Published On: March 10, 2022
Reviewed On: March 10, 2022
Updated On: July 14, 2023
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a confusing condition to navigate. Dating someone with PTSD can be even more challenging, especially if you haven’t experienced or know how to deal with PTSD. Of course, you want to ease your partner’s suffering, but it’s also important that you love and take care of yourself and ensure that your needs are being met, too. As much as you may want to, you can’t love this disorder away.
Armed with the right information, though, you can have a loving, committed, romantic relationship, even if PTSD is a third party in your partnership. It’s still possible to have a rewarding relationship while also finding the personal support you need.
“Dating someone with PTSD can feel confusing and painful at times; your partner has been through something very hard, and they’re doing the best they can. Speaking openly with your partner about their experiences in a calm manner and learning about PTSD together by reading books like “The Body Keeps The Score,” or working with a trauma-informed couples counselor, can support you as individuals, and as a couple, as you navigate through. It will take time to heal and integrate, but it is possible, and you can grow stronger as a couple.”
Research shows us that half of all people will endure at least one traumatic experience during their life, and an estimated 8% of them will end up with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are differing types of PTSD and PTSD affects each person uniquely. If you’re dating someone with trauma, you can expect to potentially witness one or more of the following symptoms of PTSD.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder are inclined to experience feelings and beliefs that can be difficult to handle. In many cases, they may feel unable to trust anyone, and they often feel misunderstood by everyone in their life. This can make sustaining a healthy relationship difficult (though not at all impossible).
Your partner may experience bouts of intense sadness, guilt, anger, or shame related to a past traumatic event. They may believe that there’s nowhere safe for them to be, even when there’s no direct or real threat in front of them.
PTSD is a mental health condition associated with anxiety. Many times, people with post-trauma stress disorder experience anxiousness and jitteriness. They may be easily startled and have difficulties concentrating, relaxing, or sleeping. They also might often seem “on-the-edge.”
PTSD is common amongst war veterans, first responders, and others who are exposed to repetitive instances of violence, death, or a different traumatic experience. Many people with PTSD have flashbacks where they mentally relive their past trauma. It’s not uncommon for them to have nightmares about the event or situations relevant to the event.
PTSD flashbacks can be triggered by almost anything, including a flashlight, a particular word or phrase, a specific date, or even a sound or a smell.
Some people with PTSD tend to avoid social interaction, even with their partners, when they’re experiencing intense symptoms. This is often done in an attempt to spare others from having to deal with their symptoms. Avoidance goes beyond this, though.
People with PTSD might avoid anything that reminds them of their past trauma. Avoidance can also manifest as substance abuse. Some people with post-trauma stress disorder isolate themselves from friends, family, and their romantic partners. They may even feel numb and cut off from reality like they’re detached from their bodies.
PTSD can cause your partner to experience physical symptoms associated with extreme anxiety, like stomach pain, nausea, sweating, and a fast heart rate.
Dating someone with complex PTSD means you need to try to understand how to help them navigate their symptoms when they occur. There are various ways you do this and help with their PTSD recovery, but it’s also important to remember that you’re not a mental health professional. If you want to learn how to help someone with PTSD, one of the best things you can do is to encourage them to seek professional help and learn about the different types of therapy for PTSD. Aside from that, you may also want to:
Before you take any of these tips, make sure to communicate with your partner about how you can best support them. if it’s an early relationship, they may feel vulnerable about sharing their PTSD diagnosis, triggers, etc. The more clear communication you have, the better you can be as a partner
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — and possibly anxiety medication — can be extremely beneficial for those living with PTSD. Learning effective coping skills can be instrumental in overcoming the symptoms that might be interfering in their life, and in your relationship.
Many possible things can trigger PTSD symptoms. If you’re dating someone with this challenging condition, it might be helpful if you understand specifically what triggers your partner.
Ask about their triggers, and then try to understand the roots so you can try to help keep the environment free of them. You can also do check-ins and ask about their feelings whenever you enter into new environments that could trigger symptoms.
Openly talking about, and helping your partner avoid their triggers can help you keep things more normal, calm, and healthy. It can also help you be prepared to respond in a positive way if you recognize your partner is being triggered.
Having a well-defined daily plan of activities provides structure and stability that can lessen the chance of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Consider scheduling routine events like cooking dinner at the same time each evening, taking walks together after dinner, or having coffee together after making the bed in the morning. The possibilities are endless, and even small things can make a big difference in perceived safety and security, especially for someone with PTSD.
It’s difficult to understand what someone with PTSD is going through — even when you’re extremely close to them. You need to know that it’s OK if you can’t fully relate to what your partner is going through at times, no matter how much you want to or how hard you try.
Still, patience and understanding are key elements in any successful relationship. This is true even when you’re dating someone with PTSD from abuse or another cause. Let your partner know that you’d like to be there for them, and that it’s important for you to understand them, but you’re having trouble relating. Reassure them that you believe their feelings are valid and uniquely challenging.
If you’re in an environment that triggers your partner, be ready with a Plan B that can pivot and change the energy of the situation. Tell them that you’re fine with changing plans because the priority is ensuring they’re in a safe, trigger-free environment.
Being overly positive when someone is experiencing PTSD symptoms can come across as if you’re trying to minimize the situation. To them, it might feel like you’re expecting them to switch gears and suddenly become happy. They likely can’t do that, even as much as they probably would like to. Instead of saying something like, “Cheer up, honey. We all have bad days,” try something more like, “I can see that you’re hurting, and I’m on your side however I can be.”
Dating someone with PTSD can be difficult. It can even be frustrating at times. Remember that post-traumatic stress disorder is a treatable mental health condition. It can be successfully managed in the long term, especially if you and your partner seek professional counseling, online therapy, PTSD treatment, and use goal-setting to anticipate and better-handle triggers as they occur.
Still, it’s vital to protect yourself. You shouldn’t become so engaged with taking care of your PTSD partner that you neglect your own individual needs in a relationship. Be sure to consider your own desires, and don’t hesitate to speak up about what you want. Above all, keep in mind that if, at any point, your partner’s PTSD symptoms feel too frequent, too intense, or otherwise too much to take, it’s OK for you to do what you need to in order to take care of yourself. However, if your partner is in danger, we recommend helping them get professional help, too.
Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC, was the Senior Clinical Manager at Talkspace until 2022, and is a clinical therapist licensed in CT and NY. A member of the American Psychological Association (APA), Kate completed her Master's degree in Counseling Psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She has over 10 years of experience working with adults on a variety of issues, specializing in eating disorders and working with people going through life stressors such as finding your purpose, career changes, and connecting with your intuition.