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As the partner of someone who experienced trauma, you have likely noticed significant changes in your partner, not to mention your relationship.  These changes have probably challenged you about how to support your partner, as your normal methods are likely not working.  This tip will help you to better understand your partner’s isolation and how to reconnect under the new set of circumstances.  Surviving trauma often forces couples to develop a new type of intimacy.

First, it is important to understand that the actual symptoms of PTSD can cause a person to isolate.  Trauma changes a person, sometimes drastically.  People may not know how to respond to these changes caused by the trauma and PTSD symptoms.  Just as friends and family might distance themselves due to their own emotional reactions to the person’s trauma and symptoms, the trauma survivor might also withdraw from others as a way to protect themselves.  It is also important to acknowledge that isolation can be an effective coping mechanism for the trauma survivor, at least in the short term.  Realize that the trauma survivor must get through their daily life, despite PTSD’s huge toll on their emotional, physical and sexual energy.  Withdrawing from others can help the trauma preserve their energy for what is most important to them.  For instance if a trauma survivor kept exposing themselves to triggers unnecessarily, they would have much difficulty getting through the day.  What might seem as dramatic or silly adjustments to your partner’s routine, might actually be a very clever and smart way to enable them to complete as much as they are able to throughout the day.

Review the three categories of symptoms and how they might play out in your relationship to better understand your partner’s process of isolation.

-Hyperarousal Symptoms:  These symptoms include the feeling of being on guard and feeling very vigilant about your safety. Startling easily, difficulty concentrating, irritability, experiencing outbursts of anger and trouble sleeping are a part of hyperarousal.

-What this may look like:  Hyperarousal can be physically and emotionally draining.  Your partner may decline offers to go out because they do not have the energy.  Often a trauma survivor is faced with how to spend their limited energy and by the end of the day there might not be much left for spending quality relationship time.  Your partner’s patience for you might be limited because in general their tolerance for people will be lower.  You might notice that your partner has trouble relaxing and the activities they used to enjoy put them on guard or make them feel irritable.

-What your partner needs from you:  Your partner will need you to be flexible and creative in the ways that time is spent with one another.  This might look like changing plans at the last minute or replacing activities that used to be enjoyable with ones that feel more safe for now.  For instance you and your partner may have made plans to go to the movies but at the last minute he/she changes their mind.  Try not to take this change personally but offer an alternative to spending time together like watching a movie at home, going on a walk or just reading in bed.  Checking in with your partner’s energy level in the moment can be helpful to determine what they might be up for socially.

-Intrusion:  Intrusive symptoms include flashbacks or memories that come up throughout the day.  Flashbacks and intrusive memories can impair a persons ability to complete daily tasks and can rob them of physical and emotional energy.  Nightmares are also a part of intrusion.

-What this may look like:  Intrusion symptoms could make it difficult for him/her to be engaged in conversation with you, or with friends and family due to difficulty concentrating.  You might begin to feel as though your partner is not interested spending time with you or others due to their decreased energy level.  Depending on how your partner copes with nightmares, he/she might even leave the bedroom in the middle of the night.  The way your partner copes with these symptoms might be through the use of some isolation…but this can also make you feel isolated from your partner.

-What your partner needs from you:  If you notice that your partner seems spaced out or distracted when you are trying to talk to them, ask them about what is going on.  Pointing out this behavior to your partner will help them come back to the moment.  It will also help you to be more tuned in with what your partner is experiencing and will prevent you from misinterpreting intrusive symptoms as indifference or disinterest.  Ask your partner how you can help him/her when they are experiencing intrusive symptoms.  Try to talk about serious issues only when your partner can be present and is not experiencing intrusive thoughts or memories at that moment.

-Constriction:  Constriction, or feeling numb to avoid feelings, was likely used by your partner to survive the trauma in the moment.  While this was necessary during the trauma, if numbing becomes a long-term coping strategy your partner will rob themselves from feeling both pleasure and difficult emotions.  Constriction can also make a trauma survivor feel like there is not a future for them and they might seem apathetic about their life.  Constriction also includes avoiding people, places or things that remind your partner of the trauma.

-What this may look like:  Your partner might seem flat, detached and uninterested in activities they used to enjoy, like socializing or spending time with you.  Activities including types of dates and spending time with others, might be avoided in an attempt to avoid triggers.  Your partner may struggle with making future plans with you, family or friends.

-What your partner needs from you:  Try not to be offended if your partner finds it difficult to plan for future events, both big and small.  Obviously this will be an issue in the long-run, however this symptom will hopefully resolve itself as your partner heals.  Ask your partner about his/her triggers so that you can better understand how, where and who is safe to spend time with.  This will also allow you to better understand their behavior and not misinterpret it.


Remember…Your partner may be isolating for many reasons and it is important to understand why.  Their isolation might not be as personal as you think despite your strong reaction to it.  After you understand the isolation better you will likely be able to separate your emotions better from their behavior once you see it a broader context.  It will also be important for you to make sure that you are not isolating.  You need social support and you do not need to always cancel or adjust plans, but you need to have an understanding with your partner about when there is flexibility to do this based on their healing process. 

Trauma: Coping with Your Partner's Isolation image Trauma: Coping with Your Partner's Isolation image