PTSD and Relationships

ptsd and relationships

When a loved one suffers a major trauma, it’s natural to comfort them. But if weeks or months go by with no sign of the affected party “getting over it,” your sympathy may dissipate, and you may lose all desire to continue a relationship with someone who’s become a stranger anyway. This is a particular danger if the trauma victim develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

About PTSD

Most trauma victims escape PTSD: more than half the population endure some traumatic experience in their lifetimes, while only 7 or 8 percent ever have the disorder. Still, it’s impossible to be certain whether (or how) any individual will be stricken. It’s known that:

  • Severity of PTSD symptoms varies
  • Men are 20 percent more likely than women to experience trauma, but women are 2.5 times more likely to develop PTSD
  • A strong human support network, plus time to rest and recuperate, can lessen the chances of the disorder’s developing.

If someone already has PTSD, they still need human support to minimize damage and speed recovery. Which makes it doubly important to understand, and be prepared to deal with, the problem.

If Your Loved One Has PTSD

When you’re close to someone, your own feelings are tied up in whatever they go through. You’re likely to experience sympathetic shock, grief, even physical pain on hearing the news. In the aftermath, you weep along as your loved one weeps on your shoulder. You struggle with fatigue and depression of your own, even as you take on extra duties to clear space for your loved one to recuperate.

Normally, this proves temporary and bearable. When someone’s pain progresses to the PTSD stage, however, even those they’re closest to can find empathy being replaced by:

Bewilderment. “I’ve done everything I can think of. Why is she still crying all day?”

Guilt. “I should do more. I shouldn’t be impatient with him after what he’s been through. I should have been there to protect her so the trauma wouldn’t have happened.”

Resentment. “What happened wasn’t my fault—I’m sick of his taking it out on me. She just wants everyone to keep pampering her forever. Traumatized or not, he knows better than to drink so much.”

Despair. “He’s beyond hope. The only way I can save my own sanity is to ignore him/stay away from home more/leave him altogether.”

There are other ways that specific manifestations of PTSD can hurt relationships. If the trauma involved a sexual assault on an intimate partner, she or he may start avoiding all intimate contact—including with you—or you may feel that your “private territory” has been ruined by the “invasion.” And whatever the original trauma, close to half of people with PTSD also have substance use disorder—frequently developed from attempts to numb the PTSD via self-medicating—which is itself a major damager of relationships. People with substance use disorder typically:

  • “Sneak” their substances in private, and lie about the extent of use
  • Spend money needed for other purposes on drugs
  • Humiliate or injure their loved ones through intoxicated behavior
  • Deny there’s a problem, and become defensive and standoffish toward anyone who insists there is.

What to Do about It

Though it’s tempting to simply distance yourself from the mess, that won’t help your loved one—and it won’t really help your own guilt and pain. There are effective ways to help someone recover from PTSD.

First, recognize this isn’t something you can fix. PTSD (not to mention substance addiction) is a medical illness that requires professional treatment. Urge your loved one to see a specialist—and, whether or not she agrees immediately, get counseling for yourself and other family members. You’ll need it to resolve your own feelings and determine the best ways to help.

Take steps to reduce the risks of serious consequences. Especially, know about suicide dangers and how to minimize them.

Take care of yourself. Whatever your loved one needs, you can’t supply it if your own health is falling apart. Always leave yourself time for rest and favorite leisure activities. Hire a professional housekeeper or caretaker if need be.

Find the middle ground between avoiding listening to your loved one, and prodding for details she doesn’t want to share. Every PTSD patient has their own comfort zones for when talking helps and when it hurts. No matter how pained or curious you are, let them take the lead.

Make up your mind to stay in this for the long haul—and to let the timeline work itself out. Trying to set your own schedule for someone else’s healing will only do the relationship additional harm.


PTSD (or any other severe mental illness) is bad enough on its own. Combined with substance addiction, which frequently begins by using drugs to “cope” with the PTSD, it’s a new level of struggle. The road to recovery begins with acknowledging and treating both illnesses. Contact BRC Recovery (866-291-0134) to learn about our dual diagnosis treatment options.