Monday, October 1, 2012

Help! My Partner Has PTSD: Seven Strategies for Coping as a Couple

If you are partnered with someone who is struggling with PTSD or you both have PTSD, you know your life together is challenged in some very profound ways. Fights can be explosive, resulting in fireworks or endless stony silences. Misunderstandings can abound. The non-PTSD partner may start to develop secondary or vicarious trauma just being exposed to the intense PTSD in their loved one. Life can start to feel very unpredictable, like threading one’s way through a minefield. It can be easy to start walking on eggshells or conversely getting fed up and moving away from each other. Love and connection are harder to feel. PTSD challenges couples like nothing else. Waiting it out doesn’t work and neither do threats or force. What to do?

1) Educate yourself. PTSD is a whole body process that affects every aspect of the human being. It has predictable stages (see my book, The Trauma Tool Kit) and effects on the person and the partnership. You would educate yourself if your partner had a major medical illness, right? This is no different. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.

2) Set some clear boundaries around behavior in the relationship. Just because someone is suffering does not give them the right to be abusive. The anger/fear response is hardwired and amped up in full-blown PTSD. Often people with PTSD dissociate when they are angry and don’t even realize what they are doing. Sit down with your partner, ahead of time, and set rules for what is tolerable and allowed in the relationship and what is not. These can change over time depending on where each of you and your life circumstance. For instance, shouting might be OK if it is just the two of you, but if you have a child in the next room, shouting can become off-limits behavior. Violence or abusive behavior is never to be tolerated under any circumstances.

3) Learn to take time-outs, or, as we call them around here, amygdala resets. Your amygdala is the part of your brain that is the crisis response center. When it goes on red alert it highjacks the brain to deal with threats, whether real or perceived. With the amygdala in the red zone, people are very close to being out of control or they are out of control. Taking 20 minutes, the average reset time, to reboot the brain for both parties, will lend itself to a more peaceful and safe outcome. Either partner should be able to call time-out at any time. Be sure to make it a time out not an end to the discussion. Always come back together to resolve the issue at hand. If it is just too explosive get into couple’s therapy. Which reminds me…

4) Get into couple’s therapy! More research is showing that couple’s treatment can be very helpful in coping with PTSD. Individual therapy is great, but couple’s issues are complex and require their own special interventions. Not all therapists like to do or can do couples’ work well. Look for someone with previous education and training or with a degree in family work, who also is knowledgeable about trauma. Even a few sessions can make a tremendous difference. If you are worried about money (and who isn’t these days) know that there are many organizations that provide these services for low and no cost. If you are a veteran or married to one, you may be even more eligible. If money is still on your mind, remind yourself of how expensive divorces are, as long as you both shall live.

5) Study triggers together. Big rages and emotional swings are almost always brought on by triggers to PTSD. A trigger can be anything at all. I worked with a couple whose partner was an Iraq war veteran. He became severely triggered one afternoon by three events happening in close succession: he saw someone in the parking lot of the restaurant with camouflage clothing; he got a freeze headache, and he got closed in when more people joined his table. The clothing and feeling of being trapped are obvious triggers, the freeze headaches not so much. But it turned out he’d had a number of them in the desert, and it had become a trigger. The more triggers you figure out together, in the calm times, the easier it becomes to avoid setting the PTSD partner off, or resolving it more quickly if you do. This is an empowering step that often brings couples closer together. In this case, the couple avoided, what would have been in the past an angry meltdown on his part. His partner then could respond with concern and compassion.

6) Make healing PTSD a joint task in your relationship. Strategize together. Discuss medical options. Open up lines of trust and communication. Often a spouse or partner is the only person to tell one’s story to with complete safety and trust. Don’t avoid the issues just because your partner wants to. Avoidance is part of the disease of PTSD. Don’t collude with it.

7) Join together in mental and physical fitness. Develop couple’s routines around calming down the mind and body on a daily basis. This could be through prayer, meditation, tai chi, yoga, or long walks. The evidence is pouring in daily about the beneficial effects of calming techniques on PTSD. You will both be better for it!


  1. I am a survivor of sexual, emotional and physical abuse as a child and in a 14 year marriage. I am dealing with PTSD and thank you for your ideas and support. My present husband understands, but your ideas are very helpful. I find creating space from my family of origin is also helpful. They have abusive communication patterns and I have been the labeled scapegoat, especially by a sister that never has come out of the denial of our childhood or her marriage. I am learning healthy boundaries and how to use yoga and eating well to stay energized and centered and aware of triggers.

    1. If your man is pushing you away and acting distant

      Or if the guy you’re after isn’t giving you the time of day...

      Then it’s time to pull out all the stops.

