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How PTSD Disrupts Relationships – Part 1 – The Relationship Foundation

Table of Contents

by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

Do you remember when you were little and you first met a friend? Maybe your best friend?

I remember just knowing that this person was good, and just knowing we would be best buds. I didn’t feel afraid of them. I wasn’t terrified that maybe affection or kindness from them secretly meant they were going to hurt me in some way. I didn’t judge them. If they had some problem or made mistakes that was fine. Their problem didn’t trigger me into a meltdown. I wasn’t terrified when they wanted to stay yet terrified when they needed to leave.

I wrote a song about this called Horses. The first part goes like this:

Friendship Two Girls and Horses

I guess when we were kids there was nothing overlaid on the moment yet. The moment was just about having fun.

A little later, things began to overlay the moment – competition, popularity, judgments, cattiness, power plays etc.

But there was a brief time when everything was at face value. There was, for a while, a blank slate of the mind. I am me and you are you. This is now.

I guess, as in the song, we shared “a secret to behold.” That secret was that we were both totally 100% OK as we were.

I was also much less traumatized and more intact back then, in the time “before” (before the major traumatic events of adulthood leading to PTSD). So I didn’t need my friend to make me whole or to hold my world together.

Fast forward to today.

My boyfriend is my current best buddy. Most of the time I’m terrified of him on some level. It’s not his fault. I have counted 22 ways he triggers me and brings up reminders of past traumas. These are all things he can’t help. They aren’t bad things and wouldn’t cause me to be terrified at all if I didn’t have PTSD. But I do have a diagnosis of PTSD and it’s because I have had some major traumatic experiences. And those past experiences are taking over my relationship.

There are many ways past traumatic experiences affect my relationship. Besides triggers, I have way more fears in general in life and sometimes my boyfriend doesn’t understand. I am simultaneously afraid of losing him and afraid to stay with him. I have no idea what is an expression of love and what is an expression of abuse. I perceive everything as if inside a membrane that plays movies recorded in the past, and therefore I can’t see who he is, or who I am for real. I literally can’t see the goodness in him and can’t remember all the good times we’ve had, because my mind sees only trauma and badness.

This whole mess of trying to have a relationship when contending with PTSD is actually heartbreaking, and writing these articles about relationships and PTSD may be a challenge because I feel such sorrow about how my PTSD disrupts my relationship with my boyfriend. When I am caught up in the midst of it I find it incredibly difficult to figure out what is going on. It feels like trying to untangle a big ball of tangled yarn cats have been playing with all day, and just getting deeper and deeper into the tangled yarn.

Trying to have a relationship while dealing with PTSD is like two cats tangled a bunch of yarn and you've become lost in it.

Ultimately, I think I have forgotten the secret I shared with my best friend from childhood. As an adult, there are no more moments that are at face value. There is no more blank slate of the mind. Nobody is OK as they are because nobody is just as they are, right now, in this moment.

What would happen if I could go back in time, and see my boyfriend through my eight-year old self’s eyes? What would I see? I would see a completely different human being. I would see a friend, not someone that might be dangerous because some other men hurt me in the past. If my reptilian brain would just let up for long enough I might be able to break free of its perceptual grip.

So in these posts about relationships I’m going to attempt to untangle the ball of tangled yarn and loosen up the reptilian brain’s vice grip bit by bit.

The “Foundation” of the Relationship – Innate Traits and Childhood Wounding

First I want to list as many components as I can think of that form the foundation of the relationship. These are elements that make up the foundation of any intimate relationship.

The reason to explore these parts of ourselves is because:

1) they influence PTSD and

2) It’s good to know how to identify what is NOT coming from PTSD.

Here is the graphic (click on it if you need to make it bigger):

Building a Relationship - What is the Foundation Made of?

Layers go from bottom to top:

Layer 1. Essence, Who You Truly Are

On the very bottom of the foundation is your “true self,” the one inside you who is innocent, new, open. The one who peered out of your eyes when you were a newborn. This includes skills, talents, passions and personality traits that make you uniquely you. It includes ways of being creative in the world, ways of doing things and just whatever things in life make you “tick.” This is you untouched by life. This is the child who just wants to go pick handfuls of bright green grass and feed them to the horses with their new best friend.

The relationship on this level would be between the essential in you and your partner. It would have no baggage from the past. It would contain all the magic that would happen if you knew how to allow the essence in you to dance with the essence in them. Your “true self,” expressing its natural way of being, when combined with the “true self” of your current best buddy (partner), would build a unique relationship house and spark a unique relationship dance to take place within that house. This is a creation that only you two could create.

Layer 2. Attachment Style

When we were little, our parents had what is called an attachment bond with us. All of the experiences of the kind of bonding we had with our parents create our attachment style that influences how we experience intimate relationships.

