Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Amber peace uses her poetry and larp writing to explore themes of ptsd, abuse, love, and relationships.

Relationships and CPTSD

This is an article I wrote and researched for people to better understand me. It’s not in APA format. It’s not peer-reviewed. It’s written by someone who wants to be understood and while knowing there’s more educated people out there than me, did the best they could.

So! You have a relationship 

You either know your partner has Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or you think maybe they have it (or at least PTSD), or you’re just curious about this. For this document, I will define a relationship as being either friendly or romantic because relationships are complex. The following information is important to lovers, cuddle buddies, and dear friends you sit across the room from.

What is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)? 

The World Health Organization considers C-PTSD to be a sister disorder to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder for the US decided not to include it for streamlining reasons, C-PTSD has been used in literature since 1992.

So what are you signing up to potentially experience if you’re in a relationship with someone who has PTSD? 

Choosing to be in a relationship with someone who has any illness/disorder/syndrome is choosing to take on some level of caretaker. 

A relationship with any human means you’re taking on a bit of caretaking. For 99% of those relationships, the caring process is minimal. You occasionally need to be a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes you need to give the person a pep talk. It’s small enough that it doesn’t really take “extra” energy for the statistically healthy person. 

When you are in a relationship with someone who has diabetes, cancer, seizures, a generalized weak immune system, or a mental illness the level of caretaking goes up. Each situation is unique, just like the previously mentioned health issues. You’re also unique. Your capacity to be a caretaker is different than another person's.

C-PTSD is a long journey of healing. It can be years and years of therapy. If your partner cannot receive treatment, it may be a forever commitment to caretaking. You may be asked to alter your tone, your words, and your behavior for years. This should be not taken lightly

What are symptoms my partner could experience from PTSD?

  • Re-experiencing symptoms: may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. Symptoms can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, smells, sounds (even songs), and situations that are reminders of the event/s can also trigger re-experiencing symptoms. 

    • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating

    • Bad dreams - possibly ones that wake them up screaming

    • Frightening thoughts - their father is going to bust through the door and drag them out at any moment

  • Avoidance symptoms are symptoms which may cause a person to change their personal routine because of words, objects, smells, sounds, and situations which remind the survivor of the trauma. After a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car. 

    • Staying away from places, events, objects, or people that are reminders of the experience.

    • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event - they may try to keep busy to not have time to think

  • Arousal and reactivity symptoms are usually constant instead of being triggered by something that brings back memories of the traumatic event. They can make the survivor feel stressed and angry. Daily tasks such as sleeping  and eating are difficult. These have the potential to be the easiest to put a drain on a partner, because it can potentially be all day every day. 

    • Being easily startled - touching their back, slamming doors, someone moving too close 

    • Feeling tense or “on edge” Having difficulty sleeping, having angry outbursts

  • Cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen (for someone who already had a cognitive or mood disorder before the fact) after the traumatic event. These symptoms can make the person feel alienated or detached from friends or family members.

    • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event - people with Complex PTSD have an even harder time with this. 

    • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world. 

    • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame. 

    • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

What additional symptoms are seen in Complex PTSD?

An individual who experienced a prolonged period (months to years) of chronic victimization and total control by another may also experience the following difficulties: The descriptions and examples will be more detailed than above, since these are the less known symptoms

  • Emotional Regulation may cause you to complain about your partner being a constant Eeyore or “emo,” or “drama-driven” this is tied to a sense of self-perception. It also means that your partner can possibly respond to situations with an emotional response equal to the past trauma - not to the current situation. When you say to a partner “You’ve disappointed me” their response may be equal to someone beating them while saying “you’ve disappointed me.” This is not due to you - it’s due to the trauma. That does not give you a pass to tell them to get over it or tell them you don’t have to change the way you do things because of their trauma you did not cause. An empathic partner will attempt to find compromise or completely stop certain things as their partner is working through the trauma.

    • Persistent dysphoria, chronic suicidal preoccupation, self-injury, explosive or extremely inhibited anger (may alternate), or compulsive or extremely inhibited sexuality (may alternate) are examples. 