      Because 99% of the time, there is only 1 thing you can say to a standoffish guy that will grab him by the heartstrings-

      And get his blood pumping at just the thought of you.

      Insert subject line here and link it to <=========> Your ex won’t be able to resist?

      Once you say this to him, or even send this simple phrase in a text message...

      It will flip his world upside down and you will suddenly find him chasing you-

      And even begging to be with you.

      Here’s what I’m talking about:

      Insert subject line here and link it to <========> Is your man hiding something? He may need your help?

      Thanks again.


  2. I am the partner of a husband who suffered horrendous abuse in childhood. We have been married for 18 years and have 2 wonderful children. It has taken years of unravelling to understand the PTSD trauma related symptoms he suffers from and the many triggers he has and their origins. I would say we still have a long way to go. A year ago he took the step of accepting hospitalisation along with alot of medication including anti-psychotics. This has since been the worst year of our marriage by far for me . My understanding of the effects of trauma and PTSD includes intense numbing and avoidance which were apparent for many years but we never understood what was going on. The medication seemed to just achieve the numbing and avoidance chemically and I believe has done great harm to my husband, our marriage, and our family. I really am shocked to realise how little psychiatrists understand Trauma and PTSD. I would love to know if anyone else has had any similar experiences

    1. My husband was also in the same situation. I found Manor Hall Centre for Trauma in Scotland. Out lives have changed forever. Good Luck

    2. Hello,
      My husband and I both went through childhood trauma. He had horrible abusive parents, incredibly bad parents, he is not like them and suffered more because he rebelled from what seems like birth, but as a child that only means more punishment not escape. I had absent and very young parents, too busy earning a living, divorcing, learning to be adults, overcoming their own childhoods to see all the abuse that "family and friends" were doing to their daughters, so I grew up with love but not a single safe place. He grew up safe from strangers/family in one sense but his parents were just so awful and did not love him. Since we've been married and stress of accidents, money, school, family, well PTSD was triggered for each of us suddenly and in close times that it overwhelmed us and the doctors we began seeing. They gave him meds that have changed him radically he was very absent heart and body from me, while I really need closeness to feel safe. We used to be so close, so very close that he is the only person I really trust. But then he became abusive and full of rage that would blow up at me, and yes it is because I tried to help him in ways that did not help us, I tried to help my parents a lot, they are like children actually in many ways. Nonetheless I do know first hand what you mean about the medication making our husbands chemically numb and their avoidance heightened. My husband felt he did not love and told me as much. You can understand the destruction we have had in our lives when he disconnected and left me alone to deal with everything. We are coming around now. He is not taking the SSRI's and or the antipsychotics, mostly medication to help his anxiety and concentration. He is now working very hard to connect with me and be his best self. Keep trying and keep protesting, pain is not ok, it is a sign we need to ask for help. I hope my story helps you. Yours helped me.

    3. My husband comes from an abusive family and I'm only now starting to realize the full extent of his trauma. I blame myself for not having been more help from the start, but he always came across as being so sure of himself and the work he has done on his own, that I did not have the confidence to question it. We have been together many years and got married a few months ago. Since then problems have rapidly escalated and violent outbursts are becoming more and more frequent. I know he needs help but I do not know where to turn. I don't believe in medication and your post supports everything I thought already. But I know it would take a very good therapist to reach him and I don't know how to find the right one. I don't know if I can or if I do and it doesnt work out, will he just blame me for setting him up with a crock? Can I help him myself or am I just creating a co-dependent relationship where I will ultimately just end up making things even worse?

  3. I am the spouse of a veteran who's lived with PTSD for all of our 20-year marriage. I always thought my happy-go-lucky influence was 'fixing' him. He said so. He says I gave him a reason to live.
    We knew that I managed life for him - filtered it into a manageable state so he could respond. That included our kids: if they got a bad grade, they tell me first and I tell him. Or if they misbehaved or something, I took care of it. Road trips?
    Major undertaking - too much he can't control. Walk the dogs on our dead-end country dirt road? He projects aggression so nothing will hurt us. Everywhere - even the grocery store, restaurants and parties. He always carries a gun. When I remark on it, he justifies it: 'See, nothing bad has ever happened to us, right? It's working.'
    It has taken years for enough little thoughts and realizations to stick together into one big one: that this man I pledged my life to has PTSD and that I can't take it any more. That his own childhood abuse, his 'boundaries' that he sets (as in, the learned behaviors he has and the rules he sets are what he believe allows him to come home safely each night from his current law enforcement profession), his anger and all of the hallmarks of PTSD he has. Full-blown. A therapist told me that our kids have suffered abuse. His therapist told him his anger and behavior are abuse.
    His therapist: he's seen her once and already believes she has fixed him. He hasn't even told her the traumatic event yet! but he's been on his best behavior for the past two weeks. Dare I hope he's cured?
    Even so, I'm done. I hope that he finds peace.
    With all that said, I am so scared to leave. I am the only thing holding his sanity together. He knows it. I know it. He's had 20 years to build this 'unit,' this enclave we live in, and I don't know if I'm strong enough to leave. But all I see is freedom on the other side of this enormous, protective wall he's built. That I allowed him to build. The worst part? To nearly everyone else in this world, he appears to be great. I feel like I have no support. And because he's never hit us I'm told that it really can't be all that bad. Yeah he's never hit us - he never had to. Or he redirects physical aggression - he'll lean in and at the last second turn to the side to launch something, or slam a door.
    My kids are showing physical effects from the stress. My boys have learned these behaviors as normal.
    I'm done. I have to be. I have to find the strength to be. I don['t know how to do this.

