Maintaining any healthy relationship can sometimes feel like searching for your partner in a corn maze. When one or both partners involved is dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can feel more like navigating a corn maze while wearing blindfolds. But just because the effects of PTSD can make you feel lost in a relationship, doesn't mean it's doomed to fail.
It's not just military combat veterans that suffer from PTSD. Approximately 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, and up to 20 percent of these people go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Looking at the numbers, if even half of that 20 percent who develop PTSD are involved in romantic relationships, then the number of couples coping with symptoms of PTSD can reach upwards of 15 million people. That's a lot of people wandering blindly through a corn maze, struggling to keep their connection alive.
When Trauma Wears Love Down
Some of these people are my clients who come to me for PTSD counseling. One such couple was Dawn and Jerome.*
Dawn was a survivor of a fatal car crash that left a drunk driver dead. Struggling with her PTSD that developed after this event, her depression made her emotionally exhausted and she often felt like she had nothing left to give Jerome. Jerome, on the other hand, was frustrated with being the "caregiver" in the relationship. He couldn't see why Dawn couldn't just move on and felt like his own needs weren't being met.
They were at an impasse and even began to consider separation. How could Dawn and Jerome, and hundreds of other couples like them, find their way back to each other?
5 Simple Ways to Reconnect
To be fair, caregivers like Jerome are likely to take on a lot of the relationship maintenance as their partners cope with PTSD. However, in order to get out of the maze of PTSD together, there has to be willingness from both parties.
Whether you're a survivor of PTSD, like Dawn, or the caregiver in the relationship, like Jerome, try any of these simple exercises to stop trauma from disrupting your journey together:
- Find common ground. There will be plenty to argue about and disagree over. Make an effort to find pleasurable activities in which you can engage together. This may not look the way it did prior to trauma (if you knew each other then) and that's okay. The real objective is to find something to experience together that is pleasant and unrelated to post-traumatic stress.
- Embrace silence. Sometimes, the most meaningful moments happen without words. Whether you take a walk in nature, sit on your back porch, pray, or meditate being together in silence and feeling each other's kind and loving presence can create a moment of connection that transcends PTSD issues.
- Hug often. Neuroplasticity (your brain's ability to change and a critical aspect of PTSD recovery) increases in the presence of certain hormones, especially oxytocin, which is well-known as the "bonding" hormone. When you hug someone your brain automatically releases oxytocin, which means that a hug can not only create an instant connection but also a present-moment sense of bonding and increase positive hormones.
- Suspend judgement. In the presence of PTSD, it's easy to become enormously critical—of yourself and of your partner. Rather than wishing you can change something about the other person, accept them where they are in their journey. Recognize that you're both doing the best you can.
- Look for opportunities for fun. Plan for and be open to the surprise of having a good time. It won't mean that PTSD is gone or that there won't be issues tomorrow, but enjoying time together will give you the sense of connecting to each other in a neutral/feel-good space. This can be life-sustaining for the relationship and life-affirming for both partners, providing a brief glimpse into what made you love each other to begin with.
When PTSD disorients a relationship, it's hard to give romance a chance to find its footing again. However, I know for a fact that love can survive because I am a PTSD survivor myself. During my recovery, my partner had to put up with my bouts of nightmares, insomnia, sleep-deprivation, depression and isolationism. Regardless, he stood beside me throughout my healing journey. Our most important action? We both believed things could get better and were committed to figuring out how to make that happen in large and small ways.
Dawn and Jerome have a long way to go in getting through the maze and healing their relationship, and you and your partner might be in the same exact boat. However, if you both aim to maintain your connection with any or all of the above tips, you can become partners of a team that's destined to find each other again.
*Name and identifying characteristics have been changed.
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Date of original publication: February 18, 2015
Updated: September 20, 2016