  • Consciousness

    •  Including forgetting traumatic events (i.e., psychogenic amnesia), reliving experiences (either in the form of intrusive PTSD symptoms or in ruminative preoccupation), or having episodes of dissociation. I’ve found that my partners become very upset because I’ll express something that’s bothering me, but I can’t give exact details or examples of when the problematic behavior happened. Memory function can be impaired to the extreme. Be patient with your partner. Often, their gut instinct is how they found ways to survive their trauma. Dismissing their fear and anxiety about a behavior they say you’ve done because they can’t pinpoint it can create an even bigger response of fear, because their past has taught them people who dismiss their feelings are abusive and manipulative. This is one of the biggest differences between PTS disorders and other anxiety - the fear is rooted in events which actually happened. This is not theoretical for them. Your response may be what they consider the same response of an abuser. It’s also frightening to have no memories of a conversation you’ve had, especially if it seems to have been an important conversation. Since their perception of time may be grossly confused, they may genuinely get conversations mixed up, think one person said something when it was another, or it may actually have been a dream. Going back to issues with consciousness, this does not give you a right to dismiss their feelings. If you firmly believe they are misrepresenting, it’s best to ask questions and see if you can figure out where the jumble is happening. In an argument I’ve experienced telling someone that I have friends I talk to everyday. The other person said I was being untruthful. In reality, after having some time to think it over, I recognized that I do talk every day to a small group of people, and occasionally I’ll conflate people together into one person. I was not trying to be hyperbolic in the argument; the reality I truly remembered was false.

  • Self-Perception 

    • Such as a chronic and pervasive sense of helplessness, paralysis of initiative, shame, guilt, self-blame, a sense of defilement or stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings. You’re probably going to be telling your partner often that they are okay, they have worth, and helping them make decisions. 

  • Distorted Perceptions of the Perpetrator  

    • Such as attributing total power to the perpetrator (though the individual's assessment of power realities may be more realistic than an outside observer’s), becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, including a preoccupation with revenge, idealization or paradoxical gratitude, seeking approval from the perpetrator, a sense of a special relationship with the perpetrator or acceptance of the perpetrator's belief system or rationalizations. 

  • Relations with Others 

    • Such as isolation and withdrawal, persistent distrust, anger and hostility, a repeated search for a rescuer, disruption in intimate relationships and repeated failures of self-protection. This is where we see people constantly getting into abusive relationships, because it’s what they know. You may have to give gentle and firm responses that you will not help your partner with something you know they can do - or at least not in the way they want. Once they do complete what they were scared to do - offer tons of support and praise. Receiving praise - especially if it’s something they didn’t get as a child - is not a memory bank they have to pull from. Help them create it now. Occasionally you will be wrong, and they did actually need help. Apologize. This can also create a positive memory out a potentially negative one. 

  • One's System of Meanings. 

    • May include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair. Indecision can happen because “what does it matter, nothing will go right anyways.”

  • Disconnection from surroundings

    • Accompanied by feelings of terror and confusion, survivors may experience large gaps of missing time, or even just a few minutes. This is not just when the trauma was happening, but could be a current problem. This loss of time and suddenly being in a new place is frightening. Who brought you there and why are you there?

Chronic trauma survivors may experience any of the following difficulties:

  • Survivors may avoid thinking and talking about trauma-related topics because the feelings associated with the trauma are often overwhelming.

  • Survivors may use alcohol or other substances as a way to avoid and numb feelings and thoughts related to the trauma.

  • Survivors may engage in self-mutilation and other forms of self-harm.

  • Survivors who have been abused repeatedly are sometimes mistaken as having a "weak character" or are unjustly blamed for the symptoms they experience as a result of victimization.

What does this mean for you?

Commitment level

  • Does this sound like a lot? It is. This is some grueling work, which means you have to take care of yourself - you need people who you can lean on and listen to you. You need people who will go to coffee and walks with you. I will caution that if you’re in a polyamorous situation, carefully choose who and how you talk to about your partner. Your partner’s trauma is their own. Their story is not yours to tell, especially with names and specifics. The closer one partner is to another partner, such as a metamour or mutual partner being the closest you can get - the more violated the survivor may feel about being talked about. 

Obligation to self and your partner

  • Just because you’ve started a relationship with someone who has a chronic illness does not obligate you to stay with them. Let me repeat that - just because someone has a thyroid problem or schizophrenia or even terminal cancer - you are NOT obligated to stay with them. Now, there is absolutely backlash to this. People will disapprove of someone leaving a partner who has a physical illness. If the relationship is destroying you, if being a caretaker makes you unable to live the life you need to live, you are always able to reevaluate your relationship. This is also true of having a partner who has a mental illness. There is less pressure to stay in these relationships because it’s excused with “She created too much drama” and “he’s too clingy.” It is your personal decision (and responsibility!) to make decisions about yourself. In the end, this is also better for the person with the illness, because they deserve someone who can meet their needs - just as you do. I will say this - if you’re not the kind of person to drop a dog off on the side of a road because you can’t take care of them - don’t cold turkey quit the relationship, that is cruel as fuck. Here are some tips on de-escalating a relationship. 

Except for this

  • I will give a caveat to not quitting cold turkey - If you recognize that you’re experiencing abusive behavior, you can chose to stay or you can chose to leave and you can always chose to change that choice. We all have different places on the spectrum of abusive behavior we’re willing to put up with. There are behaviors we might find abusive that others don’t. Also listen to your own support group about this. If you have friends telling you that you’re in an abusive relationship - don’t dismiss it. Take a hard look. Don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.