People sometimes ask me for help to gain some understanding of, get back together with or be a better partner to their partner with PTSD. Sometimes, the first thing I mention is, “Maybe they’re incapable of being in a relationship right now.”
There are a couple ways of looking at this idea. First, the person with PTSD could be incapable of being present enough and having enough energy available to carry a relationship in the typical way we expect a relationship to work. Their PTSD and healing are taking so much of their energy that the burden of a relationship on top is too much to bear and they are simply too exhausted to handle it right now. But actually, this technically doesn’t mean they are incapable of being in a relationship. Technically, everyone is capable of being in a relationship because there is an endless, infinite variety of ways relationships can look and work.
A possibly more accurate way to look at this is – they might not be capable of being in a relationship specifically with you because of what you’re genuinely needing from a relationship. This means they are capable of being in a relationship with somebody, but it would be unhealthy, for various reasons, for them to be in a relationship with you specifically (unhealthy for both of you or one of you).
So, what I mean by incapable for this article is that the person you would like to be in a relationship with – and this applies to any person actually – isn’t able to meet the relationship deal-breakers of their partner (you).
Everyone has different deal breakers for relationships that are constantly evolving and changing over time. This means the question isn’t if a person with PTSD is incapable of being in any relationship – that would be impossible because any kind of person can be in any kind of relationship based on choice and make it work in their own way. The real question is whether or not they are capable of being in a relationship that makes sense and is meaningful, fulfilling and worthwhile for you.
Because the deal-breakers are always evolving and changing, these criteria could actually change from the time you got into a relationship to the present moment, or could change in the coming months. So this is about constantly monitoring an evolving internal set of requirements. As you grow, these requirements also grow.
Relationship Deal Breakers
Some examples of deal breakers any given person may create for their relationship:
- To be with someone who is available to be present with my emotions at least 10% of the time.
- To be with someone who has an internal monitoring system around how they express anger so it isn’t harmful ever.
- To be with someone who has an internal monitoring system around how they express anger so it is only expressed harmfully twice a week and I can make a full recovery each time relatively easily.
- To be with someone who has an internal monitoring system around how they express anger so it is only expressed harmfully once every other day and they are willing to talk about what happened in a relaxed, open way with me at some later point in time so that I feel seen and heard.
- To be with someone who has calm, grounded moments when they express true affection and in which I feel genuinely nurtured at least once every other day.
- To be with someone who genuinely wants my success and doesn’t do things to undermine it.
- To be with someone who apologizes for their mistakes half the time.
- To be with someone who has a true desire to start and raise a family.
- To be with someone who won’t harm my kids emotionally.
- To be with someone who knows how to make it about me as well as how to make it about them – and who can make it about us at least 10% of the time.
- To be with someone who naturally reaches out to comfort me if they see I’m very upset.
That is a long list. A deal breaker list could be much simpler – the person has to be supportive and involved with our finances and taking care of our home and be a decent human being doing their best in life. Or the person just needs to not harm my kids and be fun to be around 20% of the time. Deal breakers are whatever criteria are present inside yourself that, after they are met, you feel a settled sense inside that basically says – this will work OK for me for now.
Deal breakers have nothing to do with what other people think about your relationship. They are your unique, personal, individual creation. They can be whatever you want and they can change whenever you want.
After you’ve defined the deal breakers, you can then create a list of preferences. Preferences will enhance the relationship but not change the fundamental sense of functionality and satisfaction with the relationship. It would be nice to have these things, but it’s not going to make or break the relationship. These could be things like – I prefer someone with my taste in music but that obviously doesn’t make or break a relationship. I prefer someone who is in physical shape. These things are not essential to make the relationship actually function.
After the deal breakers are all met, it would be normal and expected that there’s a huge pile of human imperfections and areas of differences. You just accept whatever is in there – celebrate if you got a bunch of your preferences, and use everything else as rich opportunities for learning.
I think that as people mature, they take many things they thought were deal breakers and move them into preferences (superficial things like art tastes, diet, socioeconomic status, race, hair color etc.), while simultaneously adding more subtle types of things that affect their daily emotional wellbeing in less obvious ways into the deal breaker list.
OK so, once your lists of deal breakers and preferences have been clearly defined, then you can figure out if the person with PTSD will or will not be capable of meeting the deal breakers for you specifically.
Again, there is no way to measure if someone is incapable of being in a relationship in general because almost everybody is capable of being in a relationship of some kind. People are capable of being in all variety of relationships. A relationship could be very satisfying for the two people involved and perfectly meet both their deal breakers – but that same person would not work for you or be capable of meeting your list of deal breakers. Therefore, this evaluation can only be done in terms of a specific person’s needs for a relationship.
