Relationship PTSD & How to Deal With It
Relationship PTSD or post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS) involves ways a person responds to being exposed to a traumatic event within their relationship and their intimate partner. Within relationships, all relational abuse types have shown to leave significant verbal, emotional/psychological, physical, or sexual consequences.
What is Relationship PTSD?
Relationship PTSD is a subcategory of PTSD, where one person is causing PTSD and related emotional reactions in another person within their relationship. It mostly results from an abusive relationship, while not meeting all the diagnostic criteria to be diagnosed as PTSD, so experts in the field have started calling it post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS).
So, Relationship PTSD and PTRS will be used interchangeably for the rest of this article.
Therefore, PTRS will show some PTSD symptoms, yet it will often show more intense emotional reactions leading to negative social interactions. Most people will notice symptoms of PTRS once the relationship ends.
During the relationship, what causes PTRS is the relational patterns and the relationship in general, instead of experiencing one or two traumatic events. A person who has PTRS will notice lower self-esteem, blame themselves for relational troubles, or feel more insecure than before starting the relationship.
What PTSD and PTRS have in common is a belief that once one experiences a certain trauma, the world becomes an unsafe place for that person.
As said, relationship PTSD or PTRS might be difficult to recognize because the symptoms appear gradually over a long period of time instead of experiencing one traumatic event. PTRS symptoms can include various symptoms and signs, from a strong sense of feeling unsafe to be out of control or feeling shame or guilt.
PTRS Intrusive Symptoms
Intrusive symptoms are related to experiencing the traumatic event again and again through:
- Thoughts related to the trauma that appeared out of nowhere,
- Flashbacks or having a strong feeling of re-experiencing the traumatic event through images, daydreams, or intrusive thoughts,
- Nightmares or dreams involving the traumatic event or dreams where a person feels scared or exposed,
- Experiencing extreme distress when reminded of the trauma by your intimate partner or anyone else,
- Intensive emotional responses to typical, everyday situations.
PTRS Arousal Symptoms
Arousal symptoms refer to the symptoms around the fear response such as:
- Higher irritability with minimum or zero provocation,
- Insomnia or having sleep problems, whether when falling or staying asleep,
- Hypervigilance or being constantly alert when something reminds you of the trauma.
PTRS Relational Symptoms
Relational symptoms are the ones creating stress in other relationships such as:
- Having issues with trusting other people or socializing,
- Loneliness or isolation,
- Starting a new relationship quickly,
- Shame, guilt, or self-blame,
- Sexual dysfunction or fear of being physically intimate with your new partner,
- A strong feeling that the world is unsafe.
What Causes Relationship PTSD?
The trauma that is causing relationship PTSD might be from any type of relational abuse, yet unlike traditional PTSD, it only occurs with your intimate partner rather than experiencing a traumatic event outside the context of your intimate relationship.
Most often, there is not just one event that caused PTRS, yet several incidents in an abusive relationship might lead to PTRS. There are many unhealthy relational patterns such as belittling, controlling, gaslighting or constantly criticizing the other person which are all signs of emotional abuse.
Unlike emotional, physical abuse is much more evident and it is often noticed by other people outside your relationship. Physical abuse refers to hitting, punching, or any attempt to purposely injure your intimate partner. In relationships, there is also a possibility of experiencing sexual abuse in a form of non-consensual sex or sexual coercion.
What is important to keep in mind is that every person responds to traumatic events differently, especially within the context of an intimate relationship. Also, what is considered a traumatic exposure to one person might not affect someone else at all. This is why it is very important to be aware of how you feel in your relationship and how your partner is making you feel to understand if there is anything that might or is already causing PTRS.
The Healing Process
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, you should suggest therapy. Healing is a long-term process if you’ve been in an abusive relationship and think you have PTRS. However, the first step to healing is talking about it with a professional who will guide you and help you learn techniques to overcome the traumatic relationship and be able to start a new, healthy one.
Another thing you need to know is that you cannot accelerate the healing process. For instance, if you’ve been in an abusive relationship for years, it will take more than just a month to heal properly and be able to live your life as you did before the relationship started. Also, the type of abuse and the frequency of it happening in the relationship are important factors that will affect the healing process.
Because relationship PTSD affects different people differently, the healing process and everything about it can differ from one person to another. For instance, your therapist might use a different approach than your friend’s therapist who has also been in an abusive relationship. Besides being exposed to different types of abuse, someone’s personality type and previous experience will also have an impact on how someone is responding to traumatic exposure in their intimate relationship.
A relationship PTSD or post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS) happens when a person has been exposed to patterns of traumatic events or behaviors caused by their intimate partner. Symptoms and signs of PTRS are not noticeable immediately as they develop over time, and are not visible to the eye, except for physical abuse.
If a person ends the abusive relationship and their intimate partner is no longer present in their lives, PTRS symptoms will continue and affect how this person interacts and connects with other people, especially within the romantic context. That is why it’s best to seek help in a form of a therapist who has enough experience with PTRS. Such therapists can help you heal from the relationship you had and help you start a new relationship when you’re ready without the baggage from the past
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