Opinion: How PTSD Affects Relationships

Libby Shively McAvoy
Photo byPhoto by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Relationships are complicated enough but add one partner who has PTSD, and it can be brutal. Now, let’s say both people suffer PTSD — whoah. When both people have PTSD, it has been my experience that the relationship can provide comfort and security through understanding and empathy. However, that is not to say there are no significant hurdles to overcome.

Whether one or both partners are experiencing the effects of PTSD, it will affect the relationship. Sharing what triggers you in heightened emotional states and understanding each other’s stressors is critical. Without a clear understanding and transparency, one partner may trigger the other without knowing.

Often with PTSD, the only clear thing is the love for your partner and family. Yet, our actions push those closest to us away when there is a lack of understanding. We feel unlovable, no matter how much love is shown to us. 

My partner and I both have PTSD, but I have been healing for years and rarely get triggered. When he is triggered, he shuts down emotionally. His shutting down triggered my fears of abandonment. I was able to explain this, and he is much better at explaining when he experiences overwhelm, and he now pulls in toward me rather than pushing me away.

Whether one or both have suffered PTSD, the relationship can provide an incredibly healing and nurturing environment. It can also add a lot of stressors.

Common Problems with PTSD in Relationships

  • Lack of intimacy physically, emotionally, and spiritually
  • Anger can make them emotionally or physically abusive, shut down emotionally, or become critical of those around them.
  • Overly protective of loved ones.
  • Tends to catastrophize. 
  • Insomnia or oversleeping

Many people with PTSD suffer varying degrees of anxiety and depression and may also practice substance abuse. Please seek professional help if you or a loved one cannot function.

“When you shut down emotion, you’re also affecting your immune system, your nervous system. So the repression of emotion, which is a survival strategy, then becomes a source of physiological illness later on.” ~ Gabor Mate

Love is not all you need in a healthy relationship. We all innately need appreciation, awareness, respect, loyalty, kindness, and understanding in addition to love. Communicate your needs to your partner and help them through theirs, but avoid co-dependency.

People who have PTSD are in constant survival mode. Their autonomic nervous system is hyperaroused most of the time, making them jumpy and emotionally and physically sensitive.

“Every human has a true authentic self. Trauma is a disconnection from it, and healing is the reconnection to it.” ~Gabor Mate

Healing is a long process and will require significant patience from the partner of the person with PTSD. Do not take your partner’s behavior personally when he lashes out or chooses to sleep on the couch. Find the strength and empathy to know that they are suffering. Stay committed, especially through difficult times.

They may need to express their thoughts and feelings. Practice active listening with the intent to understand. Most of the time, they simply need to vent and are not looking for advice. Offering advice may weaken their sense of self-adequacy.

Feeling Overwhelmed
Everyone experiences overwhelm to a certain degree, but for those with PTSD, it is debilitating. Someone with PTSD is almost constantly in a state of fight or flight and expecting the worst. They are hypersensitive to stress because they continuously live in survival mode. You may have noticed a startle reflex in them.

Common Symptoms of PTSD

  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Panic over little things like being unable to find a belt or car keys
  • Feeling fatigued all of the time
  • Trouble completing tasks and focusing
  • Grief
  • Isolation

Being overwhelmed for long periods make self-care, like showering, difficult. They may skip meals and have insomnia.

For both people in the relationship, it is essential to understand the cause of overwhelm. Respond rather than react to each other. The person with PTSD may need extra help caring for themself and encouragement to finish tasks. Be sure this encouragement is applied in positive, gentle ways not to make the overwhelm feel worse.

My Message To Those Suffering From PTSD
Stop the all-or-nothing thinking. The world is not out to get you, despite what you may think. Get out of the victim mindset and take your power back. Realize how your behavior affects those around you.

The way that I have nearly healed my PTSD was a combination of therapy and self-study. Going within, gaining awareness and acceptance, and practicing forgiveness has helped me tremendously, and I hope it helps you as well.

PTSD and Sleep

An estimated 9 out of 10 people with PTSD have insomnia. Many use alcohol to fall asleep, which is counterintuitive because it worsens sleep quality. They wake and startle easily, and the lack of sleep makes it difficult to deal with everyday stressors.

Sometimes they need T.V. or other distractions to help ease into sleep. This can be disruptive for their partner. Sometimes they retreat to the couch to avoid their partner losing sleep, but this is also counterintuitive because, as a partner, we worry and do not sleep as well without them.

If your partner has nightmares or night terrors, they may wake up yelling or violently. It may be necessary or beneficial to you both to sleep in separate rooms until the person with PTSD can get on a better sleep schedule.

How to Improve the Relationship

  • Avoid being co-dependent and trying to solve all of your partner’s problems.
  • Learn their triggers and what eases their nerves.
  • Help comfort them when they are overwhelmed. 
  • Create a safe and accepting space and allow your partner to be alone when necessary.
“I have come to the conclusion that human beings are born with an innate capacity to triumph over trauma. I believe not only that trauma is curable but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening — a portal opening to emotional and genuine spiritual transformation. I have little doubt that as individuals, families, communities, and even nations, we have the capacity to learn how to heal and prevent much of the damage done by trauma.” ~Peter A. Levine


Healing from PTSD is possible, especially in a secure and nurturing relationship. People who have PTSD need stability and calm in their lives. They may create turmoil when they react to triggers, but they crave the opposite.

Be patient with yourself and with your partner. Remember, you are always on each other’s side and have each other’s back.

It is essential to surround yourself with a good support group, especially when your partner needs to be alone and yet you feel lonely. Perhaps no sadness is worse than being in the same room with the person you love and yet feeling discarded and lonely. This is not the intention of someone with PTSD; it is their coping mechanism.

When life seems heavy, try taking a break to do something playful, creative, or fun together, consider taking a short trip if you have the financial means, or plan a “staycation.” Completing a home project can also be a welcomed distraction.

I wish you both success in your relationship and in overcoming PTSD. Remember, personal awareness is the catalyst for change.

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Libby is a Personal Development and Relationship coach specializing in emotional intelligence. By blending motivational speaking, leading yoga and wellness retreats, and writing, she has mastered the art of living her best life while helping others.

Cincinnati, OH

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