That being said, PTSD, like many other psychological and physiological conditions, can impact some of these potential deal breaker areas in significant ways. The following list might help you better pinpoint WHY someone with PTSD doesn’t seem capable of meeting you in one of your deal breaker areas to the degree that would make things work for you.
Nine Reasons a Person with PTSD May Temporarily Have Trouble Meeting Their Partner’s Relationship Needs:
Note – this is all based on my own personal experience of how I have behaved with PTSD with my partner.
1. They are Stuck in the Past
There simply isn’t enough of them in the present to carry on a relationship that meets their partner’s set of genuine relationship needs or criteria. The majority of them is located in the past, leaving very little or possibly nearly nothing of them in the present with their partner. It’s too hard for them to see what is real and present because the past is a constant companion and a overlay of the present. This isn’t their fault. But this essentially leaves their partner out in a number of ways that can be painful.
2. They are Overwhelmed by too Many Triggers
There are so many things about being in a relationship that trigger visceral body sensations of past trauma that the relationship drives the partner with PTSD completely crazy and they can’t handle having the other person around them.
In other words, the partner with PTSD’s body interprets the situation of being in a relationship as being dangerous and they develop heightened threat responses that keep getting worse. This means that their partner increases their stress radically. They now perceive their partner as something that is dangerous that is trapping them and that they need to escape from.
Basically, a relationship can be a context in which there is simply too much reexperiencing of trauma. The relationship is a place, unfortunately, that keeps the person with PTSD stuck in a number of feedback loops that constitute an experience of continuously being traumatized.
This is a crazy-making situation that is neither party’s fault. This could easily end the relationship just because the person with PTSD’s physiology needs a rest from it all. They are physiologically too sensitive to be in a relationship at this time.
3. They Can’t Experience Shared Moments
There isn’t any internal space, in the partner with PTSD, for the kinds of moments that people in relationships generally enjoy, such as a calm peaceful moment together eating dinner.
There are a lot of fissures and destruction within the psyche of a person with PTSD. This mental state doesn’t leave a lot of space for being in these types of peaceful moments.
They literally are cut off from the feeling of the peace around them and can’t feel it even if they wanted to. Their brain and nervous system has no availability to connect to these subtle parts of the moment like the atmosphere in the restaurant or the sound of the breeze.
This means that there is not a shared reality. This can become tiring for their partner. It’s subtle but a big part of what makes a relationship joyful is experiencing shared moments together, in which both partners are seeing the same thing at the same time and responding to it together.
4. They Can’t Process Emotions with their Partner
Similarly, they also can’t hold the emotional space for their partner to process emotions in their presence. This can really impact their partner because it means the act of processing – of moving from point A through a messy place of Point B out the other side to point C, always has to be done alone or with someone else. If their partner is entering a place of chaos and of unknown outcome emotionally and this triggers them too much, they won’t be able to stay present through to the end.
Some people who are healing from PTSD develop great skills at being emotionally present though, because of having to be present with their own emotional roller coaster so much of the time
5. They Can’t Process Mentally with Their Partner
A great part of a relationship, and for some a deal breaker, is the ability to think through tough decisions and problems with your partner, to bounce ideas off each other, hash out details and imagine scenarios and outcomes. In the more acute beginning phases of PTSD, the higher brain is mostly cut off form access, and the person with PTSD might have some trouble mentally going through highly complex decisions, like business decisions. As they recover, all these parts of the brain come back though, so it might just be a matter of time.
Sometimes the process of thinking through complex information in a certain context or area of life could be a trigger for them, a reminder of an abusive or traumatic context they were involved in in the past. In this case, again, it should be able to be healed but it may not heal all the way. I personally have regained a lot of the ability to think through complex problems over the last 10 years.
6. Memory Problems Create Difficulties with Partner
What I have not regained yet is my memory, and this does impact my partner because I can’t remember anything if I haven’t written it down. Sometimes I forget important things due to the PTSD and this really does impact daily life. When making decisions it’s very helpful to have memories of past similar decisions and retention of key information pertinent to the decision. This is the one area that hasn’t recovered very much after 10 years. Everyone is different so like all of these points whether any particular cognitive challenge will be a deal breaker needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
7. They Keep up Many Walls
The numbness of PTSD is like a wall between self and reality. I call it living in a ball of jello. Some people call it glass or ice – like living in a glass fishbowl or block of ice. Anxiety is always present as another wall, the wall of fire. Defensive systems developed during trauma and abuse. These are more complex psychological walls that could have formed in childhood.
