The Silent Strain

Dr. Samantha Morel June 24th, 2024

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex mental health condition that arises after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as combat, natural disasters, serious accidents, or other life-threatening events. The effects of PTSD extend beyond the individual, significantly impacting their relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. Understanding these impacts is crucial for providing effective support and interventions.

Delving Deeper

PTSD is characterized by a range of symptoms that fall into four main categories: 

  1. Intrusive memories- when the person experiences recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event, flashbacks, and/or nightmares
  2. Avoidance behaviors- when the person steers clear of places, people, or activities that remind them of the trauma
  3. Negative changes in mood + cognition might include, but not limited to:
    • Negative thoughts about oneself or others
    • Hopelessness about the future
    • Memory problems
    • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  4. Heightened arousal or reactivity- when the person is easily startled, feeling tense or “on edge,” having difficulty sleeping, and/or experiencing angry outbursts

These symptoms can vary in intensity and duration, often leading to chronic distress. For those in relationships with someone experiencing trauma-related symptoms, the unpredictable nature of the condition can create significant challenges.

Emotional Distance + Communication Barriers

One of the primary ways PTSD affects relationships is through emotional distance and detachment. Individuals with the trauma often struggle with emotional regulation, leading to withdrawal from loved ones. This emotional numbing can make it difficult for partners to connect, resulting in feelings of isolation and loneliness for both parties. The partner without PTSD may feel rejected or unloved, while the person with it may feel guilty for their inability to engage emotionally.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. However, individuals with PTSD may find it challenging to articulate their thoughts and feelings, particularly when discussing their trauma. This can lead to misunderstandings and frustration. Additionally, hyperarousal symptoms such as irritability and anger can escalate conflicts, making it difficult to resolve disputes calmly.

Trust + Safety Issues + Intimacy + Family Dynamics

Trust is often compromised in relationships where one partner has PTSD. The trauma underlying it frequently involves a violation of trust or safety, such as in cases of assault or combat. This can lead to hypervigilance and an exaggerated sense of danger, even in safe environments. Partners may feel they have to constantly reassure and prove their trustworthiness, which can be exhausting and strain the relationship.

Physical intimacy can be significantly affected by PTSD. The trauma-related symptoms such as flashbacks or body memories can make physical closeness and sexual activity distressing or triggering for individuals with PTSD. This can lead to a decline in sexual intimacy and a sense of disconnection between partners.

When PTSD affects parents, it can disrupt family dynamics and parenting practices. Children may not understand why their parent is emotionally unavailable or prone to anger, leading to confusion and insecurity. The non-PTSD parent may feel overwhelmed by the increased responsibility and emotional labor required to maintain family stability. This dynamic can create a cycle of stress and strain within the family unit.

When PTSD affects a child, but not the parent(s) in a household, it can create significant challenges for the family. Parents may struggle to understand and address the root cause of their child’s distress, leading to feelings of helplessness and frustration. The family dynamics can be strained, with siblings potentially feeling neglected or confused about the attention given to the affected child.

Coping Strategies + Interventions

Despite these challenges, there are strategies and interventions that can help mitigate the impact of PTSD on relationships. Therapy is a critical component. Individual therapy for the person with the disorder, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), can help address trauma-related symptoms. Additionally, couples therapy can provide a safe space for both partners to express their feelings, improve communication, and develop effective coping strategies.

Education about PTSD is also vital for both individuals suffering from the disorder and their loved ones. Understanding the nature of the disorder can foster empathy and patience, helping those affected to better navigate the challenges it presents. Support groups for both individuals with the disorder and their partners can offer community and shared experiences, reducing feelings of isolation. 

Practicing self-care is essential for both partners in a relationship affected by PTSD. The non-PTSD partner must prioritize their own mental health to avoid burnout and maintain their ability to support. Encouraging the partner with PTSD to engage in self-care activities, such as mindfulness or relaxation techniques, can help manage symptoms and promote overall well-being. By both partners actively participating in self-care, they can foster a healthier and more resilient relationship. 

Conclusion

The impact of PTSD on relationships is profound and multifaceted. Emotional distance, communication barriers, trust issues, and challenges with intimacy are common struggles faced by couples. However, with the right support and interventions, it is possible to navigate these difficulties. Psychologists play a crucial role in providing the tools and guidance needed to help couples strengthen their relationship and support each other through the complexities of this disorder. Understanding, empathy, and professional help can pave the way for healing and resilience, ensuring that relationships can endure and thrive despite the challenges posed by PTSD.

Stay well,

-Dr. M

 

For more about my opinion on how to help those with PTSD and other mental health diagnoses, read my blogs on Emotional Flooding and The Power of Playing.

 

Additional Resources:

  1. National Center for PTSD
  2. SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  3. PTSD Coach App: Available on iOS and Android
  4. Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1
  5. Psychology Today Therapist Finder 
  6. My past post on Links & Resources

Ready to take the step?

Contact Me

Samantha Morel, Ph.D.
contact@drsamanthamorel.com

832.304.8894 (call/text)






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