Key Takeaways

  • Relationship PTSD, also known as post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS), is a type of traumatic stress that can occur from being in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.
  • Relationship PTSD differs from traditional PTSD because the trauma is prolonged over time and individuals often find it difficult to avoid memories of the relationship abuse. 
  • The condition is treated with therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication management, but when left unaddressed, can cause long-lasting social, psychological, and physical effects. 
A note to the reader: If you feel unsafe in your relationship for any reason, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by dialing 800-799-7233 for confidential support.  If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship, it can be tough to remember how you got there. For many people in this situation, the abuse typically happens over a prolonged period of time, slowly damaging your emotional and even physical health. Eventually, this can cause something called relationship PTSD. Similar to traditional post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), relationship PTSD can cause long-term health effects without the proper care and support.

What is relationship PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that’s triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Common examples of traumatic events include serious accidents, natural disasters, bullying, terrorist acts, and war. When trauma is caused by an unhealthy or abusive relationship, it’s sometimes referred to as relationship PTSD, or post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS). Relationship PTSD usually stems from repeated exposure to abusive behavior from intimate partners. Examples of abuse in an intimate relationship include: 
  • Physical abuse: Direct physical harm or threats of physical harm, such as pushing, hitting, throwing objects, or physical restraint. 
  • Emotional abuse: Using emotions to control someone’s behavior. Examples of emotional abuse include gaslighting, insults, isolation, and guilt-tripping.
  • Sexual abuse: Coercing someone to engage in sexual activity without their consent, such as unwanted kissing or touching, sexual assault, or rape.
  • Technology abuse: Controlling or monitoring someone’s phone calls, messages, social media, or email accounts without their permission.

Is relationship PTSD the same as typical PTSD? 

Relationship PTSD is considered to be a proposed subcategory of PTSD, but isn’t an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must experience symptoms in the following categories for at least one month:
  • Re-experiencing symptom
  • Avoidance symptom
  • Arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • Cognition and mood symptoms
People with relationship PTSD may experience many of these symptoms, but won’t have avoidance symptoms. In fact, folks with relationship PTSD often fixate on the relationship abuse and continue to experience intrusive thoughts and feelings related to the trauma. 

Common signs and symptoms of relationship PTSD

Being in an abusive relationship can have long-lasting psychological and physical effects. For example, some research suggests that women who experienced domestic violence were more likely to describe themselves as sad, lonely, apathetic, or angry compared with those who didn’t experience domestic violence. People who experienced trauma or abuse may also experience flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, sleep problems, chronic fatigue, and changes in eating or sleeping habits. When left untreated, relationship PTSD can also impact people’s daily lives. Trouble with relationships, work, or school may be signs that a person is struggling to manage their mental health symptoms.

Strained interpersonal relationships

People with a history of trauma or abuse may have trouble trusting others. After being abused by a partner, it’s normal to experience fear and anxiety about future relationships.

Career and academic consequences

Untreated trauma can also have implications for a person’s performance at work or school. When you’re struggling to focus or manage feelings of anxiety or depression, it can be difficult to sustain focus in these settings. 

Physical health concerns

In addition to mental health consequences, exposure to trauma can affect people’s physical health. Exposure to stressful situations has been linked to cardiovascular issues and digestive problems, as well as insomnia, nightmares, and other problems with sleep.  

Overcoming relationship PTSD

Recovering from relationship PTSD can be challenging, but access to the right resources and support can help people heal and build healthier lives.

1. Seek professional help

Living with trauma often feels overwhelming or hopeless, but working with a mental health professional can help people process emotions, develop coping methods, and build healthier relationships.  Treatment varies from person to person, but therapists will often use talk therapy to overcome trauma. Common therapy practices for trauma include cognitive behavior therapy, exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). For those who need additional support, medication management may be an effective option for managing symptoms of PTSD and other types of trauma. It’s worth noting that visiting a therapist’s office may be challenging for some people living with trauma. For those who aren’t comfortable with in-person care or lack local treatment options, telehealth is a safe and convenient way to access the benefits of care. There are also organizations dedicated to supporting individuals who have experienced relationship abuse, such as:

2. Consider self-help strategies

There are various self-care strategies to help people who have experienced trauma or abuse. The key is finding one that empowers you to overcome past trauma and find peace. 
  • Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Mindfulness means being in the present moment. It encourages people to remain focused and aware of the present while increasing their ability to cope with difficult emotions. 
  • Journaling: Journaling is an example of a self-reflection practice that allows for introspection and personal growth. Not sure where to start? Document your short-term and long-term goals, positive affirmations, or one thing that you’re grateful for each day. And for those who are artistic, journaling is a great way to express yourself through poems, drawings, or collage.
  • Support system: Trauma and abuse can be extremely isolating, and surrounding yourself with good people is an important part of recovery. A support system is a network of people who you can rely on for emotional and practical support. This can be family, friends, co-workers, support groups, or anyone that you trust to be non-judgmental and empathetic. 
  • Be open about your trauma: It may be tempting to leave the past in the past, but sharing your trauma with current or future partners can help you to have a more open and supportive partnership. Only disclose what you’re comfortable with, but sharing specific triggers and coping mechanisms can help educate your partner on the condition and how to best support you. 

3. Lifestyle changes

Making small changes to your daily habits can help reduce trauma symptoms and improve overall quality of life. Examples of lifestyle changes that have a positive impact on your mental health include regular exercise, a nutritious diet, an adequate amount of sleep each night, and limiting alcohol use. 

Recover from relationship PTSD

Relationship PTSD can have long-lasting mental and physical health effects when left untreated. But with the right support, you can begin your healing journey and learn how to manage symptoms, overcome trauma, and build healthier relationships.  Rula makes it easy to find a licensed therapist who is in network with your insurance, accepting new clients, and an expert in providing PTSD care and treatment. With Rula, you’ll have access to our network of over 8,000 therapists, making it easier to find a provider who specializes in trauma and relationship abuse. And if you’re looking for medication management, our team can also help you connect with a psychiatric provider to help you create a treatment plan just for you. 

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