How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
There’s nothing that can make you feel as powerless as living with a partner with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For three years, I was in a relationship with a man who experienced PTSD symptoms daily. My ex, D., was a decorated combat veteran who served in Afghanistan three times. The toll it took on his soul was heartbreaking.
His flashbacks and dreams of the past drove him to be hypervigilant, fear strangers, and fend off sleep to avoid nightmares.
Being the partner of someone who has PTSD can be challenging — and frustrating — for many reasons. You want to take away their pain, but you’re also dealing with your own guilt at needing to care for yourself, too.
You want to have all the answers, but you often have to come to grips with the reality that this is a condition that can’t be loved out of someone.
That said, understanding the disorder can help make it easier for both you and your partner to communicate and set healthy boundaries.
I spent years trying to understand how PTSD affected my partner, and, ultimately, had to walk away from our relationship. Here’s what I learned.
1. PTSD is a very real illness
PTSD is a debilitating anxiety disorder that occurs after a traumatic event, like war combat. Experts estimate 8 million adults have PTSD to varying degrees each year in the United States. Like depression or other mental and behavioral issues, it’s not something that a person can snap out of.
Symptoms arise anywhere from three months to years after the triggering event. In order to be characterized as PTSD, the person must exhibit these traits:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom (like flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts). D. installed security cameras in his home to monitor threats and had terrible nightmares.
- At least one avoidance symptom. D. didn’t like crowds and would avoid activities that included a lot of people.
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms. D. had a very short fuse and would get frustrated easily when he wasn’t understood.
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms, which includes negative self-esteem, guilt, or blame. D. would often say to me, “Why do you love me? I don’t see what you see.”
D. once described his PTSD to me like a constant waiting game for ghosts to jump from around the corner. It was a reminder that bad things happened, and that that feeling might never stop. Loud noises made it worse, like thunder, fireworks, or truck backfire.
There was a time we sat outside watching fireworks, and he held my hand until my knuckles turned white, telling me the only way he could sit through them was to have me next to him.
For us, these symptoms made basic relationship things difficult, like going out to dinner to a place that was new to him.
And then there was the skittishness and aggression, which are common for people with PTSD. I couldn’t come up behind him without first giving him warning — especially when he had headphones on.
He also had explosive outbursts of rage, which left me in tears.
He was the softest, most complimentary man 90 percent of the time. But when he felt wounded or scared, his cruel side became consuming. He knew my buttons to press — my insecurities and weaknesses — and he had no shame using them as a weapon when he felt angry.
2. People with PTSD often feel unlovable
D. is beautiful — inside and out. Not only is he strikingly handsome, he is smart, caring, and compassionate. But he didn’t feel he was deserving of love, or even remotely loveable.
“Traumatic experiences, in addition to being scary and impacting our sense of safety, very often have a direct effect on our cognition,” says Irina Wen, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Health.
“Usually those effects are negative. As a result, the patient might start feeling undeserving and unlovable, or that the world is a dangerous place and people should not be trusted,” she explains.
Over time, these negative thoughts become generalized so that negativity permeates all aspects of life. They can also carry over into a relationship.
D. would often ask me what I saw in him, how I could love him. This deep insecurity shaped how I treated him, with more reassurances without prompting.
D. needed a lot of time and attention from me. Because he had lost so much in his life, he had an almost controlling grip on me, from needing to know every detail of my whereabouts and having meltdowns when the plan changed last minute, to expecting me to be loyal to him above my own parents, even when I felt he didn’t always deserve it.
But I obliged him. I walked out of the room on friends and stayed on the phone with him for hours. I took photos of who I was with to prove to him I wasn’t cheating or leaving him. I picked him over everyone in my life. Because I felt that if I didn’t, who would?
In believing that he was unlovable, D. also created scenarios that cast him as such. When he was angry, he’d express it by taking horrific jabs at me.
