Can a Relationship Give You PTSD?

It's part of the fallout from having an abusive partner.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or situation. Often, people associate PTSD with war-related events, but other traumatic situations—such as car accidents, sexual assault, or natural disasters—can lead to the condition.

"It can happen to anyone," said Aron Tendler, MD, chief medical officer of Brainsway, a mental health tech company. "A number of factors can increase the chances that someone will develop PTSD, many of which are not under that person's control. You can develop PTSD when you go through, see, or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation"—all of which could happen as part of an abusive relationship.

Interpersonal violence (IPV) is the term used to describe violence in relationships—and the aggression can be psychological, not just physical. Here's what you need to know about PTSD from relationships.

What Causes Relationship PTSD?

PTSD is characterized by intrusive memories, avoidance of things that could remind a person of the trauma, moodiness, and hyperarousal, a state in which your body kicks into high alert, said Dr. Tendler. "These four clusters of symptoms persist over at least one month and impair patients' ability to function normally in daily life."

An abusive relationship can lead to PTSD, Dr. Tendler said, because the traumatic events that took place during the relationship can cause the symptoms to stay present during and long after the relationship has ended. In particular, symptoms can stem from abuse that is physical, sexual, emotional or a combination of the types. "When these symptoms are present for a period of time, it can be diagnosed as PTSD," Dr. Tendler told Health.

What Specific Issues Might Relationship PTSD Cause?

In general, people with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. As a result, those with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event and may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline noted that experiencing abuse from a relationship can leave a person feeling:

  • Overwhelmed or anxious
  • Irritable
  • Teary without reason
  • Wary or uncomfortable

Beyond reliving the abuse in their minds, those who have experienced abuse may also fixate on certain words or thoughts and blame themselves for what happened. Often, individuals with PTSD have interpersonal issues with those close to them. For example, a September 2018 Clinical Psychology Review study found those with PTSD and their partners may lack emotional and physical intimacy.

What's more, those who end up experiencing PTSD might also be diagnosed with other psychological disorders. Depression is a common co-occurring diagnosis in people with PTSD.

According to the National Center for PTSD, people with a PTSD diagnosis are three to five times more likely to have a depressive disorder. Additionally, researchers of a 2021 Psychiatric Quarterly study in the United Kingdom also found that those with PTSD presented with anxiety disorders, psychosis, and substance use disorders.

Possible Symptoms of Relationship PTSD

If someone has experienced an abusive relationship, there are specific signs and symptoms that lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. The symptoms are grouped into four categories: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, arousal and reactivity symptoms, and cognition and mood symptoms.

Re-experiencing symptoms can come from thoughts and feelings or be triggered by physical reminders of the event, such as objects, sights, or sounds. Re-experiencing symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Recurring memories or dreams related to the event
  • Distressing thoughts
  • Physical signs of stress, such as trouble sleeping or headaches

Avoidance symptoms include changing routines or daily life to avoid triggers of the traumatic event, whether it's a physical reminder or mental reminder. This can be doing things such as:

  • Avoiding places, events, or objects if they remind you of the traumatic situation. For example, avoiding driving a car if the traumatic event was a car accident.
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event.

Arousal and reactivity symptoms relate to a person feeling on guard or daily activities such as sleeping or concentrating on a task. Examples include:

  • Startling easily
  • Difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Feelings of being on edge or on-guard
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Partaking in behavior that is reckless or dangerous

Cognition and mood symptoms begin after the traumatic event and lead to feelings of detachment from those the person experiencing PTSD may have been close with. If some of these symptoms were present before the event, they often worsen after the traumatic event as part of PTSD. Symptoms include:

  • Losing interest in activities
  • Feeling negative emotions such as fear or guilt and difficulty experiencing positive emotions such as happiness
  • Feeling blame for the event
  • Difficulty remembering the event
  • Feeling negatively about themselves or the world
  • Socially isolating themselves

To receive a PTSD diagnosis, the following criteria must be present for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

The symptoms listed are symptoms of PTSD in adults. However, symptoms in children and teens are often different. If there is concern that a child or teen is experiencing relationship PTSD, it is essential to reach out to a medical professional for advice.

Healing After an Abusive Relationship

PTSD, no matter the cause, is a treatable condition with the help of a mental health professional. A healthcare provider may begin with a PTSD screen if the individual has experienced a traumatic event (such as IPV). If the screen is positive, they may perform a more in-depth assessment or refer the patient to a mental health professional.

Recovery from trauma is different for everybody, but a psychiatrist or therapist can help people with PTSD find the right path.

"I remind trauma survivors that they are not alone and that feelings of shame and guilt after enduring trauma are normal," said Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director for California-based Mindpath Health.

Dr. Magavi said they also discuss changes in the brain with patients, how children and adults often blame themselves when a loved and trusted individual perceives them as subservient, and how gaslighting can lead to dejection.

"I help them recognize their strengths and aspirations and find their voice again by providing them with therapy and initiating medications to target their depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic symptoms when warranted," said Dr. Magavi. The therapy can take many forms, including mindfulness activities, yoga, dance, art, and exercise. "Catharsis (the process of letting go of strong emotions) of any form allows trauma survivors to practice self-compassion."

Dr. Magavi may also ask patients to create lists of reasons they are not to blame, read these out loud, and process associated emotions with assistance. "When they are ready, I encourage them to speak to me as if I am the individual who hurt them; I encourage them to release all their emotions freely."

A Quick Review

PTSD from a relationship can stem from unhealthy relationships, particularly those where IPV was or is present. There are several symptoms of PTSD, and it is a diagnosable medical condition. Numerous options for treatment exist, including both therapies and medications.

If you or a loved one is experiencing PTSD or IPV, help is available. If you have a trusted healthcare provider, they can be an excellent place to start. Or, there are national hotlines you can call for immediate support as well.

Looking for Support?

This article discusses IPV, domestic violence, and PTSD.

If you or a loved one is in need of support for IPV or domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides a search for local resources as well the option to call, chat, or text live from their national number. Their number is 1-800-799-7233. Alternatively, you can also text "START" to 88788.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24/7 across the United States by calling or texting 988. Deaf and hard of hearing options are available through their website.

If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

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  3. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Ways in which abuse and domestic violence changes you.

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  5. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Depression, trauma, and PTSD.

  6. Qassem T, Aly-ElGabry D, Alzarouni A, Abdel-Aziz K, Arnone D. Psychiatric co-morbidities in post-traumatic stress disorder: detailed findings from the adult psychiatric morbidity survey in the english population. Psychiatr Q. 2021;92(1):321-330. doi:10.1007/s11126-020-09797-4

  7. National Institute of Mental Health. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

  8. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. How is PTSD assessed?

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