Adults have four possible attachment styles: secure, anxious–preoccupied, dismissive–avoidant and fearful–avoidant.

I fall into the avoidant attachment style. I took two online tests located here and the results of both indicate I am dismissive-avoidant, but one indicated that I feel pretty secure with my boyfriend but not with anyone else, so it can change depending on who you are relating to (this test that measures your attachment style with your mom, dad, partner and friends is located here). Also as adults we can heal and shift our attachment style, but it’s difficult. Having an avoidant attachment style basically means that at a young age I learned to avoid intimacy and to rely on myself emotionally; I feel like it is dangerous to rely on others too much emotionally. Other terms for this are being “Distant” or “Move Away” Type.

Enmeshment and Abandonment Attachment difficulties can include experiences of being overly bonded (enmeshed, smothered) as well as of lacking bonding (abandoned, neglected). These could create tendencies to act in the same ways with our significant other. We may:

– enmesh with them, not know how to individualize and explore the world as our self, clueless about how to have healthy boundaries with our partner

– abandon them, or cling due to deep fears of abandonment, or sometimes feel sorrow and grief from past abandonment that needs resolving still, projecting it onto our partner

Insecure Attachment.

Insecure attachment means that, even without PTSD, I might find it difficult to feel secure and safe internally and in the world. It is hard for me to know, in a real way, that I have the inner security to break the attachment bond with my boyfriend and explore life and be my own person. I may not feel whole or able to depend on my own inner resources in life.

If I don’t feel that I can be my own person and be both safe and independent (have both a well developed internal working model of secure attachment and a healthy exploratory system), I may be dependent and I may feel trapped by my dependency. This could lead to a lot of problems. Healthy independence is the prerequisite to healthy interdependence.

Every Couple Has Their Own Attachment Styles Dance.

My partner’s attachment style and my attachment style will have a particular dance they do together including enmeshment, abandonment, and struggles with over-independence and over-dependence as we work on achieving a state of healthy, balanced interdependence.

If one partner has PTSD, this struggle to understand and achieve interdependence will be way more challenging and confusing and most likely cannot be addressed at this time. The state of being shattered and fragile makes one much more dependent.

Dependency is an Act of Courage for Those with PTSD

In my opinion, when someone has a mental illness, they are sick and it’s OK for them to be dependent on others for things. If a family member has cancer, it would be expected that they may depend on loved ones during this time of illness and as they recover. I think that the same is true for mental illnesses.

So one problem I see is confusing the healthy, courageous dependency that occurs when one is sick with the unhealthy dependency generated from childhood wounding that really should be healed.

It’s OK for the work on developing healthy interdependence, overcoming childhood wounds and becoming a whole, functioning adult, to remain buried and unaddressed when the symptoms of PTSD dominate the picture. This is the time to focus on healing and learning to handle the mental illness. It’s time to invest in therapy and focus efforts on the most pressing issue, the mental illness. When the mental illness is handled to a certain level and that new level of balance and competency around it is holding up, then it may be time to work on the issues of dependency, enmeshment and abandonment that most people need to work through in relationships in general.

If you have a mental illness and are dependent on your partner, forgive and accept yourself and know that asking for help, receiving help, and being dependent are acts of courage. However, when you have achieved a certain level of stability and balance in regards to the mental illness and are more capable of interdependence, don’t let habits of dependency you may have developed stop you from healing the deeper childhood wounds that create pathological forms of dependency in intimate relationships.

Pre-verbal Issues need a Somatic Approach.

Note that I mention some issues on this attachment style layer are “pre-verbal.” I am just including that to point out that some of the deepest issues inside of us are things that do not necessarily have words or language attached to them, and that is why somatic work that gets into the experience of the body can help with certain issues that talking will not do anything for.

Layer 3. Defensive Structures

A defensive structure is any mechanism built internally and used to protect one from getting hurt in a way they were previously hurt.

A defensive structure is also something built up around a belief about self and reality that formed out of painful experiences.

Defensiveness can take forms such as:

  • withdrawing, doing it “by myself,” cutting people off, leaving before being left
  • arrogance, egotism
  • cynicism, expecting the worst defends against disappointment, negative attitude
  • too friendly – being overly accommodating and too friendly, never get angry
  • bossiness
  • controlling – exerting super extreme control over things
  • stoicism, pretending nothing hurts
  • toughness, hiding emotions that are “weak” to appear strong
  • secretiveness, lying
  • seduction, getting things to go your way, pressuring, childishness, selfishness
  • perfectionism – trying to do everything perfectly, pleasing others due to fear
  • intellectualism to avoid emotions, stay cut off from emotions
  • future dreaming – living in one’s daydreams and imagination and not facing the reality of now
  • idealism – only seeing what one wants to see, pretending bad is good, not seeing anything negative
  • projection – putting your issues onto others

Every Couple Has Their Own Defense Dance.

