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How Loving Someone With PTSD Affects Your Life (And 6 Ways To Make It Easier)

Photo: Photo by Jared Sluyter on Unsplash
loving someone with PTSD
Love

Because your love is worth it.

For those of you who love someone with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I know what that's like.

Shortly after we started dating, I realized that my now-husband Marc had severe PTSD and needed help.

As a psychologist, I knew what to look for and where to get treatment, but I had no idea how the disease would affect me as well, both in the short-term and long-term.

 

Every person's experience varies, but these are some of the ways that loving a man with PTSD affected my daily life:

1. Sleep

One of the symptoms of PTSD is nightmares.

The person’s brain is stuck trying to process the horror of the previous event and it replays over and over again in their dreams, which brings forth feelings of rage, guilt, shame, and terror — just to name a few.

The nightmares can be vivid and include night sweats and sometimes disorientation.

Many trauma survivors try to avoid sleeping as much as possible and will try (to bring themselves to utter) exhaustion — the hope being that they will crash into a dreamless sleep due to hitting the brink of exhaustion — or bring themselves to pass out from drugs or alcohol or using sleep aids.

Prior to meeting Marc, I was a great sleeper. I loved sleep  actually I still do. There is nothing better than climbing into fresh cool sheets and waking up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day.

Within weeks of being with Marc, I began listening for the change in his breathing to note that he was having a nightmare, so I could wake him up quickly. As a result, I became a light sleeper with supersonic ears.

After waking him, it would take a few minutes to shake off the horrors of the dreams and I would stay awake for a few extra minutes, making sure he did not slide back into the same dream.

This would happen multiple times a night, and after 2-3 times in one night, sleep was no longer possible for either of us.  

 

2. Avoidance

Trauma survivors tend to avoid possible triggering events, people, places or things.

Once triggered, they fear the onslaught of emotions and the rapid deterioration in their ability to control their emotions. For men especially, being seen as weak or emotionally vulnerable is a mark against their masculinity.  

I learned very quickly which things were safe and which things to avoid.

Our most epic fight to date was during our first 4th of July together. I wanted to go on base and enjoy the festivities, and I could not understand why Marc was putting up such a fuss.

As a war veteran, the fireworks sounded like shots fired and the crowd of people was unnerving. We went, but the energy it took to get through the evening was taxing.

It became easier to remember what things to avoid, and I started doing this subconsciously. My world became smaller, just as his had. 

 

3. Isolation

The terror your partner felt when the traumatic event occurred makes the world seem unsafe.

If you have been raped, especially if it was by someone you knew, you feel you can no longer trust your instincts (even if your instincts were right the whole time) and you place all people in the unsafe category.

Isolating yourself from any potential danger seems the safest course of action.

From an early age, we are taught fairness — which equates to if you are good, good things happen to you vs. if you are naughty, bad things will happen.  

With trauma, this translates to "What did I do to deserve this?" and "I must somehow be responsible." Feelings of guilt and self-loathing arise, making it even more difficult to be around others.  

As the partner, I noticed myself isolating and this becoming a habit over time.

I could not confide in my friends because then I would be sharing secrets that were not mine to share. I was one of the few people Marc trusted, and breaking that trust was not an option  I knew he would see it as a betrayal.

When I did go out, I worried about Marc, worrying if he was okay, and was he ok and I was afraid of leaving him for too long by himself.  

 

4. Exhaustion

The lack of sleep paired with enduring mood swings and trying to make things as stable as possible at home is exhausting.

Mental stress is far more taxing than physical stress and it causes the body to break down quicker.

When the person you love is wounded and you can see their pain and suffering reflected in their eyes, your heart just bleeds.

Helping someone else through panic attacks, nightmares, depression, and a tornado of anxiety is draining. We typically think of caregivers as people who take care of children with disabilities or elderly with significant physical ailments, but caregiving can also include taking care of someone with PTSD or any other mental health issue.  

Stress has a way of wearing you down to the point of exhaustion.

