Talking to Your Partner About PTSD

Alex Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW
Individual, Couples & Family Therapy
IMAGO Certified Marriage Counselor
AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Supervisor
Founder & Director of the Center for Growth Inc.

Posted by: Alex Robboy
CAS, MSW, LCSW Individual, Couples & Family Therapy IMAGO Certified Marriage Counselor AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Supervisor Founder & Director of the Center for Growth Inc.

Trauma Therapy in Philadelphia / PTSD Recovery in Center City

This tip is for anyone who is recovering from trauma or PTSD and who has a significant other in their life.  Even if you do not have a significant other, this tip may be helpful in talking to a family member or friend about your PTSD. 

Why should I talk to my partner?
It is likely that the changes you are experiencing with PTSD are effecting you, your relationship and your partner.  Your partner can be either one your biggest supports, or one of your biggest stressors.  If your partner does not know about your PTSD, he or she will mislabel your behaviors.  Your partner is also likely to take many of your behaviors or actions personally if they do not know you have PTSD.    Talking to your partner about your PTSD will help you both get on the same page.  While it can be challenging for partners to understand PTSD, starting a dialogue about your PTSD increases the chances that your partner will be better able to support you. 

It is helpful to think about talking to your partner as a series of conversations and as an unfolding process, rather than a one time event.  Your understanding of your PTSD, feelings about your PTSD and PTSD symptoms will change over time.  Similarly your partner may have their own series of reactions about your PTSD.  These reactions will also change over time.  While you may have been living with the trauma for years, your partner has not and may need time to process the trauma.  Thus it is important that you both stay connected and talk about the trauma as different situations and events occur in your lives. 

How should I talk to my partner about my PTSD?
Know what your goal is. 
Before talking with your partner think about your purpose or goal in mind.  Some common goals include: for the partner to better understand the trauma survivor’s symptoms, for the partner to better understand the survivor’s healing process, for the partner to not take the trauma survivor’s personality or behavioral changes personally and for both partners to be able to better support one another. 

Your goals and what you share with your partner about your trauma will depend on where you are in the trauma recovery process.  As a general rule, the further you are along in your recovery process, the easier it becomes to share the details about your trauma and how it has impacted you.  It becomes easier to share because as you move further along in the recovery process you do not experience as much of the day to day impact of PTSD.  Depending on the degree of the trauma, it may be difficult to share the details without being triggered or experiencing PTSD symptoms.  Fear of experiencing PTSD symptoms is often a barrier to survivors who desire to talk to their partner about their trauma.  It is important that you determine the level of detail you feel comfortable sharing with your partner without feeling overwhelmed by PTSD symptoms.  However, to establish support and understanding from your partner you will have to share some details about the trauma that will be triggering, especially if the trauma is a more recent occurrence.  Only you can gauge what information is too much.  Keep in mind that as you recover,  your ability to share different details about the trauma will change.  Balancing patience towards yourself and the need to push yourself will be a common theme in your recovery. 

Another factor that will influence your goals and what you share with your partner is the stage of your relationship.  If you are newly dating you may feel torn about how much and what to share, especially if your day to day activities are greatly impacted by PTSD.  For instance, a rape survivor who is newly dating will likely need to engage in some level of disclosure if she or her partner wish to engage in sexual activity because sexual activity is likely to be triggering.  A barrier to sharing trauma with a new partner is the fear that the new partner will be unable to “handle it” or support the survivor.  As a general rule, I believe it is better for trauma survivors to know sooner rather than later if their new partner is someone who can be supportive and understanding about their trauma.  This does not mean to “drop the bomb” on your first date and reveal the details of your trauma.  However, especially if PTSD impacts your daily life, it is important to share this with your partner within the first few months of dating.  If your new partner cannot be supportive or understanding of your trauma, then they are not a good fit for you.  As a trauma survivor, you need to find a partner who will meet you where you are in your recovery process.  You should not waste your time on someone who will be unable to be a good match for you, regardless of whether the reasons are related to your trauma or not. 

