Published On: January 30, 2023
Reviewed On: January 30, 2023
Updated On: October 31, 2023
Relationship PTSD, or post traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS), is a form of traumatic stress caused by abusive or unhealthy relationships. Relationship trauma can cause lasting damage to self-esteem and make it difficult to form close, healthy relationships with others. Keep reading to learn more about relationship PTSD.
Whether a relationship involves physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, any abusive relationship can be a source of deep and lasting trauma. Leaving the intimate relationship can potentially stop the abuse. Still, someone may continue to feel the effects of the abuse long after the relationship has ended. It can even prevent the person from engaging in another romantic relationship.
Relationship PTSD is a proposed category that describes trauma caused by abusive intimate relationships. While it’s common for people to push away their feelings or avoid thinking about their trauma, people with relationship post-traumatic stress disorder tend to revisit their trauma over and over again. They may even look for ways to blame themselves for the abuse they’ve experienced.
A true PTSD diagnosis requires people to show symptoms from 4 categories:
It’s possible to experience any of these symptoms after an abusive relationship, but many victims of intimate partner abuse don’t have avoidance symptoms. Instead, they may fixate on the past relationship and replay events in their head. PTRS also includes symptoms specific to relationship trauma, such as fear of an abusive partner.
Relationship trauma often causes additional symptoms distinct from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), but it’s possible to develop PTSD in relationships. Violence and threats of violence or death occur in many abusive relationships and can lead to PTSD. Whether a person has PTSD symptoms or symptoms more specific to PTRS, finding ways to heal from any abusive environment is essential.
Despite being widely accepted as “real” by the professional mental health community, relationship PTSD still isn’t included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Thus, it’s yet to be formally recognized as an actual, diagnosable condition. There are, however, several symptoms consistent with someone who’s suffered the trauma of an abusive relationship.
Even though there isn’t a documented, agreed-upon list of symptoms yet, experts do believe that the following is likely:
Symptoms that cause someone to re-experience the trauma of their abuse are categorized as intrusive symptoms. Examples of these symptoms include:
Traumatic stress can put your body in a perpetual state of high alert. These symptoms are your body’s way of preparing you to respond to the threat of abuse. Symptoms may include:
While PTSD symptoms can strain many aspects of life, PTRS can cause symptoms more specifically related to current relationships. These symptoms might include the following:
What causes PTSD in relationships? While someone may develop acute or chronic PTSD after a single traumatic event, relationship PTSD is generally caused by repeated abuse trauma. It can be the result of any type of abuse.
Expert Insight“There is not just one incident, but different incidents over the course of time in an abusive relationship that may cause PTSD. Incidents experienced in abusive relationships can cause PTSD. These may include physical, mental, verbal, or sexual abuse. When a person goes through any of these traumatic experiences, the brain creates a mental record that warns the individual in the future, making it difficult to build trust or form relationships.”
Physical abuse occurs when a partner uses force against you or threatens you with bodily harm. It can include throwing objects, pushing, slapping, scratching, choking, or physically restraining a partner. Physical abuse often begins with a single incident but can escalate over time.
Sexual abuse involves forcing or coercing someone to engage in sexual activity if they don’t consent or if they revoke their consent. It can also describe behavior intended to control someone’s sexual activity, like tampering with or hiding birth control. Examples of sexual abuse include unwanted touching or kissing, pressuring someone to engage in sexual acts, or sexual violence against someone who didn’t consent.
Emotional abuse uses emotions to frighten, manipulate, or control another person’s behavior. Examples of emotional abuse include:
When someone has post-traumatic relationship trauma, it can result in them viewing many interactions through the lens of abuse. These interactions could cause PTSD symptoms. There are many triggers for PTSD in relationships, including:
Expert Insight“Triggers may include sounds, smells, places, or people. When the person is in touch with any of these, their response can vary depending on the level of trauma experienced and the state of mind of the person at the time.”
While relationship PTSD can make it difficult to form connections with others, there are ways to manage your symptoms and heal from the trauma. When it comes to how to deal with PTSD, first, work to develop coping skills and get the help you need. You can eventually recover from the abuse that you’ve experienced.
Expert Insight“Processing, understanding, and working with the negative thoughts and feelings that result from relationship PTSD can help the person cope with the symptoms. Having the guidance of a therapist can make this process easier and sometimes faster.”
The trauma of an abusive relationship can be overwhelming and have a lasting impact on your mental health. Talkspace is an online therapy platform that makes getting help easy, convenient, and affordable.
When you use Talkspace, you’ll be connected with an online therapist who’ll help you discuss, process, and, eventually, heal from your trauma. A mental health professional can help you manage your feelings and build healthy relationships with others so you don’t have to live with the aftermath of an abusive relationship.
Debra Vandervoort et al. Current Psychology volume 23, pages68–76 (2004). Accessed October 25, 2022.
Orzeck TL, Rokach A, Chin J. Journal of Loss and Trauma. 2010;15(3):167-192. doi:10.1080/15325020903375792. Accessed October 25, 2022.
Rakovec-Felser, Zlatka. Health psychology research vol. 2,3 1821. 22 Oct. 2014, doi:10.4081/hpr.2014.1821. Accessed October 25, 2022.
Cynthia Catchings is a trilingual licensed clinical social worker-supervisor, mental health consultant, professor, and trainer for federal law enforcement agencies. Cynthia has over 15 years of experience in the mental health profession. She is passionate about women’s mental health, life transitions, and stress management. Her clinical work, advocacy, and volunteer service have focused on working with domestic violence survivors and conducting mental health research in over 30 countries.