Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Intimate Relationships

Firstly, before exploring this subject I’d like to point out that I’m not academically trained in any field of psychology. 

PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is a disorder that most people have at least heard of and mostly associate with the clichéd example of the combat veteran who re-experiences memories of his time during war. This type of PTSD is typified by re-experiencing symptoms, including intrusive memories and anxiety attacks where the same feelings that were felt during the trauma itself are felt again despite the situation having long passed. These are what we have come to know as flashbacks. 

In a flashback, physical changes take place in the body. A flashback will most often involve an acute stress response or ‘adrenaline rush’ just like the body did during the original traumatic event. While there are different types of response, such a ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘freeze’ and ‘fawn’, in almost all cases the physical symptoms include increased heart rate, shortness of breath or shallow/rapid breathing, shaking hands and legs and extreme tension in the body.

There have been interesting advances in counselling/therapy/coaching in the identification of a type of PTSD that potentially provides a model for understanding and ultimately working with what is likely the root cause of many instances of sudden major upsets in our intimate relationships. 

‘Complex’ PTSD, as it has come to be known is thought to develop in the sufferer of this disorder by them having been exposed to unfavourable circumstances and a series of traumatic events over a prolonged period of time from which the individual cannot – or feels they cannot -escape. Apart from the experiences of being a prisoner of war or similar circumstances, this dynamic can also describe what many would describe as being simply an unhappy childhood.

CPTSD then, can be developed during one’s early years where they may have grown up in an unhealthy family environment with parents who have a dysfunctional relationship and/or parenting style. It is also thought possible to be created later in life from unhealthy/abusive intimate relationships.

While ‘standard’ PTSD can normally be attributed to an individual to a singular traumatic event such as a car crash, violent assault, witnessing a death or surviving a life-threatening incident, CPTSD is created over time from a series of events that may be considered less ‘serious’. Constantly witnessing parents fight or being unfairly treated or not having your emotions validated as a child may not be considered by some as traumatic events, but when experienced in circumstances in which the individual cannot leave, they have a very real effect on the personality and life blueprint through which that person will experience life. 

Emotional Flashbacks

In the example of the war veteran who jumps for cover at the sound of a car backfiring or a balloon popping and is emotionally taken back to his time during the war, the sufferer knows where this reaction has come from.

When a flashback is triggered in the case of CPTSD, the same acute stress response is experienced, but there is no specific memory to go with the feeling.

Because the nature of the trauma was over an extended period of time and complex as opposed to coming from a single period in time or single event, there are rarely specific memories that can be identified as the moment of trauma. As such, the individual rarely realises that something is happening TO them. Instead, the increased heart rate, the sense of rage or terror may even feel appropriate, when in fact they have been triggered by something that in reality may be fairly benign.

Ever experienced in a relationship – past or present, in yourself or your partner - a situation where one of you said or did something, or failed to say or do something in all innocence, and the other had an epic reaction that seems completely ‘off’? We probably all know this one. But if it was/is a reoccurring theme, some exploration may well – and almost always does – reveal some childhood origin for where this extreme sensitivity was created.

Intimate relationships will always be a platform for these triggers to be made known because it’s when we let somebody into our hearts in this way that they touch that same part of us that previously only our parents or previous intimate partners have reached.

It’s important then to be sensitive to these in both yourself and your partner. Have compassion for the child that lives inside all of us that may be been treated unfairly – scared, angry, hurt. 
In more serious cases where one of you may regularly be experiencing rage or unexplainable terror, then counselling / coaching is more important than ever. In fact, whether remaining in that relationship or not some form of effective self-work will be essential for you both if real happiness to be created in your own lives.

CPTSD and emotional flashbacks all exists on a spectrum. At the lower end, ¬¬I have worked with people who have a slight over-sensitivity to feelings of being rejected. But I have also witnessed somebody become genuinely convinced – and convince others - that they were severely abused in a relationship (because they had no other way of explaining their intense childhood-based emotions) when in fact no abuse took place.

So be sensitive to why you or your partner may have strong reactions and in cases of one of you having experienced previous abuse, be extremely careful and make counselling/coaching and self-exploration a very real part of your relationship now!