Be specific. 
Be as specific as possible about your triggers, your reactions and your PTSD symptoms.  Make sure to explain your physical reactions and emotional reactions.  You might say something like, “When I have to walk home alone [trigger] I experience nausea [physical reaction] and feel overwhelmed by fear [emotional reaction].  Walking alone is a trigger for me because I had been walking alone when I got stabbed.”  This statement provided the trigger, the survivor’s physical and emotional responses and the explanation as to how this trigger is connected to his or her PTSD.  This information will provide your partner with a starting place for understanding your PTSD.  The clearer and more detailed you are with your partner, the greater your chances that your partner will understand how your PTSD is effecting you. 

Like most trauma survivors, you may not completely understand your own triggers or responses.  It is normal for trauma survivors to experience this, especially given the fact that many trauma survivors cannot recall certain aspects of their traumatic experience.  You may feel disappointed and confused by your lack of understanding about a trigger or a response.  You may be hesitant to share this with your partner since you cannot provide them with a clear explanation that links your behavior to the trauma.  However, it is still important you share this information with your partner.  Despite the fact that you do not know how the exact trigger or reaction is related to the trauma, these triggers or reactions are still a part of your PTSD.  Your partner may be able to provide some insight, or at least support you in trying to make sense of your triggers or responses.  To explain these confusing aspects of your PTSD symptoms to your partner, try saying something like, “It is common for trauma survivors to not completely understand all of their triggers and reactions.  Something that is difficult for me to understand is why I feel so panicked and vigilant [response] when I am in a crowded space [trigger].  Even though my trauma did not occur in a crowded space, I did not develop this response to crowds until after the trauma so I know my anxiety about crowds is related in some way to my trauma.” 

Discuss Your Boundaries. 
You have new boundaries around certain people, places or activities as a result of your trauma and PTSD.  This can be distressing not only for yourself, but for your partner.  If your partner is a long-term partner, these new boundaries are distressing because they are a shift from your old boundaries.  Whether you are with a long-term partner or are dating someone new, your boundaries will not seem typical.  To your partner you may seem seem unfamiliar, unpredictable and confusing.  In addition your partner is likely taking your new boundaries personally.  It is important to communicate your new boundaries so your partner can better understand why these boundaries are important and necessary for you at this time.  This will also depersonalize your new boundaries and will help your partner understand that your new boundaries are not in response to something personal about them. 

Remind your partner that you will not always have these boundaries and that they will change over time.  Give specific examples of how maintaining these boundaries is good not only for yourself in managing your PTSD symptoms, but also good for your partner and your relationship.  You may be unclear as to what your boundaries are.  However if you are responding in a new way to certain people, places or activities you need to ask yourself if you are reacting to a boundary.  For instance you may feel hypervigilant or on edge if you take the subway when there are not many people on it.  You question whether your hypervigilance and feelings of being on edge are from your PTSD or if the situation warrants hypervigilance.  It is often difficult to answer these types of questions in isolation.  However if you share these thoughts with your partner they can help you understand whether you may be reacting to a boundary.  Another benefit to sharing with your partner is that they can validate your responses.  For instance in the example feeling on edge when riding the subway with few people, the partner may reassure the trauma survivor that even they would feel a bit on a edge riding an fairly empty subway. 

Communicate their strengths. 
Think about what your partner has done to make you feel more safe.  What has your partner done to make you feel closer to them?  What has your partner done to make you feel more intimacy in the relationship?  What has your partner done to help you feel more understood?  What has your partner done to make you feel cared for?  What has your partner done to make you feel validated?  What has your partner done to make you feel respected?

