If you are dating or in a relationship with someone who suffers from PTSD, you may be wondering how you can help or what you can expect. You already know there is much to love about your partner and that they are much more than their trauma. You also see how they are hurting and struggling. There is absolutely hope, and there are effective ways to treat trauma and PTSD. Together, you can work towards more effectively managing symptoms and ultimately towards healing so that a new sense of security and freedom can be found in the present.
PTSD Is Not Just for War Vets
Many times I have spoken to a therapy client about a PTSD or complex PTSD diagnosis fitting and been met with confusion partly because of the media tendency to exclusively depict PTSD as something that happens as a byproduct of war. In addition to experiences like rape or serious accidents, anything that someone experiences as deeply threatening can cause PTSD-like symptoms. Another working definition of trauma is too much too soon or too little for too long — when our coping skills and nervous systems are overwhelmed or we experience physical or emotional neglect.
What Is Traditional PTSD?
Traditional PTSD can arise from a single traumatic event or traumas that happen in a short amount of time.
What Is Complex PTSD?
Complex PTSD is caused by chronically experiencing traumas, oftentimes in childhood (for instance, consistently not getting physical or emotional needs met or experiencing physical or sexual abuse or ongoing bullying).
Individuals who have complex PTSD are sadly more susceptible to developing traditional PTSD later from single incident traumas as they have fewer neural networks and experiences of safety internalized that can act as protective barriers.
Your loved one is likely to avoid anything that may act as a trigger for their traumas. They may avoid talking about their traumas or any people, places, or activities that could serve as unwanted reminders. Substance use or constantly trying to stay busy and distracted can also be ways to avoid unwanted thoughts or feelings.
Your partner may have intrusive memories of the event. This can look like flashbacks, nightmares, or unwanted images that negatively impact their life. This could also look like somatic intrusions — where their bodies suddenly have a response that feels similarly to how they felt during the traumatic moment.
If your partner is suffering from PTSD, they are likely to struggle with negative self-talk and a negative worldview generally. They may feel hopeless about the future. They could also struggle with memory, including not remembering many aspects of their trauma, as this can be an unconscious protective strategy. Trauma can lead to a sense of detachment from self and others and a sense of emotional numbness.
Someone with PTSD is likely to be easily startled, in a state of hyper-vigilance, and on the lookout for danger. Your partner may be more irritable or quick to have an angry outburst.
All of these symptoms can be viewed through the lens of nervous system dysregulation — or being stuck in states of fight, flight, and freeze or moving between all three.
The Gift of Co-regulation
As a partner to someone suffering from PTSD, you have the ability to greatly help your partner through something called co-regulation. As social creatures, we look for cues of safety and danger from others, particularly from those we are most strongly attached to (typically our parents when we are kids and our romantic partners when we are adults). Helping your partner to find calm in their nervous systems through co-regulation can be incredibly healing.
Ways to co-regulate and help soothe your partner:
● Use a calm, warm, and loving tone of voice
● Use gentle eye contact and smile at your partner
● Say simple and soothing statements to your partner that show you are with them to communicate safety:
○ “I see you.”
○ “I’m here for you.”
○ “I hear you.”
○ “I’m safe.”
● Use reflective listening skills and validate your partner when they share with you. Ex: “So what you're saying is __________? Is that right? That must be really hard.” “Tell me more”
● Help your partner know that it is okay to have big feelings and that you can stay with them as they feel. Resisting or suppressing feelings usually only makes them bigger and more persistent. Feeling emotionally attuned to and seen can be incredibly calming. Avoid toxic positivity or minimizing your partner’s feelings.
● Use supportive touch if your partner is receptive to this. This may look like hand holding, hugging, cuddling, or back massages (check to make sure these aren’t triggers).
● Breathe slowly together as you hug or hold hands and face each other. Try and make your breaths match each other and have extra long exhales (try breathing in for four, holding for seven, and breathing out for eight)
● Toss a ball back and forth together. This requires being in tune with one another, and the repetition and focus can be soothing. This can also help someone to escape a flashback and return to the present.
● Go on walks together.
● Ask: “Is there anything you need from me right now? How can I help?”
Learn Your Partner’s Triggers and Boundaries
Communicate with your partner about what is triggering for them so that you can best support them in those moments (for instance, parties where there are a lot of people). Understand if there are certain sexual or physical boundaries that could be triggering and respect any boundaries that your partner needs. Together, you may be able to soften those boundaries with exposure and with creating a new experience of safety in these moments, but this should be at your partner's pace and be highly collaborative. Maintain an open dialogue about what they may find helpful when triggered or when they experience flashbacks.
Help to Create a Calm Home Environment
Predictability, stability, and routines can be calming and help your partner’s nervous system to feel more settled. This may mean doing rituals together, like cooking or eating together at a consistent time, having morning coffee together, or going on after-work walks together. Don’t discount the impact that our senses can play in helping us to feel safe. Pay attention to lighting, play calming music, light scented candles, and minimize clutter.
Putting Your Own Oxygen Mask on First
Dating and loving someone with PTSD can be hard. It is painful to know that our loved one is suffering, and it can feel like a lot of pressure to fix it for them.
Know that there is only so much that you as their partner can do, especially if you are emotionally depleted or dysregulated yourself.
Take care of your own needs, work on learning self-regulation skills, and also confide in your partner and allow them to be a source of co-regulation for you when they are able to be. Lean on other supports in your life, like friends or family to help fill your own emotional cup.
It may feel hard to reach your partner at times if they are numb or retreating. If could feel like you are walking on eggshells if their PTSD manifests in a quick temper. You can both have empathy and also not allow yourself to be mistreated. You may need to set your own boundaries at times: “Please lower your voice. I can’t engage well with you when you're speaking like that to me. I will need to leave the room if you continue.”
You may benefit from your own therapy to help you more effectively navigate the stress and challenges that you may be facing in your relationship.
Encourage Your Partner to Get Professional Trauma Treatment
PTSD is serious, and as much as your love can be a source of healing, your partner likely needs professional trauma treatment to truly get the relief they need from their trauma symptoms and to not spend their life avoiding possible triggers.
As trauma lives in the nervous system and body, therapies that are not only cognitive but also body-based are needed for PTSD treatment. EMDR is a gold standard treatment for trauma. Other modalities and approaches that can be highly effective, especially when incorporated with EMDR, include parts work, attachment-based therapy (particularly for childhood trauma), and somatic approaches. Therapy that incorporates mindfulness, acceptance of feelings, as well as calming exercises (like breathing strategies) are also helpful.
At Rise Healing Center, we incorporate all of these modalities and approaches. We aim to treat trauma in the most effective way possible. If your partner lives in California, consider having them book a free consultation call to see if our practice might be a good fit for them.