Existential Psychiatry Blog

PTSD and Relationships: Navigating Intimacy After Trauma

June 16, 2024
Back to all posts

PTSD and Relationships: Navigating Intimacy After Trauma

Disclaimer: This article focuses on how an individual's trauma impacts intimate relationships. This does not address trauma or harm that occurs within a relationship (intimate partner violence/domestic abuse). If you feel unsafe or have been harmed by your partner, you can find help through the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

The effects of trauma are far-reaching and may impact many aspects of your life. You may feel disconnected from yourself and your loved ones. If trauma has resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can be even more challenging to navigate romantic relationships. Fortunately, there’s hope when it comes to PTSD and relationships. With support, care, and strategies, couples can navigate PTSD and build a healthy relationship based on trust and communication.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that an individual can develop after experiencing or witnessing a distressing or traumatic event(s). It negatively affects many areas of the person’s life and well-being, making it difficult to function and maintain relationships.

Traumatic experiences that can lead to PTSD may include, but are not limited to:

Symptoms of PTSD include:

Unhappy couple sitting on bed after having argument

Effects of PTSD on Relationships

PTSD can significantly impact intimate relationships. It often influences a couple’s emotional closeness, communication, trust, and relationship satisfaction.

Emotional Distance and Numbness

Individuals with PTSD may be emotionally unavailable, finding it difficult to express or feel their emotions. They might withdraw, avoiding intimacy and affection, which leads to their partner feeling rejected, lonely, or disconnected. Over time, this emotional distance can erode the bond between partners, making it hard to maintain a close and supportive relationship.

Communication Difficulties

PTSD can make it difficult for couples to communicate effectively. The individual with PTSD might avoid discussing their feelings, needs, or experiences, leading to misunderstandings and a lack of connection. Their increased irritability or anger can also result in frequent arguments and conflicts.

Trust Issues

Trauma often makes it difficult to trust others, including intimate partners. This may lead to unfounded suspicion and jealousy. The fear of being hurt or abandoned may prevent individuals from opening up or committing to their partner, creating barriers to building a trusting relationship.

Intimacy Challenges

PTSD can create challenges within physical intimacy. Individuals with PTSD may experience a decrease in sexual desire and performance issues due to intrusive thoughts or flashbacks during intimate moments. They might avoid physical closeness altogether, fearing that intimacy could trigger distressing memories, leaving their partner feeling neglected and unwanted.

Behavioral Changes

Hypervigilance is a common symptom where individuals are on edge or alert. This often makes it hard to relax and enjoy time with one's partner and can be exhausting for both individuals. When people turn to substance use to cope with PTSD, it can lead to addiction issues and further strain on the relationship. Avoidant behaviors may also create tension in relationships. If a person doesn't understand that their partner is avoiding triggers, they might view their behaviors as erratic, inconsiderate, or unpredictable.

Impact on Daily Life and Responsibilities

Post-traumatic stress disorder can significantly impact both partners’ daily lives. The individual without the condition may take on additional responsibilities, leading to feelings of resentment or burnout, while the partner with PTSD might feel ashamed or guilty. PTSD may also create financial strain by affecting work performance and job stability. These compounding stressors make it more difficult for each partner to maintain their relationship and household.

Man and Woman Boat Rowing in Sea during Golden Hour

Help for PTSD and Relationships: Coping Strategies for Couples

PTSD poses significant challenges to intimate relationships. However, having the right tools and support can help you strengthen your bond and navigate the difficulties together.

Coping Strategies for Individuals with PTSD

  1. Seek Professional Help: Therapy, particularly trauma-focused therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), can help with PTSD. Treatment can support you in managing symptoms, healing trauma, and improving relationship dynamics. You don't have to face PTSD on your own.

  2. Practice Self-Care: Engage in activities that promote relaxation and stress relief, such as exercise, mindfulness, or creative activities you enjoy (e.g., music, reading, drawing, or writing).

  3. Communicate Openly: If your partner is supportive, share your feelings and experiences. Be honest about your struggles and needs. Ask your partner about their needs and feelings. View working on your relationship as a team effort, and prioritize speaking to them respectfully.

  4. Identify Triggers: Take time to pinpoint situations, feelings, or people that trigger your anxiety and symptoms. Identify specific coping strategies to help you effectively manage each trigger.

  5. Set Boundaries: Establish boundaries within your relationship to protect your emotional well-being. Communicate your needs and limits to your partner clearly and assertively. For example, you may tell your partner you want to open up about your past but need more time before you share everything. Another example would be talking to your partner about what sexual acts you are and are not comfortable with.

  6. Join a Support Group: Peer groups offer space to connect with others who understand what you’re going through. Here you can find support and learn from others who are managing PTSD.

  7. Prioritize Your Health: Your mind and body are connected. Eating a nutrient-rich diet, getting enough quality sleep, and moving your body can all support your healing.

  8. Learn About PTSD: Understanding the condition helps you recognize triggers and symptoms. It can also aid in reducing self-blame, shame, and guilt.

  9. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Mindfulness helps you stay grounded and lowers anxiety by focusing on the present moment. Try different meditation or deep breathing exercises until you find one that works for you.

Supporting Your Partner

  1. Educate Yourself: Learn about PTSD, its symptoms, and its effects on one’s life. This will give you a better understanding of what your partner may be experiencing.

  2. Practice Empathy: Validate your partner's feelings and experiences without judgment. Offer empathy and support, and avoid minimizing or dismissing their struggles. Communicate to them that they can open up to you when they feel safe to do so.

  3. Seek Understanding: Recognize that recovery from PTSD is a process that takes time. Practice patience with your partner and offer them the space and support they need to heal.

  4. Support Treatment: Encourage your partner to seek professional help for their PTSD and speak positively about getting help through individual therapy or support groups.

  5. Take Care of Yourself: Remember to prioritize your mental and emotional well-being. Seek support from friends, family, or a therapist. It’s not your job to heal your partner. It’s healthy to set boundaries with your partner and encourage them to expand their support system apart from you. It’s also important to note that PTSD is not an excuse for an individual to verbally, emotionally, or physically harm or abuse their partner. Many people with PTSD treat their partners with respect and care.

Man and Woman Boat Rowing in Sea during Golden Hour

Need Support for PTSD and Relationships in Seattle?

Meet Dr. David Zacharias! For over 20 years, Dr. Zacharias has been providing care for patients including those with trauma, PTSD, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, and depression. He offers in-person and online therapy, diagnostic assessment, and medication management through his Seattle practice, Existential Psychiatry. Regardless of what brings you to treatment, he'll meet you where you are and personalize care to meet your needs.

If you’re interested in therapy for PTSD and relationships or have questions about services, please reach out for a free consultation.

Written by Existential Psychiatry Staff