    1. Strength isn't what you need to feel to moveon its in the values you posess. You can leave knowing you are a taking a great deal of knowledge with you that he does not want to look at, as well as your kids and you have more than you need to create a better life.
      I am 26 and have learnt my greatest accomplishment is knowing I am enough. Always.

    2. I am going through the same thing but I have two little girls. I now have secondary ptsd and wonder if my oldest might as well. Any advice?

    3. i am living with a man who has PTSD and I am a man who has PTSD from childhood sexual abuse. the anxiety is horrendous now after a year and half. I feel very depressed most of the time...I cannot be his therapist...we seem unable to communicate...I tend to need quiet alone time to recharge...he just constantly wants to be with me..all the time....I have tried to encourage him to get out more on his own...without defining himself with up....feeling very trapped and hopeless.

  4. Please don't give up in your journey of healing. Healing is always possible. I would recommend you read The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD From the Inside Out which I wrote for people who were feeling helpless and alone with their suffering. Then seek out the best trauma therapist you can. More information is available on my website

  5. What can I do to help if my PTSD husband is now incrediby (possibly suicidal??) depressed? He wont see anyone (parents used to force him to therapy and treatment) and refuses to participate in anything relaxing or family-based. Except the occasional family dinner at my parents, and we have to leave asap when we're done eating. I dont want to leave, I believe that if he would get/accept help we can finally work through all of this. He has made some progress (sobriety). How do I get him out of his head so we can be a family? He has been very destructive to our home and I don't want our children seeing this behavior as normal. In order to prevent his blow-ups, I have to refrain from ANY conflict or opposing opinion because theres no telling when he'll decide to put a hole in the wall. I am not who I used to be. I dont know what to do.

    1. Would love to hear an answer to this as your Situation sounds very familiar to me.
      We don't show up as a family, he goes places rather alone than with me and our son so I always feel as if we're not important to him.
      Having an opposing opinion is pretty much impossible or I am stupid and what not. When we once had a fight he even told me his car was more important to him than me... the next day he says 'you know I love you but you gotta chill...' ... well it's not always easy to stay calm...
      I constantly have to walk on eggshells to not set him off but I can't just say YES to everything...

      I love him so much and I also think that if he would accept help and work on himself our relationship would be so much better. But for now 99% of our fights or his bad mood are my fault, even though I'm not really doing anything wrong.

      I wish I knew how to fix this...

    2. You've described my life with my husband who is a veteran. We too go places (if he goes at all) separately. I am treated like an ignorant child if I disagree or don't jump on his bandwagon when he rants, but if I say nothing he growls that I'm unresponsive and difficult. Everything is my fault. I know I play my part in the problems, but I too easily accept the responsibility and then feel the need to insulate him more. I keep my feelings hidden to try to avoid setting him off.

      I try to keep his exposure to triggers at a minimum, but his explosions have become more frequent. He's having more episodes where he doesn't even remember what he did or said. He throws things, screams, and talks about killing others or himself. I'm hiding guns more often lately. He expresses a great deal of guilt over the choices he had to make to come home alive.

      He was forced (an intervention of sorts about 4 years ago) to go to counseling at the VA, but still claims he doesn't need help. I also went to a VA counselor, but it wasn't nearly long enough.

      My husband terrifies me and frustrates me. I've read and read about PTSD, but after 22 years of this with no improvement, I am exhausted. I have raised 2 kids and feel like I have another kid instead of a husband. Our friends think he's a fun guy and a doting husband. They have no idea about the roller coaster ride our kids and I have been on over the years. I'm labeled as critical and cold because of what he tells his friends. Don't get me wrong, he is a great guy that does a lot of nice things for people; he's just not willing to get help for the PTSD. He sees it as a weakness better left hidden at home. I feel isolated and judged because no one understands. Above all, I feel guilty for my lack of empathy at times.

