Disclaimer: The following suggestions regarding how to date someone with PTSD may not be helpful for every person who has PTSD. Please contact a licensed therapist who can better help your individual needs, or visit websites like NAMI and NIMH, which offer treatment options and various resources.
As someone living with PTSD, dating can be extremely triggering at times. Whether I'm in the grocery store with my partner or being intimate with him at home, my trauma always comes up in some form. Sometimes my mind goes numb, sometimes I can’t speak, and sometimes I just feel frozen.
Basically, I live in a constant state of flight or fight mode, meaning my body and mind perceive everything to be a potential threat. It’s as if I’m waiting for something bad to happen at any given moment.
But before we dive deeper into how PTSD and dating intersect, let's start with the basics.
First off, what is PTSD?
For those of you who don't know, PTSD stands for post traumatic stress disorder. It's a mental health disorder that occurs after an individual experiences or witnesses a terrifying or traumatic event themselves, learns a loved one experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, or is in whatever way exposed to other people's trauma, says psychotherapist Elizabeth Beecroft, LMSW.
And while PTSD may be most commonly associated with military experience, it can also stem from racial trauma, sexual assaults, watching videos or witnessing individuals being hurt, domestic abuse, and more.
“PTSD can last for months or even years with symptoms that include flashbacks of the event, avoidance of triggers, nightmares, severe anxiety or depression, and other intense emotional or physical responses,” says Beecroft.
It's important to note that everyone's PTSD looks different depending on an individual's circumstance, though—so what may be a trigger for one person could very possibly not be a trigger for another.
What can you expect when dating someone with PTSD?
Again, every situation is different, but in some cases dating someone with PTSD can take a real toll on a relationship, as there may be decreased intimacy, extreme clinginess, and/or isolation patterns. Someone with PTSD might have a hard time managing their emotions, as startled responses, extreme irritability, bouts of sadness and crying, panic attacks, and avoidance behaviors are all common ways of coping with the disorder, says psychologist Juli Fraga, PsyD.
For some people, PTSD can even make you hesitant to go to specific places or avoid certain people, says Douglas.
Typically speaking, people who go through PTSD often detach from reality, whether it's because they're experiencing flashbacks or they're just struggling with symptoms of depression, anxiety, or trauma. And if your partner with PTSD experiences flashbacks or struggles with another similar symptom, this could reduce the amount of intimacy in a relationship—potentially creating conflict for the other partner who feels like their needs are not being met.
But while this all sounds very negative, the good news is that people with PTSD might be more in-tune with their emotions and triggers if they are in treatment, says Beecroft. This means there’s a good chance they already have a healthy sense of self-awareness.
How to build a healthy relationship with someone who has PTSD
Though it may be challenging at times, it is totally possible to create a healthy relationship with someone who has PTSD. “The key is understanding, clear communication, and compassion,” says Douglas.
First and foremost, you should set up times throughout the week to check-in with each other. You can ask questions like: "How are you feeling?" and "Is there anything you want to bring up or address that happened this week?" since communication is key in navigating any type of relationship.
It is also beneficial to establish a healthy routine—maybe by cooking, cleaning, and/or eating together, says Beecroft. “Structure and routines help provide a sense of safety and security. Minimizing stress also allows for your partner to be in a relaxing environment where self-care can be embraced.”
Dating someone with PTSD may also require you to be patient and flexible. For example, sometimes people with PTSD may need to alter plans, especially if they're triggered and having a hard day, says Fraga.
In general though, just be a loving partner: “Offer to provide space when they need it, avoid giving advice or feedback that they didn’t ask for it, and don't minimize their feelings or tell them how they should feel," says therapist Patrice N. Douglas, PsyD.
When your partner is struggling or having an off day, know that it’s not personal. Someone with PTSD may not be able to "talk" about their trauma or may not want to at that moment. Respect their boundaries.
How to support a partner with PTSD
You can start by educating yourself on your partner's PTSD symptoms and treatment options, as this can be a way to work through the PTSD together, says Beecroft. This might help you anticipate and more effectively help your partner manage triggers when they occur.
But don't just ask your partner about their triggers; actively try to understand them. Ask yourself things like: "Is this environment safe and comforting for my partner?" and "How will my partner respond to this, based on how I've seen them previously respond?"
The more you communicate about the symptoms, effects, and treatment options of a partner’s PTSD diagnosis, the better you'll be at offering support.
Another thing: Since people with PTSD may tend to isolate or withdraw themselves, something as seemingly small as spending quality time with them without your phone around can be comforting. And, as with most things in life, being a good listener and practicing active listening skills makes a big difference.
Couple's therapy is another option, as this could help you both communicate more effectively with a licensed, trained professional walking you through it, but don't forget about individual therapy too. This will give you space to process your partner's emotions without internalizing it.
And when you notice your partner is having a particularly tough day, it's best to avoid "feel better" platitudes and statements laced with toxic positivity. Instead of saying things like, "What you're experiencing isn't so bad" and "I'm sure this experience will only make you stronger," say something like, "I'm sorry you're in so much pain. I'm here for you."
Traumatized people may be anxious that their trauma will push others away because it's "too much" for others to handle, says Fraga. So most importantly, reassure your partner by telling them they are safe, you’re there for them, and you’re not going anywhere.
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