I’d be left feeling torn apart, worried about the next time D. would try to verbally hurt me. At the same time, he often didn’t feel safe opening up to me, another symptom of his PTSD.
“I have seen plenty of situations where the partner doesn’t know that their significant other is suffering from PTSD. All they experience is the anger from their partner, when in reality this person has a psychological injury and is suffering and doesn’t know how to speak about it. This leads to more and more disconnection in the couple, and it becomes a vicious cycle,” Wen says.
3. There are treatment options
Amid the feelings of hopelessness and isolation, people with PTSD do have options. The best way to tackle the mental health issue is with education and seeking the help of a professional.
“People with PTSD feel like they are going crazy and are all alone in their condition. And the partner feels exactly the same,” Wen says.
“Often what we see in our clinic is that couples therapy becomes a gateway into individual treatment,” Wen shares. “The veteran might not necessarily agree to individual treatment yet. They don’t want to feel like there is something wrong with them.”
To support my partner and my own mental health, I continued my established solo therapy routine. Beyond that, I researched and tried a few other treatment options as well.
Here are few that may help you or your partner with PTSD:
- Seek individual therapy as a partner of someone with PTSD.
- Encourage your partner to attend individual therapy with a PTSD specialist.
- Attend couples therapy.
- Find support groups for people with PTSD or their loved ones.
4. Love isn’t always enough
Many people who have relationships with someone with PTSD assume the role of caretaker. At least, this was the case with me.
I wanted to be the one person who didn’t abandon D. I wanted to show him love can conquer all and that, with the right person, love could help him reinforce and reinstate a healthy lifestyle.
As heartbreaking as it is to admit, love often doesn’t conquer all. This realization came in waves over the three years we were together, mixed with intense feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
“It’s an illusion, this idea that we can save people,” Wen says. “It’s ultimately their responsibility as an adult to seek help, or to ask for help, even if it isn’t their fault that they experienced trauma. We cannot make anyone take the help.”
5. You must care for yourself
Caretakers in relationships with people with PTSD often forget to take care of themselves.
I developed guilt associated with personal fulfillment or enjoyment, because it’s easy to get sucked into an unhealthy cycle.
When I wanted to hang out with friends without having to spend an hour talking D. down or not check in consistently while I was traveling for work to let him know I was safe, I felt guilty.
The partner of someone with PTSD will have to be strong a lot of the time. To do this, you must take care of your own mental health.
Wen agrees. “When you’re in a caretaker role, you have to put the mask on yourself first,” she says. “It must be a conscious effort to carve out time for yourself. The caretaker has to stay strong if they are to become a support system, and they need to have support and healthy outlets to maintain that.”
6. It’s OK to walk away
After years of baby steps forward and monumental steps back, I ultimately made the decision to end the relationship.
It wasn’t because I don’t love D. I love him and miss him every moment.
But the issues surrounding PTSD that needed to be addressed called for dedicated commitment, time, and the help of a professional — things he didn’t say he was opposed to. Still, he never made the choices to show he was ready.
The guilt, sadness, and feeling of defeat were all encompassing. For two months I barely left my apartment. I felt like I failed him.
It was a long time before I could accept it wasn’t my job to make someone seek help who wasn’t ready for it, and that it was OK for me to put myself first.
“We can’t make anyone take the help. Let go of guilt. You might feel sadness and grief over the loss of the relationship, but as much as possible, set aside guilt. It is going to be an unhelpful emotion in this situation,” Wen says.
“Say ‘I love you.’ Say ‘I would love for this to work and for you to get help because it affects me, you, and the relationship, but this is how far I’m able to go,’” she recommends.
As for me, I’m now spending time on healing myself and indulging in the fulfilling work and carefree fun that often made me feel guilty in the past.
Meagan Drillinger is a travel and wellness writer. Her focus is on making the most out of experiential travel while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel Weekly, and Time Out New York, among others. Visit her blog or Instagram.