Relationship PTSD Is A Real Thing — Here’s What You Need To Know About It

If you’re currently in or just got out of an abusive relationship, you might be negatively affected by the experience for a long time. Post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a toxic relationship is real—here’s what you need to know about relationship PTSD and how it can affect your life.

  1. Regular post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a well-known psychological disorder. We often associate the disorder with those who have served in the military and have experienced intense trauma, but these aren’t the only individuals that can experience PTSD. You can also get the disorder from childhood physical abuse, from sexual abuse or rape, physical assault, or threatened physical assault, or from an accident. And yes, you can also get a form of the syndrome from abusive relationships.
  2. It can happen to anyone. A very close friend of mine has it. She was in an emotionally abusive relationship and she still suffers from it even though it’s been years since she’s been with her ex. Classifying it as PSTD sounded overly dramatic to me when she first told me about it. Maybe I’m an insensitive friend, but I’ve always associated PTSD with people who have seen war, which is much more traumatic to me than a bad relationship. Turns out it’s real, but it’s not exactly the same as PTSD.
  3. Relationship PTSD is called post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS). Technically, relationship PTSD is called PTRS because it’s a separate disorder. PTRS is an anxiety disorder that occurs specifically after a damaging intimate relationship. It can be caused by sexual, physical, or emotional abuse by a partner.
  4. It’s separate from PTSD for a reason. PTRS occurs as a result of severe trauma like in PTSD, but there are significant distinctions between the two. They have different causes as already mentioned. The other main difference is in the way individuals cope with their trauma. In PTSD sufferers, they often repress traumatic memories, which is called “avoidance coping.” In those with PTRS, it’s the opposite—sufferers often think obsessively about past trauma, so it’s called “emotion-focused coping.” Since victims are affected differently, the treatment for the two syndromes is also approached in distinct ways.
  5. Unfortunately, abusive relationships are extremely common. According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline website, about three in ten women and one in ten men have been physically or sexually abused by a partner and have had trouble functioning as a result. Also, nearly half of all people in the US have experienced “mental aggression” by a romantic partner at some point in their lives. These numbers prove that abuse in relationships is common and that PTRS should be taken seriously.
  6. You might be affected before you realize what’s happening. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. Chronic verbal or emotional abuse alone can trigger PTRS. For instance, when victims are consistently torn down by their partners over a period of time or are threatened with consequences if they decided to leave, they can develop the disorder. The abuse may not even be very obvious at first and could escalate slowly into more intense emotional abuse or sexual and physical violence.
  7. The symptoms of PTRS are awful. Sufferers often have anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and extreme mistrust of others. Their trauma can dominate their thoughts and dreams. They also experience extreme mental distress when near their perpetrator. PTRS affects how they function in their everyday lives because they have trouble focusing, difficulty sleeping, and they’re constantly stressed and fearful.
  8. My friend experiences many of these symptoms from her ordeal. I’ve witnessed her having an anxiety attack in the presence of her ex. They have children together so she has no choice but to interact with him sometimes. He’s always trying to make her life a living hell. She has insomnia and nightmares and is continually afraid of what he’ll do next. It makes it even harder for her when people don’t understand it. I used to be one of those people until I learned more about it. Now I know that it’s a very real condition and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.
  9. It affects their future relationships. Because victims have had their trust badly broken, they have trouble in their subsequent relationships. They’re often immediately mistrusting and will constantly question people’s intentions. They also suffer from intimacy issues and can develop sexual dysfunction as a result. Because they misjudged their ex, they have trouble trusting their own judgment as well because they were fooled before. Their self-esteem is usually very low.
  10. Recovery can be difficult but it’s doable. PTRS is less well-known and less studied because it’s a newer syndrome so treatment isn’t as established. They usually need the help of a therapist though. Sufferers often think about their past trauma too much, so they’re taught to utilize “desensitization techniques,” which help them condition themselves to respond better when their anxiety is triggered. It may not be easy, but the good news is that it’s very possible to recover. You don’t have to allow a past relationship to rule your life.
Kelli loves to write about lots of different topics, especially relationships, parenting, health, and fitness. She is excited to share her experiences!