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PTSD & Relationships

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

"You're not old," I told Mike the other day, "you're aged, like cheese. Nobody wants old cheese, but they do want aged cheese." One is rotten while the other is crumbly and flavorful. Not that Mike is crumbly, yet. He just blinked at me and went about cooking dinner. There is almost nothing I can say to Mike that will offend him. It is a profound relief to have a partner like this, especially after walking on eggshells for years.

I've written about this before, but after one particularly long and negative relationship ended, I sought the help of a psychologist. I wanted to understand what was wrong with me (turns out, a lot) and how to avoid having another bad relationship. To be prescribed psychotherapeutic intervention, I first needed to meet with a psychiatrist who asked me not only about my relationship, but about my eating disorder, work environment, home life, and more. It was an interpersonal interrogation, which I highly recommend. Toward the end of our session, she gave me a questionnaire with twenty statements I was to either "agree" or "disagree" with. She stood near a window as I sat and circled my answers. When I handed it back to her, I had circled "agree" 18 times, and she looked me in the eyes and said, "Do you understand that you may have been in an emotionally abusive relationship?"

I didn't know what she meant, because I didn't know emotional abuse was a thing. She suggested I go to group therapy for abused partners, which I did, but only once. We met in an elementary school classroom after school hours had passed. The program was run by a local nonprofit, and an eclectic mix of people showed up. Perpetrators and recipients of intimate partner abuse, sat around in a circle for a 90-minute group therapy session led by a large woman with a dozen earrings and long auburn braids. Most people were there on a court order. Some people were there with their partners, but all of us did not neatly fit into desks designed for first graders.

The woman with long braids talked a bit about how negative relationships can cause a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) called post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS), which refers to a response an individual may have to one or more exposures to a traumatic event within the context of an intimate relationship. These traumatic events can be verbal, physical, emotional/psychological, or sexual.

I didn't think I necessarily belonged in this classroom, because like many people in negative interpersonal dynamics, I didn't think it was "bad enough." I was emotionally exhausted from the dynamic I'd recently exited and simultaneously relieved. Like many people, I wasn't sure how I'd ended up in this classroom or how I'd been reduced to walking on eggshells in the first place, constantly afraid to say or do the wrong thing.

As the woman with a dozen earrings and long braids explained the negative stress associated with any form of intimate partner violence, I thought about my ex would get drunk and pick fights with whomever was nearby; a stranger at a bar, his friends, a wall, me. I thought about how he lied constantly, about where he was and who he was with. How he didn't trust me, even though he had no reason not to. How he didn't like my friends and how he almost certainly didn't like himself. Maybe, I admitted to myself, I had been emotionally abused.

Although I was relieved when the relationship was over, I wasn't free from worry. Some nights, I would wake up in cold sweats as I relived his anger in my dreams. Even though he moved far away, I still looked for him in public, afraid he might turn down the cereal aisle when I least expected it.

I couldn't trust anyone for a while, not because I wasn't trying to, but because I was convinced that the world was not safe. I had let my guards down once, and ended up in a group therapy session for victims of intimate partner violence in a tiny elementary school desk, very far from home. I had my guards all the way up, and I kept them there for years.

PTRS is very similar to PTSD, and PTSD is used as the formal diagnosis. While PTSD can refer to any traumatic event, PTRS specifically refers to relationships. Signs/symptoms of PTRS include:

  • Sexual disfunction or lower libido

  • Insomnia

  • Blaming yourself for the abuse

  • Feeling generally unsafe

  • Anxiety and/or panic attacks

  • Feeling on edge or irritable

  • Distrust of other people

  • Sadness or depression

  • Flashbacks to traumatic events in the relationship

  • Uncontrollable anger towards the abuser

  • Fear of future abuse

I'm not a medical professional (I'm barely a professional of any kind), but I would highly recommend therapy for any form of PTSD. After the single group session I attended, I sought the help of a therapist for nearly two years. It was not my fault that I unknowingly endured a traumatic relationship, but it was my responsibility to understand how it happened, and how to have better relationships going forward.

P.S. Find affordable mental health counseling here, read about how psilocybin is helping veterans overcome PTSD here, or read more about PTRS here.


Sarah Rose

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