There's a lyric from a Ben Folds song I've always loved. It goes like this:
Oh no, love just leaves you bruise
If you wanna know, find something to lose.
I love this lyric because it points to the fact that the risk to care for somebody has potential to bring about the highest amounts of joy as well as the highest amounts of pain. When we think of our healthy relationships, we are reminded of what makes this life worth it. Whether that is with family members, a romantic partner, or people from our social support network, I think that most would agree that relationships are the most important part of life. But when we find ourselves in a toxic relationship either with an abusive partner or experiencing relationship problems that begin to affect our mental health, it shakes the core of who we are. If one is able to gain the space to leave such an abusive relationship, they might find themselves in a place of experiencing post-traumatic relationship syndrome.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Mental health professionals are trained to gain a number of insights in their initial session. One of the questions that I always ask is if my client has had any past trauma or past abuse. More often than not, my client will respond with a resounding "no," but then go on to explain the emotional abuse they experiences as a child, domestic abuse they witnessed between their parents, and relationship abuse that was present in their past relationship. When we begin to discuss a diagnosis of PTSD, there is often some push back as the word can feel too heavy and brings upon feelings of shame. People think of military veterans having emotional responses to loud noises or a sexual assault that took place in a single event. However, the diagnostic criteria that is needed in order to receive a PTSD diagnosis is much more broad.
Traumatic experiences can come in all shapes and sizes ranging from a car accident to experience of a natural disaster to relationship trauma. For the sake of this article we will be focusing on romantic relationships.
If you are looking for a simple definition of relationship PTSD, I would go with the following; memories of any previous relationships that make it so we no longer trust ourselves to make informed decisions about who to trust in an intimate relationship. One of the biggest areas that the experience of trauma will affect is our ability to trust ourselves. At one time, the relationship we are remembering was a new relationship that seemed exciting. And if we chose that relationship in the past, what does that say about our ability to choose relationships in a healthy way in the future? This is what I believe to be the big difference between having some bad memories and experiencing PTSD symptoms.
It is also important to note that this does not just have to show up in the form of abusive behavior or other forms of aggression. We might even experience symptoms of PTSD from dating somebody who is an extreme withdrawer. Our body starts to process that any sign of conflict might lead to withdrawal, which may not feel as if there is an imminent sense of danger, but rather that the sense of safety that the relationship will even continue is at risk. When this is the case, we might learn that the best way to navigate conflict is to have no conflict at all, and we will bring these avoidance symptoms into our next relationship.
Similarly I find that clients do not recognize they were in an abusive relationship until they end up in a safe environment with their current partner. They will find themselves with somebody new and realize that they are enacting old patterns in their new relationship, even though the behavior and cycles of that relationship do not warrant such a response. This is often times the signal that somebody needs to get some professional help as to not let the wounds from a previous bad partner influence the potential of a health relationship.
What To Do
There are so many different ways to heal from having had a traumatic relationship. I am not one of those therapists that believes everybody needs to see a therapist. If we feel properly resourced and equipped to take on the task in front of us and our emotional reactions are diminishing, then that's great! But if you are finding yourself ruminating, experiencing intrusive thoughts, feeling you can no longer trust yourself, or believing that relationships are no longer safe, it might be time to do some work. We have to recognize that the work in these situations is about us. This is one of the hardest pills to swallow when it comes to treatment options. And it is paramount to note that this is not to shift the blame onto somebody who has been victimized. It is a recognition and acceptance of the past with a focus on integrating our entire self going forward.
If you find that you are bringing old wounds into your previous relationship (which we pretty much all are going to do in one way or another) doing some couples therapy can be a great option. It can help our partner to understand that what they might see as a minimal behavior triggers a much different emotional response in our bodies.
If you are looking for a support group to aid in your healing process, Thrive offers two different trauma groups in person. Additionally I would recommend either our course on boundaries, the window of tolerance, or attachment as supplemental resources for your therapeutic journey.
Of course, if you are already signed up for Thrive's membership all of these courses are included at no additional cost to you.