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How Complex PTSD Can Affect Intimate Relationships

Unresolved trauma that affects the closest connections.

Key points

  • Feeling unsafe is one of the biggest signs of cPTSD.
  • When feeling safe is compromised, hypervigilance or shutting down are common.
  • Intimate relationships are often negatively impacted for those struggling with cPTSD.
  • Knowing the signs and symptoms can help with healing and improving relationship quality.
Source: ahumphries/unsplash

Because traumatic events have the ability to shatter how we once saw the world, they become life-changing. What we experience may differ depending on the type of trauma, yet the end result is often the same: fears, triggers, emotional dysregulation, feelings of worthlessness, emotional numbness, sleep/wake issues, avoidance behaviors, and hypervigilance.

Any event that has the potential to cause trauma also has the potential to cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If these events were repeated or chronic, such as ongoing abuse in childhood, captivity, war, human trafficking, or abuse in intimate relationships, they have the potential to cause what's known as complex PTSD, or cPTSD.

While the DSM-5 (2013) does not formally recognize cPTSD from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD) because of some shared overlapping symptoms, there is a plethora of research since the 1980s beginning with Dr. Judith Lewis Herman that supports cPTSD as a distinct disorder. As such, the ICD-11 includes cPTSD and recognizes its symptoms as independent from BPD (EUPD) and PTSD.

The Issue with Feeling Safe

“Many traumatized individuals are too hypervigilant to enjoy the ordinary pleasures that life has to offer, while other are too numb to absorb new experiences—or to be alert to signs of real danger. When the smoke detectors of the brain malfunction, people no longer run when they should be trying to escape or fight back when they should be defending themselves.” ―Bessel Van Der Kolk

Safety is defined as a state of feeling secure, safe, and where risk, danger, or injury are reduced from occurring. Safety exists not only in the physical sense, but also includes feeling safe emotionally, mentally, and psychologically.

Yet when a person is battling the effects of cPTSD, feeling “safe” gets skewed. Those with complex PTSD often report feeling unsafe in their homes, around family, friends, or their significant other, and especially in public, including in familiar places.

The reason that a sense of safety is compromised so significantly is that those with cPTSD have experienced severe and often repeated betrayal from those closest in their lives. This may stem from childhood abuse where a parent or caregiver chronically physically, emotionally, or sexually abused them, or where their emotional or physical needs went consistently unmet. Additionally, it may happen in our adult lives from having been betrayed by a friend or significant other through “smear campaigns,” cheating, “discards,” or other experiences that can exacerbate earlier trauma. When trust is shattered, the end result is to feel unsafe, threatened, and on guard.

Intimate relationships are often the most damaged when someone is battling cPTSD because those who are closest to them are often the same people who trigger their vulnerabilities and fears. For example, a partner’s concern can be interpreted as judging or shaming, and may make a person with cPTSD feel emotionally triggered. They may feel confused or angered which can trigger hypervigilance due to feeling unsafe.

As a result, many will run, push away, shut down, or lash out. This in turn can trigger depression, self-doubt, and further shame which adds to symptoms experienced by those with cPTSD. This pattern can become cyclic if left unchecked.

Signs and Symptoms of Feeling Unsafe in Relationships

It’s commonly known that those who have histories of severe and/or chronic trauma in childhood will often grow into adults who unconsciously seek out connections with others—especially intimate relationships—that allow them to “reenact” their unresolved childhood conflicts. Freud coined this as repetition compulsion where an adult with unprocessed trauma will attempt to resolve the trauma through reliving the traumatic experiences in relationships. Anyone who has a history of “dating their mother” may often fit this bill, in Freudian terms.

Other signs include:

  • Repeating the same relationship over and over. Those who have experienced severe trauma in their lives often gravitate to situations that not only trigger their unhealed core wounds, but that are often unsafe (yet get confused as "comfortable"). This is what can perpetuate a cycle of toxic intimate relationships based on repetition compulsion, unhealed core wounds, and confusing what's "familiar" as safe.
  • Emotional avoidance. People who have cPTSD are often emotionally disconnected and engage in emotional avoidance as a coping strategy. Many may shut down, push those away who are closest to them such as a partner, family, or friends, or try to superficially smooth things over instead of dealing with more vulnerable feelings. Partners may feel confused or angry as well as emotionally unheard. Unfortunately, because feeling unsafe is at the core of emotional avoidance, many with cPTSD may feel misunderstood by those in their lives, which can cause them to further isolate themselves.
  • A lack of trust. Anyone who has experienced chronic, repeated, or severe trauma in childhood has often lost the ability to unconditionally trust those in their lives, including themselves. As children, their parents or caregivers who were supposed to protect and love them may have abandoned them, ignored their needs for their own, or physically or sexually abused them. Needless to say, if a person has experienced a betrayal of trust in their formative years, they carry this with them into their adult relationships. As such, the closer a person is to someone with cPTSD (such as a romantic partner), the more of a threat to their safety that person becomes, often triggering their trust issues.
  • Relationship avoidance. For some with cPTSD, relationships can be too overwhelming and a threat to their safety, which may include intimate partners or family. Because of their fears of feeling unsafe (not to be confused with a fear of abandonment in BPD), those with cPTSD may choose to be alone, self-isolate to protect themselves and to preserve their sense of autonomy, or may avoid intimate relationships altogether as too threatening.

Symptoms of cPTSD can be difficult to manage and may trigger feelings of shame. It’s important to educate family, friends, and significant others on how to navigate through avoidance, hypervigilance, and emotionally challenging behaviors.

Those who have survived complex trauma don’t need judgment. They don’t need shaming. They need understanding, compassion, and time in (re)building their lives and empowering themselves.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Just Life/Shutterstock

References

Cloitre, M., et al. (2014). Distinguishing PTSD, complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder: A latent class analysis. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5, 1–10.

Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and recovery. New York: BasicBooks.

Herman, J. L. (1992). Complex ptsd: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, (5)3, 377–391.

Karatzias, T., et al. (2021). Childhood trauma, attachment orientation, and complex PTSD (cPTSD) symptoms in a clinical sample: implications for treatment. Development and Psychopathology, 1 - 6.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.

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