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How PTSD Disrupts Relationships


We hear about it all the time.

You know your neighbor’s son who joined the military and came back a different person? Or the car accident you had last year and now you can’t hear a car horn without freaking out? Or the more common one where we don’t really talk about, the woman walking down the alley who was sexually assaulted and now she’s scared of the dark. It’s all around us but do we really accept them who suffer and support them the way they need? ? Do we recognize what impact it has on us as well? Sometimes the person we’ve known for years has symptoms of PTSD and we didn’t even know it.

Here are a couple stories that can relate:

A good relationship gone bad.
John deployed for the military and left behind his wife Jenny and three small children. During this time Jenny took care of the kids and house to make sure everything was good while he was away. They were both excited to be back together when he discharged and came home. Unfortunately, when John arrived home he had little motivation when it came time to get a job, he drank too much, never slept, and was not that helpful with the kids.

No more intimacy.
Ron married Lacy when they were both 23. They had two children and lived very happy lives together. Lacy was fine until her parents, who occasionally bicker, moved into town to be closer to the grand kids. All of a sudden Lacy never wanted to be intimate with Ron anymore. She and him were just as confused as the other as to why she didn’t want her husband to touch her anymore. Sometimes she would give in being resentful as to having to do this as a wife. She became irritable as did he and soon they started talking about separating because Lacy kept saying she just wanted space.

So why are these people acting like this if it is so frustrating!? Can’t they just change it? Are they really happy being like this?

What is PTSD?

PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) is a mental health disorder which affects our brain after experiencing or witnessing a violent event. Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling upset by things that remind you of what happened
  • Having nightmares, vivid memories, or flashbacks of the event that make you feel like it’s happening all over again
  • Feeling emotionally cut off from others
  • Feeling numb or losing interest in things you used to care about
  • Feeling constantly on guard
  • Feeling irritated or having angry outbursts
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Being jumpy or easily startled

Ways some people cope with PTSD when they do not have the proper support or coping skills includes frequently avoid places or things that remind them of what happened, often drinking or using drugs to numb feelings, harming themselves or others whether verbally or physically, detaching from loved ones, over working, or sleeping too much.

Reasons for this behavior.

Neuroimaging research shows that parts of the brain function differently after a person has been impacted by violent or disturbing events. The amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex play a major role in triggering the symptoms of PTSD.

The hippocampus is the region of the brain that is responsible for memory function. Decrease function in this area of PTSD sufferers means they cannot distinguish between present and past events and are often negatively triggered if they are reminded of their trauma, even in a small way which others can overlook. PTSD patients exhibit hyperactivity in their amygdala which sends stress responses and puts us in fight or flight mode. When these signals are sent we either want to run for our life or fight for our life due to this real or perceived threat. The Ventromedial prefrontal cortex helps to regulate emotions. When this region’s function is disrupted emotions like fear, anxiety, and stress responses delivered from the amygdala are not regulated like they should be.

The amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are the neural circuitry of stress. So there is no wonder why a person who experiences violence shows symptoms of PTSD. But what about the people who we talked about from the stories above? Once we know their stories it all makes sense….

Remember John the veteran? While he was away during his first deployment his humvee was repeatedly shot at while they drove to their post. His second tour his friend was killed next to him. His third tour he had to kill a 10 year old child who appeared to have a weapon, but they realized afterward the child was making false threats and did not actually have a weapon.

Remember Lacy who all of a sudden lost interest and was irritable all the time once her parents got there? Well how would it change your view of her behavior if you found out her parents used to be very violent towards one another. A few times Dad beat and raped Mom in front of Lauren and her younger siblings. Once while Lauren was a child she, her siblings, and Mom stayed in a domestic violence shelter to get away from Dad and here is where her younger sister was molested by a young boy who was also staying in the shelter with his mother. The good news is that Dad sought treatment and they recovered as a family. The sad news is the children were still effected.

So how do we make these relationships work with these difficult people? Well how would you make a relationship work with someone who had cancer? Empathize, be there for them, understand they have limitations and they are harder on themselves than anyone can be. Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that it takes two to tango. Being supportive and understanding is still not enough. Getting help together is a great start because it allows both people in the relationship to accept and work on their individual issues. Lets face it we all have them. No blaming, no pointing fingers, just healing together. It’s not easy either but it’s definitely worth it.

I hope this information has been helpful. I’d love to help you through this journey if you and your partner are in need of couple’s counseling to work through some of these issues. Or maybe I can help find another therapist or support group to fit your needs. Below you will find my web address which contains resource information that may also be helpful.

-Jacqueline Campbell 


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