Annmarie O'Connell, LPC, CADC, NCC
Trauma leaves a lasting impact on many facets of a survivor’s life. It can fundamentally shift someone’s world view. For example, it can impact a person’s ability to provide for themselves financially due to the symptoms they may be still experiencing. This could include receiving a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis or features of this disorder. Some of these include re-experiencing of the traumatic event, avoidance of anything that may remind them of the traumatic event, emotional numbing, and hyperarousal or being “triggered” followed by symptoms of depression.
People struggling with PTSD in intimate relationships often deeply struggle with trust, secure attachment, sexual intimacy, emotional closeness, effective communication and trauma memories or flashbacks. For someone experiencing PTSD in an intimate relationship, becoming vulnerable and letting their guard down after these past traumas may feel like they are susceptible to reexperience something equally as damaging despite caring for their significant other very deeply. This conflict of loving a significant other, yet pushing them away due to very real symptoms that occur because of PTSD, creates additional pain and barriers within that relationship that often cause excessive patterns of miscommunication and violent or damaging reactions to stimuli or a specific trigger. It can be difficult for a partner on the other side of PTSD to manage their own reactions and emotions, maintain their own boundaries, while still providing support to their partner. One of the main symptoms of the aftermath of a PTSD episode is shame. Shame that the person reacted to something totally unreasonable and caused major instability in their relationship and maybe even engaged in verbal abuse, physical abuse, or emotional abuse during the trigger. It is a very difficult notion that what helps a person with PTSD mitigate their symptoms is social support. Therefore, the very thing that they require is often what is brutally sabotaged in the wake of triggers and emotion regulation deficits.
So how can we manage this? Therapy is a great way for individuals and couples to work through the aftermath of these triggers and to determine how to better respond to them in the moment, despite how difficult it may be. Couples can learn to communicate and be vulnerable with each other regardless of past trauma and be honest about their feelings and what they are truly experiencing. They can build problem solving skills while honoring each other with respect and compassion. Getting caught in these shame cycles of PTSD can also really minimize the amount of playfulness, joy, free-spiritedness that is often a good thing for both parties in a relationship. Building the good parts of the relationship while also navigating the broken ones will help each party feel validated and heard.
For the individual, therapy can assist in providing coping strategies for triggers and building a support system to manage their PTSD. This may include repairing relationships within the family system or creating a support system via a local community group. It could also be both! A therapist may also include anger management, stress management, coping skills, communication skills training, and parenting skills training to the treatment plan. And remember: the therapist and PTSD survivor relationship can be a much needed reprieve from isolation, shame, and a way to receive practical support from the stress of life and help you remember that you are capable and worthy of feeling normal in a relationship despite the trauma you have experienced.