When You Love Someone With Complex PTSD

  • If your partner experienced significant trauma during childhood and you find yourself in awe of all that they are in spite of what they have been through, yet uncertain at times about how to provide the right kind of support, then this article is for you.
  • If you recognize the wisdom within your partner that is derived from their experiences, but struggle to access your own wisdom when you see your partner suffering then this article is for you.
  • Lastly, if you sometimes see your partner as someone who would benefit from healing work but, are not sure of the right place to start then this article is for you.
  1. Attachment: the ways in which a person learns to have relationships with others
  2. Self-Regulation: the way in which a person handles self soothing in the face of stress.
  1. You can not erase existing templates but you can create new ones.
  2. Your efforts should be patterned and repetitive, as these templates live in lower, less “plastic” ie. not as easily changed, parts of the brain that are only accessed and changed through doing things over and over again.
  3. You don’t need to figure this out on your own. Finding a couples therapist educated about Complex Trauma is recommended and can help facilitate the healing process.
  1. Be Consistent, be predictable: Repetition is the key to building a secure attachment. It also facilitates the ability to trust. For example, calling your partner every night before bed to say goodnight, this may seem simple, but it can have a profound effect on shaping a new, loving, and secure template of what a relationship can be in your partner’s brain.
  2. Know your boundaries: This is a big one and related back again to being consistent and predictable. What is and what is not in your control? If your partner is struggling with mood symptoms including anxiety or depression and struggling with self regulation, it is not your job to fix that, but you can encourage your partner to establish a relationship with a therapist or make an appointment with an existing one. It can be powerful to validate your partner’s suffering while simultaneously acknowledging that you do not have the power to make it all better. In all relationships it is important for each partner to own their own struggles and work on them independently from the relationship.
  3. Establish and keep up with your own self care plan: When we fall in love it is so easy to give and give and then one day we wake up and we realize, “Oops! I have given to everyone except me!” You have got to fill your own bucket. Keeping up with a routine that nourishes you and keeps you connected to yourself and those in your support system is crucial. You are modeling for your partner that it is okay to practice self care and encouraging the process called differentiation (an ongoing process of self-defining within the context of the relationship that is a key developmental milestone within relationship and is that which sets the stage for further development and deeper intimacy as your relationship progresses).
  4. Don’t try to explain, instead “connect and redirect”: Emotions are not logical, yet it is our tendency to try to explain our way through them. When your partner is in an emotional state of activation, remember, first connect by reflecting back what you hear them say, including their feelings. Listen and mirror without the intention of problem solving. Once your partner has expressed to you that they are feeling heard, ask them if they want support in problem solving (re-direct). Once you check for their interest, you may find that you have already helped enough!
  5. Do find out what is soothing to your partner: People who have experienced complex trauma are often well aware of what they do and do not like. Ask them their preferences, you may find out that your partner can not tolerate massage but loves a warm bath. If so, draw them a bath and draw it often! Remember: repetition, consistency, predictability.
  6. Practice consent in intimacy and beyond: Trauma is defined as an extreme loss of control to a perceived threat or life threatening situation. Healing for trauma survivors always includes establishing a sense of safety. A way to safety is though experienced control– practicing consent is a powerful vessel for this. This means asking permission before and during intimate encounters as well as throughout your day-to-day interactions, for example, “Is it okay if I move your things while I clean this room?”
  7. Anticipate events that could cause anxiety for your partner: Work together to create a safety plan. For example, if your partner feels anxious in social settings like big events such as a wedding, decide ahead of time where to sit during the ceremony and have a signal that you can give to one another if your partner needs a break. This can be a good opportunity to step outside and get a breather, check in about how you are both doing, and make adjustments to your plan as necessary.
  8. Don’t take it personally: Your partner has been through a lot. It is likely that if your partner has a reaction to something that you do or say that it has less to do with you than you think and more to do with what that thing reminds them of. When this happens take a deep breath and do your own physiological self soothing, then when you feel regulated check back in, try to think of these moments as opportunities to learn more about what your partner’s triggers are so that you can work with them in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

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