      Because I understand the struggle, I've started doing research to start a nonprofit that will help not just those plagued by PTSD, but also their families. I don't want to feel alone anymore and I know there are many others out there in similar situations.

    3. Thank you for sharing, I live in a newer, similar environment and also feel so alone and isolated. (Second blended marriage of 8 long years). Does anyone know of an online support group for wives of PTSD spouse besides the VA?

    4. Thank you for sharing, I live in a newer, similar environment and also feel so alone and isolated. (Second blended marriage of 8 long years). Does anyone know of an online support group for wives of PTSD spouse besides the VA?

  6. I suffer PTSD from a past abusive relationship and my trigger is my loved ones drinking heavily. I'm currently in a relationship and my partner and her family don't see a problem with drinking. They drink most days and I can't cope with it. Do you suggest I walk away from this situation?

    1. i believe that a healthy relationship encourages growth without requiring coping mechanisms and inducing stress. It may be the disrespectful behaviors that correspond with the drinking in which case yes walk away and don't look back. You are worthy of being loved completely.

  7. My girlfriend suffers from PTSD from the past, she was abandoned, betrayed by her mother and then latter trafficked where she suffered some physical abuse.
    We have been trying to work on things together but today it came out in the open that its not working and she needed to deal with this on her own. I understand her decision and I don't want and will not cut her off, but I am giving her space to figure things out.

    What can I do to be more supportive, to help her get more comfortable in her own skin, and not letting our relationship diminish.

    Please give me advice.

    1. Hello, You can book an appointment through my website:

      Best to you.

    2. Hello, this may be too late, but please dont leave her alone. If she went through all that and still decided to trust you, she needs you more than anyone can explain. I went through a lot and I know that I am a better person because my husband decided to marry me and hold on. I am sure it is not working between the two of you without a lot of help, but she must be so helpless and such a strong person to still go out on a hope to find salvation and protection to get together with you. She has to be worth sticking it out for I am guessing, because I know I am. I have PTSD and I am an amazing wife today, I hope you can be the light in her life, think about it, light is not something that we can touvh or something that depends on us to exist, there is light that illuminates our lives if we look to it, if we allow that light to shine on our path, the light might blind you and make thinngs impossible to see or you may be unable to see the light or use it, but it can be there and it can be healing to know it will continue to be there. Be her light while she works on herself, set boundaries, help her, be there however you can without failing or falling into despair and suffering which surely you must also feel.

  8. Hi all, Please note that this page is no longer active. If you want to contact me you can do so through my website and new blog at or through my Facebook page /TheTraumaToolKit.

    Blessings, Sue PB

  9. Hello,
    Thank you so much for writing this article. My husband and I have been together for 2.5 years and I'm still trying to figure out what I can do to help him cope with his PTSD.
    He was severely abused as a child by his mother and has dealt with the effects for years. He is 30 years old and ran away from his mother to get away from the abuse. We have two kids together and the older the kids get, the more they become triggers for his PTSD.
    This article has helped me quite a bit in I'm seeing what I can do to help him cope with everything, so thank you.

  10. Hello this information is help, I have been seeing someone who has PTSD and has recently made it clear she has had recent episodes of flash backs and has pulled away not wanting to be touched told she is beautiful or want help she just wants to be in that dark place, she said she loves me but has also been talking to someone from her past and has not be speaking to me and some of those conversations have crossed the line of a friend, learned it is her past love of her life.. Is this a way of couping or her wanting out of what we had any advise?

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  12. Glad I found this thread, was interesting to hear everyone's stories. My partner of 7 years was diagnosed with PTSD last year from childhood sexual abuse after he suffered a severe mental breakdown. During this breakdown he left me and told me he no longer loved me, which you can imagine tore me apart.Once he realised he was suffering a mental breakdown and got the help he needed he begged for me back. It was a hard decision for me, we have 4 beautiful children and I knew he was very ill but he had hurt me so badly. His doctor was amazing and aswell as getting him the medication he needed she also 'counselled' us through the worst times. 8 months down the line and we are in a different place altogether. A month ago he stopped taking all medication, against his doctors wishes, and since then I have been walking on eggshells. He drinks too much, is rarely at home and 'explodes' at least once a week and then needs at least 24 hours of rest following this 'crisis' where he can sleep for long periods or struggle to get out of bed. I've tried talking to him about it but he stands by that he's 'better' without medication and that it makes him 'fuzzy'. I try to be understanding but I can't make him see that he is very ill. I'm getting to the point where I could just up and leave but I worry that I'm not standing by him and I don't want our family to be torn apart again! I feel at a loss of what to do, when he's calm and settled he can see my point and promises to do something about it but then an episode will happen and it's back to square one. I love him very much and try very hard but I'm so unhappy. Any suggestions/advice???