emotional distance and disconnection can be one of the most painful impacts of PTSD on relationship. You may feel lonely and like you are walking on egg shells around your partner, and it can be very hard not to take the emotional distance personally. Remember, this is a symptom of PTSD and not a true reflection of how your partner feels about you.
COPING WITH ANGER AND IRRITABILITY
Coping with anger outbursts and irritability is another thing that can be particularly challenging and hard to not take personally. When your partner lashes out, especially unexpectedly, it's hard to know how to react. It can be help to earn conflict resolution skills to help calm things back down. It is also helpful to give your partner space to calm down and then return back to the conversation once everyone is feeling more level-headed.
Communication is hard for every relationship, but can be especially challenging when your partner has PTSD and struggles to express themselves effectively. They may not be able to tell you their feelings, wants, or needs, which can leave you feel lost and like you are the only one trying in the relationship. It also is likely making it hard for you to feel heard and understood. Patience will be needed as you both work together to improve communication and develop more effective communication strategies.
Intimacy is an important part of a romantic relationship and it can be very hard when this area is being impacted by PTSD symptoms. So often both emotional and physical intimacy are impacted. It may take some creativity and professional help to find ways to be affectionate and re-build the intimacy in the relationship.
Coping strategies for couples dealing with PTSD
While PTSD symptoms can be challenging for couple relationships, there are strategies that can help you navigate trauma together. Specifically, open communication, seeking professional help, practicing self-care and healthy coping mechanisms, and building a support system can be the most helpful strategies to use.
While open communications is important for all relationship, it can be especially important to when one or both partners have PTSD. Working on communication may involve scheduling regular times to talk, using "I" statements to talk about yourself so as to avid defensiveness, and learning to take breaks when needed from tough topics.
Professional help is a wonderful strategy for couples impacted by PTSD. Both individual therapy and couples counseling can provide supportive environments to work through issues. Individual counseling can help the partner with PTSD develop coping skills and work through the impact of the traumatic event. Couples therapy can help the couple learn relational coping skills, learn to communicate more effectively, and problem solve together how to work around PTSD symptoms in the relationship.
SELF-CARE & COPING SKILLS
It can be stated enough that practicing self-care is important for both partners. You can't be a support system for your partner unless you are doing well yourself. Taking care of your physical and emotional health will help you be less stressed and will also help you be more present for your partner. Taking care of your emotional health also involve developing healthy coping skills to manage stress, such as mindfulness and relaxation skills.
BUILDING A SUPPORT SYSTEM
You will also need to develop a strong support system of family and friends. Be intentional about who you choose as a support system--while many people have good intensions, they are not always supportive. Pick 5 people who can can go to for emotional support when needed, and consider joining a support group if needed.
PTSD symptoms can have a pretty large impact on relationships and make it hard to communicate and emotionally connect. It's important to know that you can navigate this together using through using the strategies discussed in this article and seeking professional help when needed. By working together, you can navigate the impact of PTSD symptoms and build a stronger relationship.
Looking to start couples counseling for PTSD symptoms?
Elizabeth Polinsky Counseling provides online Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling, as well as weekend-long Marriage Intensives, throughout the states of Virginia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. As a military brat and now military spouse, she has devoted much of her career to helping couples over come PTSD symptoms together. Click the button below to schedule a complimentary consult.
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