Columbia University Medical Center
Ranked #1 in Psychiatry
U.S. News & World Report
Ranked #1 in Research Funding
National Institutes of Health
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital The University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell

Ask the Experts

Question:

I am the partner of a person with PTSD. What can I do to express my feelings about the stress my partner's symptoms are causing in our relationship but still be supportive and loving?

Answered by: Gregory Sullivan

In addition to difficulties with knowing how best to help their loved one, partners of people with PTSD often also have difficulty knowing how to cope with many of symptoms of PTSD that have now become part of their life too.

Like many debilitating chronic illnesses, the person suffering from PTSD may require constant care from a loved one. Learning as much as possible about PTSD, the array of symptoms that make up the syndrome – re-experiencing phenomena (nightmares, unwanted images/thoughts, flashbacks), avoidant behaviors, emotional numbing, and hyperarousal symptoms (irritability, sleep disturbance, increased startle) - can be immensely helpful to both individuals in the relationship. The severity of these symptoms has been found to correlate with the amount of burden and stress experienced by the partners of individuals with PTSD.

Emotional numbing can be a particularly challenging symptom for a relationship as it may also leave a partner feeling emotionally abandoned during a time when other stressors may include financial strain, family crises, loss of support from friend and other family, and loss of intimacy with the most important person in one’s life.

Also, it is important for the partner, friends, and family of individuals with PTSD to be alert for the frequent complications associated with PTSD such as clinical depression, suicidal behaviors, and substance use disorders, encouraging professional intervention and treatment.

For the individual in a relationship who is suffering from PTSD, there are several psychotherapies specifically tailored to the disorder that have been proven effective for many, and medications may also play a role in the treatment of PTSD symptoms.

No less important is the need for support services for partners of individuals with PTSD - and outside support is often needed, whether in the form of communicating with others in similar circumstances, attending support groups for partners of individuals with PTSD, or even seeking one’s own individual psychotherapy in some instances. “Caregiver guilt” for taking time for one's self is not uncommon; yet the stress the partner experiences is substantial and must be addressed, including taking time “to recharge” one’s own emotional state. The more a caregivers can learn how to address their own stress, the better they may be able to provide ongoing support to their loved one and grow closer despite the adversity caused by the symptoms of their partner’s disorder.