Although tempting as it may be to just throw in the towel, my advice would be to hang it there the best you can — especially if your spouse is trying to get well in order to restore normalcy in the relationship.

The mere act of trying is commendable, as PTSD is a disease of avoidance and facing your demons is traumatic and painful.

Compassion fatigue (also known as secondary traumatic stress) is the end stage, and this occurs when caregiving has become too much for you. You have nothing else to give and your level of empathy and compassion dwindles.

Typically, self-care is at a minimum, especially if there are children involved. So make sure you are taking good care of yourself to avoid burn out. 

 

5. Fortitude

As the wife, I see the battle my husband has gone through and continues to go through. I know the cost — the number of times he has gone to therapy to bare his soul to a stranger — and the different medications he has tried, despite hating them.

I see the warrior who has persevered, the father willing to do anything to be here another day for his kids, and the man I adore.  

Trauma treatment is a lengthy process.

There are times in which you have to return to treatment due to your symptoms reappearing. I have learned to look for the small changes and to celebrate those successes: Panic attacks being contained in a few minutes without any medication, going to the movie theater and being able to sit next to a stranger, sleeping through the night, sitting anywhere in a crowded restaurant on a Saturday night.

All things I used to take for granted and I now see as accomplishments.

I myself have gotten help when needed, we belong to many different organizations aimed to help those that suffer, we have a PTSD service dog and I am always looking for new treatment options to help improve Marc’s life.

Our world continues to expand because we do not let it shrink; it takes strength and courage on both of our sides.  

 

Loving Marc was always worth it —  and clearly still is — even with all we have to endure due to his post-traumatic stress

But there are a few things I found to be helpful in learning to be a good support person to him, while maintaining a healthy life for myself.

 

Here are just a few tips that can help ease the stress in a relationship where someone has PTSD: 

1. Make sure that you have time to relax and rejuvenate.

Find things you enjoy and do them often.

Some examples are taking a morning walk, noticing 3 things in nature, having coffee in the garden, reading a book or a magazine and engage in creative work.  

 

2. Daily mindfulness practice, meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi has been found to significantly reduce stress.

You can take a class at your local gym, or go online and find classes nearby. It takes a few weeks to practice the skills so a 6 or an 8-week class is best.

 

3. Find a way to exercise and eat healthily.

Get a routine physical by your doctor to make sure you have no vitamin or mineral deficiencies causing you to feel run down.

Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to be as effective as an antidepressant with the added benefit of looking great.

Eating healthy will give you longer endurance and watching your sugar intake will help with feelings of fatigue and sugar crashes.  

 

4. Talk to a therapist if you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed or are starting to feel burned out.

There are support groups for you depending on where you live.

If you do not have insurance, do not worry  there are online support groups and different therapy models like talkspace.com where you can message a therapist for a flat weekly fee.  

 

5. Animals can help both you and your loved one.

Animals help humans with a lot: emotional regulation, decreased emotional numbness, improved sleep, increased sense of purpose, decreased need for pain medication, lowered stress levels, and, depending on what type of animal you get, they are just plain cute and adorable. And they have pets specially trained to help with PTSD victims.

If having a dog or a cat is just not feasible, then gazing at fish in an aquarium helps reduce stress and lowers your blood pressure.  

 

6. Keep in mind, that person you fell in love with is still in there.

Treat them with compassion, kindness, and respect. Find ways inside their heart  isolation and pushing away may be their way of trying to protect you from the demons that are consuming them.

Make space for continued intimacy and spend time together doing the things you both love.

 

Sometimes, in understanding what many people with PTSD and their loved ones go through, we feel less alone.

Hopefully, in sharing my experiences and this advice, you are able to find some hope and some concrete ways to make life a little simpler through this process.

 

Sonja Raciti, Psy.D. and Marc Raciti, PA-C are the authors of I Just Want To See Trees: A Journey Through P.T.S.D. You can follow their blog at HealingWounds.org or contact them for further information about reconnecting with your partner.