Praise your partner for the ways in which they are supporting you and are helping you manage your PTSD.  Tell them the specific behaviors or actions they have took that have made the management of your PTSD more easy.  Tell them the specific behaviors or actions that have made you felt more supported in your trauma recovery.  Communicating these behaviors and actions to your partner will make your partner feel appreciated.  They will feel as though their attempts at helping you through this difficult challenge are recognized.  More importantly, letting your partner know what he or she is doing correctly makes them aware of the specific behaviors or actions that are helpful to you.  Once your partner is aware of that these behaviors or actions are helpful they will be more likely to engage in these behaviors.  For instance you could say something like, “When you check to make sure the doors are locked it makes me feel safe, and it makes you feel like you understand why it is important for me to feel safe.” 

Identify your strengths and weaknesses. 
Think about the ways in which you have been successful in managing your PTSD.  Describe to your partner what has been working for you in managing your PTSD.  For instance you might say, “I know at the end of the day I need to make sure I limit my exposure to triggers.  That is why I do not like to run errands or go out socially if I am already feeling fried from the day.”  If your partner understands what works for you, he or she can support you in those actions.  Furthermore if your partner understands what works for you in managing your PTSD, they will be less likely to misinterpret your behaviors.  In the example above the partner may have perceived the survivor’s decrease in wanting to go out to a bar or restaurant in the evenings as a personal rejection, thinking that the survivor did not want to spend time with them.  Also allowing your partner to be privy to the ways in which you have been successful in managing your PTSD may allow your partner to provide encouragement and support around these behaviors.   

Think about the ways in which you are struggling with managing your PTSD.  Describe to your partner the ways in which you are struggling to manage your PTSD.  For instance you might say, “I still get really anxious anytime I have to go somewhere alone.  It is very frustrating because I used to pride myself on being such an independent person…now I feel overwhelmed with fear if I know I have to walk to the subway alone.”  If your partner knows how you are struggling, they may be able to provide you with additional support.  Furthermore they can act as a benchmark.  When you make progress in the areas that you have been struggling, they will be able to recognize this progress and praise you for this. 

Ask about them. 
Check in with your partner about how they are doing.  Ask your partner what they have lost as a result of your traumatic experience and PTSD?  What has been hard for your partner?  What is something your partner is having difficulty understanding or coping with?  What does your partner need from you?  It is not easy to see your loved one struggle.  Your relationship has likely changed due to your traumatic experience and the aftermath of coping with PTSD.  Your partner may be frustrated and may not know how to support you.  Asking your partner how they are coping with your PTSD shows you realize how your having PTSD impacts them.  This also provides your partner with an opportunity to discuss his or her needs and shows your partner that you care about their needs.  While you might not be able to meet all their needs or expectations due to your PTSD, you may be able to meet some of them or compromise on some of them. 

Another reason why it is important to check in with how your partner is doing is because they could be experiencing “secondary PTSD.”  Secondary PTSD can occur in anyone who is exposed to another person’s trauma and suffering.  Secondary PTSD is most commonly associated with EMTs, police officers, firemen or medical professionals.  However, secondary PTSD can occur in people who are very close to a trauma survivor, like a partner.  A person who has secondary PTSD may develop PTSD symptoms.  Whether your partner has secondary PTSD or is experiencing a great deal of stress as a result of your traumatic experience and PTSD, it may be helpful for your partner to seek therapy. 

Healing from your trauma and PTSD is a process.  Both your needs and your partners needs will change over time.  It is in the best interest of yourself and your partner to communicate about your PTSD, not just once, but many times.  Starting the dialogue about your PTSD is not easy, but well worth the difficulty.  Using these tips try conversing with your partner about your PTSD this week.  Then try again in another week.  Initiate a conversation again in a month.  Try to talk about your PTSD with your partner at least once a month.  You may need to talk about your PTSD more frequently if you are early in the recovery process or if current life events are triggering your PTSD symptoms.  Be patient with yourself and your partner.  The more support you can each provide each other, the stronger your relationship with become regardless of where you are in the recovery process.