PTSD and Relationships

It might be hard to see a link between surviving a trauma and trouble with close family relationships, friendships and intimate relationships. However, many trauma survivors with PTSD or CPTSD have trouble with their close family relationships or friendships.

The symptoms of PTSD and CPTSD can cause problems with trust, closeness, communication, and problem solving. These symptoms may affect the way the survivor acts with others. For example, despite “knowing” they can trust their partner someone who has been through a trauma can have a great deal of difficulty with trusting and sharing control. In turn, this can cause a loved one to respond negatively.  Circular patterns can develop that may sometimes cause a relationship to deteriorate.

How Might Trauma Survivors React?

In the first weeks and months following a trauma, survivors may feel angry, detached, tense or worried in their relationships. In time, most are able to resume their prior level of closeness in relationships. Those survivors who develop PTSD or CPTSD may have lasting relationship problems.

PTSD  and CPTSD may cause a survivor to feel numb, to have difficulty talking about the trauma and to feel distant from others. “No one really understands what trauma is like.” Is a common phrase from trauma survivors.

Some of the other symptoms of PTSD and CPTSD such as feeling irritable, on guard, jumpy, worried, or nervous, may mean that the survivor may not be able to relax or be intimate. Hence less interest in social or sexual activities may become the norm. This norm may also be driven by depressed mood that can come out of traumatic experiences.

Sometimes survivors feel an increased need to protect their loved ones. They can come across as tense, controlling or demanding.

The trauma survivor may often have trauma memories or flashbacks. They might go to great lengths to avoid such memories. Survivors may avoid any activity that could trigger a memory.  This might mean avoiding going out of the house, family events, and sexual intimacy. Sleep disturbance and nightmares may mean that both the survivor and partner may not be able to get enough rest. Sometimes this may make sleeping together impossible.

Survivors may suppress angry feelings and actions. They may avoid closeness for fear of anger emerging. They may push away family and friends due to agitated feelings. Some survivors use drinking and drugs to cope with PTSD of CPTSD. This can destroy intimacy and friendships.  In the most extreme of experience verbal or physical violence can occur.

In contrast to the above experience some survivors may depend too much on their partners, family members, and friends. Fearing being alone, not believing in their own coping abilities, assuming they might be overwhelmed with flashbacks. Sometimes survivors can also believe that they cannot cope without support people such as health care providers or therapists.

Dealing with symptoms or the fear of being overwhelmed by them can take up a lot of the survivor’s energy and focus. This may lead to neglect of a partner or leaning so heavily on a partner that the partner may come to feel that their needs are not acknowledged.

Family Reactions

Friends, or family members may feel upset, disconnected, or despondent because the survivor has not been able to recover the trauma. Family may distance themselves from the survivor. The survivor’s symptoms can make loved ones feel like they are on walking on eggshells. Living with someone who has CPTSD or PTSD can sometimes lead the partner to have some of the same feelings of having been through a trauma, such as anxiety and low mood.

A person who goes through a trauma and develops PTSD or CPTSD may have certain reactions or symptoms. These reactions may affect family and friends, who then react to how the survivor is behaving. An unintended consequence of this can be that these reactions also affect the person who went through the trauma. Then we have a vicious cycle.

Trauma Types and Relationships

Certain types of traumas can have a more severe effect on relationships. These traumas often involve other people, and include:

  • Childhood sexual and physical abuse
  • Rape
  • Domestic violence
  • Combat
  • Terrorism
  • Genocide
  • Torture
  • Kidnapping
  • Prisoner of war

Survivors of interpersonal traumas often feel a lasting sense of terror, horror, danger, and betrayal. This affects how they connect to others. They may fear getting close to someone else, worrying that letting down their guard will result in betrayal or danger.  Survivors may have the challenge of a close relationship representing both safety and security, and fear and dangerous. This can result in feeling conflicted and confused about their bonds to others.

Do All Trauma Survivors Have Relationship Problems?

Many trauma survivors do not develop CPTSD/PTSD. Also, many people with CPTSD/PTSD do not have relationship problems. People with CPTSD/PTSD can create and maintain good relationships.

What Can Be Done to Help Someone Who Has PTSD?

Maintaining relationships with others are very important for trauma survivors. It is well known that social support is one of the best things to protect against getting PTSD.  There are many treatment approaches that may be helpful for dealing with relationship issues as a couple. Treating CPTSD/PTSD has also shown to be effective in improving relationships.

At the Centre for Clinical Psychology, we use Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) which is an effective CPTSD/PTSD treatment. CPT can help you learn to cope with your thoughts and feelings about the trauma, learn to trust, learn to feel safe and to re-engage in relationships instead of being afraid of them. Instead of feeling alone.