If there are too many walls, then the person with PTSD is too remote. It’s like they’re on their own island with all the walls and gates closed.
All these walls saved their life. Some of the walls, like the numbness, just got created in their system and they simply don’t know how to take it down now. They don’t have the tools, the wall dismantling tools.
So they made it They survived. That’s the good part. But it may take a long time for the walls to come down. This can lead to some of the emotional connection needs of their partner going unmet for a period of time.
8. They May Not Be Able to Have Sex, or to Have a Healthy Response to Their and Your Sexuality Yet
If the PTSD includes sexual trauma, sex may be too triggering. It might be much healthier for the person not to engage in sexual activity for some period of time. This may make it more challenging to be in relationship with them but it certainly can be worked with in many ways. If their partner is happy with other forms of physical affection and creative and open-minded as they work through these challenging issues the relationship could still be wonderful in this area.
9. Normalcy Has Left the Premises, Taking Hope, the Future and the Instinct to Build with it
Just speaking for myself, with PTSD there’s no sense of normalcy anymore. There are no, what I call, “normal life ideas” anymore in the brain. There isn’t an experience of normal anymore.
The normal human instinct to build is gone as well. For example, the instinct to build a family. The instinct to get a pet. The instinct to put together a life.
If there is total destruction, no trust in the world and no future anymore, there is nothing at all present with which to build a relationship with another person. There are no internal structures, parts of the brain, available to build something into the future that includes other people. There isn’t that desire anymore.
If there’s no trauma, the physical body is actually designed with the desire to manifest or fertilize or grow things – businesses, partnerships, children, projects, companies, creativity, relationships. But if there’s too much trauma, all of this goes away.
So it might be the partner without PTSD still feels like the world is a place where you can build things and they have a physiological, emotional, and psychological system that’s capable of it and actually wants it, and they truly feel like the world is a good place to do it and that the world will support it. And they also have a future. And hope.
The traumatized person may not have any of that left. The world is definitely not a place to build anything. They don’t have the brain to plan or to remember or to piece together. They don’t have the body or psychology that wants to gather in life and build up things, create things, manifest things in the world. That is totally destroyed at this point. There’s nothing.
It’s as if a hurricane came through and wiped everything away. But the emptiness that is left is not like a blank canvas or something wonderful to start from. It’s a devastation. It’s not a full emptiness. It’s just an absence of things. Things are just gone; things that shouldn’t be gone are gone. Functionality is gone. Everything feels very strange and flat. There isn’t a three-dimensional sense of reality anymore.
Well, this is all to say that the person with PTSD lives in a different reality than their partner, and they live in a reality that has a lot of things absent from it – things that are in their partner’s reality. A lot of things that people take for granted and think are part of the world are not part of that person’s world anymore.
It’s very much like a lobotomy. It’s very much like having parts of the brain literally removed. All kinds of parts of the higher brain have been removed, and many parts of the memory have been removed. It’s a much more difficult existence. After this occurs, there are a lot of struggles – struggles with memory, communication, logic, planning, and many of these problems have an impact on a relationship.
But really the greatest impact, in my experience, is this loss of hope and loss of the future.
I believe that somebody in a relationship generally would like to know that there’s a future with their partner and would also like to feel hope for a better future. But the person with PTSD doesn’t have a future. There isn’t any hope. It’s just this kind of endless bleak place.
Sometimes, in the process of healing, various different hopes come back. And then the future begins to be rebuilt little by little. And sometimes it feels like the normal parts of the brain kind of start to get resurrected a little bit. I believe that there is hope and a future somewhere buried deep inside a person with PTSD, they just need to be tenderly pieced back together over time. There will be a point in which the person will remember normalcy and start finding moments of normalcy, and normal life ideas, again. Then the instinct to build will very slowly come back. It’s taken me 10 years to feel the slightest trickle of this instinct again once in a while.
Everybody has different deal breakers or minimum requirements for a relationship. Making your deal breaker list is one method to evaluate if someone is capable of being in a relationship that would feel OK with you and you’d feel settled and satisfied in.
There’s another way to do this evaluation. It’s the return on investment evaluation. Are you getting out the same amount as you are putting in? Where is your energy going? Is your investment of time and energy getting back enough to make it worth it to you? This involves looking at how much energy the relationship is taking and how much energy it is giving you in all areas and dimensions, and then deciding if that exchange is developing something over the long term that is of enough value to you that you feel your investment is a good one. And – as with the deal breaker list, this is a totally individual decision that only you can make.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the very best in your healing journeys and beautiful relationships!