Experiencing a traumatic event can have a lasting effect on our mental functioning. People who develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can suddenly experience intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic event even though the event may have happened a long time ago. Sudden flashbacks or nightmares force them to relive the event. The distress they suffer can rewire their thinking and behaviour. They may become easily irritable, behave recklessly, and indulge in self-destructive behaviour. They may also sleep poorly and have difficulty concentrating. Unceasing distress can drain their mental resources, and the activities that they used to enjoy earlier may now feel wholly uninteresting and meaningless. People with PTSD tend to avoid recalling or sharing their thoughts about the event to avoid the associated distress. Consequently, they may also start avoiding the people, places, situations, and activities that remind them of the trauma.
PTSD makes it very difficult for the person to connect with and trust other people. It can easily spill into their relationship with their family, partner, and kids. It can sow resentment, misunderstanding, and conflict in the healthiest of relationships. If your partner suffers from PTSD, you must understand the intricacies of the disorder to maintain a happy and healthy relationship with them.
Impact on the Couple
PTSD affects everyone that the survivor holds dear. The changes that your partner may experience in their psychology can become disruptive to your relationship in many ways:
PTSD can make your partner less tolerant and easily irritable. They may get angry over trivial matters, causing frequent and unnecessary quarrels and outbursts of anger. This discord can create a negative environment at home, and you may live in constant fear that something you say or do might unintentionally provoke your partner. If you are experiencing domestic violence in your relationship, reach out to someone. If you do not feel comfortable calling the police to have criminal charges laid, call a mental health professional to help you create a safety plan for you and your family.
Emotional numbing Trauma strikes at the most vulnerable part of the self. As a way of shielding themselves from emotional pain, your partner may become emotionally distant and detached. Readjusting to normal life can thus become difficult. Even though they may love you as much as ever, expressing that love and affection could now seem challenging to them. This can also deprive them of their desire for sexual intimacy which can erode your bonding even further. However, this can also create over-sexualized behaviour in the person experiencing PTSD.
Avoidance behaviours PTSD spikes up the fear to a level where everything appears dangerous. Even when your partner is in a safe environment, they may be hyper-vigilant and looking out for danger. A regular trip to the beach or the movie theatre could make them excessively worried about your and their safety – this can turn fun and soothing activities into stressful events for both of you.
Social and financial issues If your partner finds it difficult to interact with other people, for the sake of their wellbeing you may altogether stop going to social events or outings. You may drift apart from your friends and family, and this isolation could make you feel lonely. PTSD also affects performance at work, so if your loved one has trouble holding down a job, it could affect the family income and strain your lifestyle.
Impact on Children
The psychological turmoil can wreck many other relationships. PTSD could affect the ability of your partner as a parent, and its impact on children can manifest in various ways:
Self-Blame and Guilt
Children may not be able to comprehend why their parent has suddenly become emotionally withdrawn. They may wonder if it was something they did that caused the rift and put the blame on themselves. Children can develop a lot of guilt if they know that their parent is struggling but have no way to help them.
If your partner gets angry often, the children may continuously fear their outbursts. They might develop anxiety and have difficulty regulating their emotions. Children may also grow resentful of their parent, as they don't understand why their parent gets so upset.
The behaviour of a person with PTSD can be unpredictable. This can cause instability in the parent-child relationship and children could also, then, have difficulty connecting with their peers. If the children do not get the care and nurturing they need, their self-esteem could diminish. Eventually, asking for help – from family, peers, or teachers – could become daunting, and they might not get the required support. Children pick up behaviours from their parents. If they start emulating their parent and adopting their beliefs, they may become aggressive, develop extreme self-doubt, or have difficulty controlling their impulsive behaviour.
How the Family Can Cope
Caring for a partner who has PTSD can take up significant time and be very exhausting — both physically and mentally. There are many healthy ways in which you could cope with the situation and take care of yourself:
Find a support system You can share your thoughts and concerns with family members or close friends. This way you could vent your frustration and receive the much-needed reassurance and encouragement.
Schedule some off-time If you spend all your time tending to your loved one struggling with PTSD symptoms, you could end-up stressed and burned out. Give yourself permission to catch up with friends or pick up a relaxing hobby. Doing this every week could help you stay grounded.
Maintain a routine Attending to a loved one that is struggling with PTSD symptoms may require some changes to your routine. Strive to maintain a daily rhythm while accommodating those changes. Routines can give you a sense of control and normalcy in life.
Ask for help You do not have to handle everything yourself. If you feel overwhelmed, there is no shame in asking friends or family to shoulder some responsibilities.
Get professional help Many spouses or family members feel that therapy is meant only for their loved one experiencing PTSD; However, therapy does not only help the person experiencing PTSD, it also assists the family members who are supporting this individual. After all, untreated PTSD often flows-over to other people and after time, this can create symptoms of PTSD in the individual's spouse and other family members. Through therapy, you can learn better ways to cope and practice self-care. You will also have a safe space to air out all your honest thoughts and ease your emotional distress.
How the Family Can Help
Your love and support are crucial in helping your partner heal. You can create a healthy and lively atmosphere for everyone while catering to your partner's needs. Here are some things you can do:
Separate actions from feelings PTSD can make your partner behave differently. Their actions might upset you or hurt you. But remember that it's the action and not the person that's bothering you. You could gently bring their attention to the action and share how you feel about it. However, if you are experiencing domestic violence (including physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual assault) seek immediately assistance from a mental health provider that can help you create a safety plan for you and your family.
Listen to your partner with an open heart that is non-judgemental If your partner gets a sense from you that you can carry their trauma without traumatizing you, they will open-up more to you about their experiences. However, not everyone who experiences trauma will want to talk to their partner about it (they either do not want to re-experience it themselves or they don’t want to traumatize you), try to be understanding and inform your spouse that you will be present for them whether or not they confide in you or not. If they will not confide in you for whatever reasons they have, you may recommend support groups or mental health professionals. If you are struggling with understanding PTSD or you are feeling left out of your partners’ world, it may be helpful to talk to a mental health professional for yourself or as a couple.
Spend time together People with PTSD isolate themselves without intending. If you spend some time together every day, it will strengthen your bond, and your partner will know they can rely on you in this difficult time and share their feelings with you.
Be affectionate Little gestures of affection can brighten your relationship and help your partner feel loved and cared for. A compliment, a small note, or even a smile can bring tons of positivity.
Identify triggers You may find that certain sounds, smells, places, or activities trigger your partner's PTSD symptoms. You can try to minimize their exposure to these triggers. In unavoidable situations, you may help divert their attention to something else so they feel at ease.
Find professional support PTSD is a complicated mental health disorder that trained professionals can treat. Therapy can help greatly in reducing PTSD symptoms, dealing with trauma, and building healthy beliefs. Your loved one may also receive medication that can help restore their emotional equilibrium and provide relief from anxiety and nightmares. You should encourage your partner to seek professional help so they could recover from their trauma and lead a healthy life.
Though PTSD can feel crippling for both the survivor and their family, getting therapy can help immensely in recovery. Our therapists at ReDiscover Psychological Services offer couples counselling and also family counselling. They will support you and your loved one through every stage of recovery and teach the healthy coping skills required to thrive. Book an appointment with us here to learn more about the treatment options available and get all your therapy-related questions answered.