Relationships with PTSD: Can They Be Successful?

According to the National Center for PTSD (Department of Veteran’s Affairs), “Trauma survivors with PTSD may have trouble with their close family relationships or friendships. The symptoms of PTSD can cause problems with trust, closeness, communication, and problem solving. These problems may affect the way the survivor acts with others. In turn, the way a loved one responds to him or her affects the trauma survivor. A circular pattern can develop that may sometimes harm relationships.” Veterans have a high rate of divorce, but they also have a high rate of multiple divorces, and from my own experience I would guess that people who experience PTSD have a high failure rate when it comes to relationships. Your brain can wreck you.

PTSD can amplify “normal” problems into intense and severe problems, and relationships are no different. If anything, they’re worse, especially when you struggle with effective communication, and even if you were good at communicating before, it takes A LOT OF EFFORT AND ENERGY to communicate when you live with PTSD. And you are already spending that effort and energy on trying to manage yourself and your anxiety.

My boyfriend and I spent a little over a year learning to communicate, and almost broke up several times because we just couldn’t work out what wasn’t working. I haven’t dated much since my car wreck, because I just couldn’t deal with it. I also haven’t made many friends since – I have a lot of recent acquaintances, but not many new friends.

It took starting to walk away from a person I love dearly to finally get to the source of our problems. We couldn’t communicate successfully, and I was having a really hard time managing my symptoms so that I could have the space to figure out what was going on. For a couple of months I didn’t even want to, I wanted to just find someone else that has their shit together and wouldn’t be so hard to deal with. I wanted someone to fix it for me and not have to do the work. And had I done that, I would have taken my problems with me.

I was desperate for safety and security from a person who couldn’t offer that at the time, and I think that’s what we often do to set ourselves up to not succeed in relationships, PTSD or not. I had to be able to do that for myself, and I had to be able to trust myself to provide my own safety and security – after I had nearly died because I lost control of my car. It felt impossible, and I’m still not quite sure how we stayed together long enough to work things out, except that I think what we see in each other under all the layer of life is a person we really want to be with, because we know how amazing that person is and what they could be if they were able to break free of the past.

This is not true for everyone, and please don’t think I’m suggesting that you stay in a bad relationship. Had I not seen so much change, improvement, willingness to listen and desire for better in him, I would not have stayed with him. But I did see these things, and I am with someone who is willing to change and work on issues while being kind and working through the process of stopping numbing so that he can be more aware, more available and more present.

When we finally got to the communication issue, we had been arguing about it for a few months. He thought he was doing everything right – we talked on the phone nearly every day, we see each other when we can, he’s been working on himself – what more could I want? In the meantime, because I was feeling more and more isolated and on high alert, I had stopped being affectionate and barely even greeted him anymore. This bubbled up after a friend’s birthday dinner at which he felt he had been greeted more warmly by acquaintances than by me. He didn’t know how to tell me that I wasn’t showing enough affection (his love language), and not showing it in a way that he understood it as affection.

He was so checked out in our phone conversations and often in person that I didn’t read any of it as quality time (my love language). I was started to feel so isolated and detached that I started to do the same thing, and got even more upset when I felt that he was criticizing me by commenting on how little I talked. It was like talking to a void, so what was I supposed to do? And he was on his phone so much when we were together I felt that I might as well not have bothered. Of course I wasn’t showing affection, I wasn’t connected to this person I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE DATING.

When we were able to get this all on the table and figure out that we weren’t “speaking” to each other in a way that we could hear each other, we acknowledged what we were not doing right, took responsibility for it and agreed to work on it. What followed was a transformation that is like magic. We have both taken this seriously and worked on our own version of not showing up, and we have practiced this consistently every day. It’s far from perfect, but it has alleviated a lot of the stress and tension in our relationship, and has allowed us to have the space and energy to support each other through some tough and unexpected circumstances. We are kind and respectful, we check in with ourselves and each other, we take responsibility for managing anxiety and engaging each other’s love language, we use calming language, and we don’t yell or argue, we discuss and we trust ourselves and each other to tell the truth. It was like jumping off a cliff, and it was terrifying to think that if I did this, my efforts might not be matched. That I might be alone in making necessary changes, and then heartbroken because it didn’t work out and I had tried yet again.

Something funny happens when you take responsibility for yourself and your actions. We didn’t take on each other’s burdens, we took on our own, and we are able to carry our own. We support each other and we communicate that support openly and fully, but we don’t take responsibility for each other’s problems. We own our shit, we remind each other how to manage anxiety in a healthy way and we don’t use shaming or blaming language. It has been a life and relationship-changing experience, and it happened so fast that I’m still wondering how we were able to do this.

Probably a lot of Grace, but also communication and practice in being able to look into myself and tolerate what I see. Not everyone can do this, and if you aren’t able to do that yet, don’t feel bad. It has taken me nearly four years of recovery to be able to look at myself and be honest – and compassionate – about where I am, what I am dealing with and how to change it to be what I want to see. I was not able to do this work for a long time, and it hasn’t come easy. It is so worth it though to be able to partner with someone this deeply, this compassionately and with this much love, for him and for myself. And that’s where it came from first, in learning to love myself.


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