Each partner has their own defense structures inside them. The combination of these two sets of defensive reactions in the relationship will have its own particular, usually highly difficult, dance. This would occur even without PTSD. When you add PTSD on top of this dance, it makes it very challenging.

I’ll just give a recent example. My boyfriend was keeping a secret from me because in the past when he opened up and was vulnerable he got criticized, ridiculed, judged, made fun of etc. He was using a defense. Remember a defensive structure usually has something it protects as well as a belief. He was protecting himself from pain of humiliation, and the belief was that he did something wrong and if he told me I would be judgmental and cause him pain.

For me, a boyfriend who holds back information reminds me of a traumatic experience with a sick, manipulative man so the holding of secrets can throw me into a terror on a body level. Actually this just happened a few days ago. I became so frightened because my boyfriend wouldn’t tell me something and I had a total meltdown (felt panicky, shaky, confused, helpless and overwhelmed). I tried so hard to figure out what the secret was and I became so afraid and imbalanced I had to leave and go on a walk outside for a long time. I had so many ideas of what it could possibly be and mean. When he finally told me, it was something really kind of innocent and it just seems crazy now that I look back. But this is just one example of how one partner’s defensive structures can really set off the other partner’s mental illness.

Layer 4. Other Psychological Issues and Coping Mechanisms

Here we are talking about things that we have developed like various patterns, habits, beliefs, addictions.

Let’s take a look at addictions. If one or both people in the relationship have certain addictions, that adds another dynamic into the mix.

Generally, the addicted partner abandons their partner, themselves, and their relationship when involved in the addictive activity. Even if the activity involves their partner, they may be emotionally abandoning their partner and involved in relating more to the addiction than their partner during this time (this may be very subtle).

For example, two people may both enjoy playing video games and even at times play together. The one who is addicted to video games might not be present emotionally with the other person in the way that person would like while playing. The addicted person will also play more frequently, sabotaging goals they have personally and also goals they have with their partner. So even though to an outside observer you may see both people spending an hour playing a video game and it looks like a fun time, in reality the one who is addicted to video games is destroying the relationship.

OK so let’s say one person is struggling with an addiction and the other has PTSD. This will be a huge mess because both the addiction and the PTSD cause them to abandon one another.

Also, both disorders set each other off.

The addiction could easily trigger the person with PTSD into terror, panic, meltdown if they were traumatized in a context in which someone was addicted before. The person with PTSD would sense their partner’s addictive attitudes and behavior and they would feel that there is a huge, dangerous, scary monster of some kind around them (they would get triggered by the presence of the addiction but not understand what was going on).

As for the addicted partner, their partner’s PTSD could push them to do more of their addictive behavior. Witnessing their partner endure the painful, terrifying, challenging experience of PTSD could be way too much for them to deal with, and they may end up trying to escape reality and their feelings by engaging in their addictive behavior.

This is where the tangled yarn really starts getting tangled up! And remember, this Layer is sitting on top of Layer 2 and 3 which are already huge challenges!

Layer 5. Mental Illnesses

Mental Illnesses Set Each Other Off.

I have PTSD and depression. If my boyfriend also had a mental illness, my mental illnesses and his mental illness would have a dance they would do together in which the symptoms of one mental illness would set off the symptoms of the other.

Note that some of these issues that fall in this category are actually biological in nature, with psychological components (like depression and bipolar).

Relationship House

OK, so I just built the basement of the relationship house, the foundation two people walk upon when in a relationship. The first layer of the foundation of the house is the people themselves as they are if you took away all the layers from wounding – the innocent, pure, authentic 100% OK being that comes into this world as a baby, including all the personality traits and talents that make them uniquely them. Then on top of this is everything in each person’s unconscious mind including all their past wounding in childhood and previous relationships, the way they perceive their partner and relationship (internal working model) based on parental attachment bonding, any defensive structures they have developed based on painful experiences, and all other psychological issues such as addictions and mental illnesses. It’s very complex.

The actual house is what the two people are going to build together as the relationship – the unique structure that the two of them can create together.

Can one even begin to build a house if one partner has PTSD or is the house doomed to fail?

We take a look at that in Part 2. Click here to go to Part 2!


Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Note: This article and all articles on this blog are based on my personal experience as someone recovering from PTSD. Much is theoretical material, however it is material I consider worth being studied in depth in a scientific manner at some point in time.

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14 Responses

  1. Such a lovely and inspiring article and I love your infographics 🙂 Thank you author keep on blogging we need people like you 😉 If I may, I provided a link to those seeking alternative treatment for those who experiencing depression, anxiety and trauma including PTSD thought these might help also. Thank you!

  2. This was so incredibly helpful! Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. Much peace and love to you as you continue to heal and grow <3

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