Happy Valentines Day to all you good people out there! I talk a lot about breaking isolation and forming relationships, but a topic many of you have asked me to cover is, how to be in a relationship with another person who has Childhood PTSD.
This is such an important question, about something that can be really hard, I know. But it can also be totally workable and positive for both people. It means the world to me that so many people care enough to learn to be a good partner who are affected by hard stuff in their childhood.
I first want to acknowledge that the symptoms of Childhood PTSD are on a continuum. They come and go. They might be little things and they could be very serious things, and before I get into the nuts and bolts of how to be with someone who is having these symptoms, I just want to say: Under no circumstances should you put up with abuse. I’ll go into that a little more at the end.
So YES! People who had a hard childhood are totally worthy and lovable, and worth a bit of trouble sometimes. And yes, we can be complicated and confusing and needy and exasperating sometimes, but also wise and capable and warm. So here are some tips to help you understand your loved one and offer support while also taking care of yourself — because there is no good relationship without that!
It may be helpful to know that a lot of what your partner is dealing with is called dysregulation. This is a real and measurable nervous system phenomenon that can cause a person to feel spaced out, discombobulated, emotionally overreactive and struggling to think straight (you’re going AHA! Right?). I’ll put links to other videos and articles of mine down below if you want to learn about that.
Dysregulation happens to everybody to some degree sometimes, and we all naturally recover from it eventually. This recovered state is called re-regulation. It’s just that for people with Childhood PTSD, it can happen a lot more frequently and be a lot harder to climb back out of it. So unrecovered, we spending less time regulated and a lot more time dysregulated. And it’s during those dysregulated times that the problems can really get in.
It’s important to remember the tendency to get dysregulated isn’t your partner’s fault, and it isn’t your fault, even if he/she THINKS it’s your fault when they’re upset. Everybody does that sometimes right — blames the other person? But the symptoms you’re seeing are probably just what PTSD looks like when it’s not very well under control.
Technically, how you deal with your partner’s dysregulation could influence how quickly he/she can get re-regulated. If you just start yelling or threatening to leave, you’re not likely to calm things down, so unless you mean it, I’d recommend you not do that.
And you DON’t have to be a doormat here. It’s important for you to remember, even if your partner can’t see it in the moment, that it’s not your fault her feelings got this intense, and you are not responsible for making it all better right now.
It’s not your fault and it’s not your job. It’s our job. We’ve got to learn to re-regulate. Nobody can regulate our PTSD brains for us. We’re the ones who’ve got to take steps to change. And we’re the ones who have the option of self control, as hard as it may be to draw upon, when we’re feeling the urge to lash out or run away from our loved ones. It’s not our fault, but the change happens with us.
OK, that said, here’s what you can do. You can support your partner as he/she tries to heal. You can ask or suggest that they try to heal, or read a certain book or try a certain technique, but you can’t make it happen — not on your timeline, not against their will, and you can’t do it for them (if only, right?).
What you can do is be understanding, be encouraging, and be willing to step back and detach a little when things feel crazy, and by that I mean, have have boundaries.
You might notice that when your partner is dysregulated, they can go from happy to goofy to overwhelmed to enraged and then to emotional flatness, like nothing ever happened, all without you ever realizing what set this off!
And sometimes they’ll be dysregulated without any outward signs. They seem fine, but then you notice they’re not hearing a word you say, or they’re tripping over things or forgetting to show up for appointments. With some people, this brain fog aspect of dysregulation can be really pervasive. And it’ll be tempting for you to think they’re acting this way intentionally to show you that you’re not important to them, or they don’t respect you. And while all of this could be the case, it’s most likely just a sign they’re dysregulated.
Believe me, I’m telling people like your partner that dysregulation is not an excuse to be rude or inconsiderate. Healing while you’re in a couple means two people meeting half way. Your partner may need to make the effort to SHOW you he/she cares. And you need to keep in mind that a brain thing might be temporarily blocking the signs of caring that you need to see.
Maybe the hardest thing about a person with Childhood PTSD is that they can be unreasonable. They get upset and you get blamed for things that you have nothing to do with. And I’ll tell you a secret: If you keep presenting yourself as someone who has power to fix the PTSD, you will soon be having fights about why you haven’t fixed the PTSD.
I’m going to bet you’ve had that argument before, maybe many times, where your partner believes that YOU have the key to make them feel better, if only you would turn the key! That’s a way of thinking that I call “outsourcing responsibility for healing” and I tell people with Childhood PTSD to step out of that thinking and own the process. And I’m telling you as their partner, let them own it.
It’s totally OK and appropriate to offer comfort to a person who’s in a PTSD response, and consistent love and stability are good things and can definitely influence healing. But sometimes what love looks like is you support a person and give them space to just, day by day, notice how their PTSD affects them, and recalibrate their dysregulation response. Maybe they’re already in my courses for doing this and that’s how you heard about me. That means they’re taking positive action! You can support your partner while he/she does this work and still hold a boundary against yucky behavior that happens when they’re dysregulated.
So the way you do that, is when you notice the symptoms coming on in your partner, and they’re starting to behave in ways that are making you feel scared or upset, you can take a step back. Your feelings matter. They matter a lot.
If your partner who is having CPTSD symptoms right now? This is not a good time to try to talk things out with them. You’ll get much better results if you wait. And if they’re pressing you to talk about their feelings or your feelings, you can say: “Things are feeling a little intense right now, and I want to talk to you but I want to wait until things are calmer.”
Notice you’re not abandoning them or shutting them down. You’re making a plan to communicate in a better way. And if your partner doesn’t want to let you do that, you get to do it anyway!
Remember, they’re not themselves right now, so it’s for you to do the wise thing for yourself. And remember, they will eventually feel calmer, and you can talk then.
So what’s helped me in my marriage, since I’m the one who gets dysregulated, is that I try to take responsibility to a) notice when I’m dysregulated, and b) not say much until I can get myself re-regulated.
This is sometimes easier said than done, and the urge to “process” the feelings verbally sometimes is overpowering, even though it seldom works. But whether I step back or try to talk in the moment, I try to remember that I’m responsible for calming down, and I’m responsible for being kind and respectful while I do.
It’s not cool to blame other people for my problems, That kind of thinking would only keep my stuck. And I definitely don’t have license to take my frustrations out on other people just because I had bad things happen to me when I was little.
So here’s a summary of things you can do when you’re partner is experiencing symptoms:
First, you can notice the dysregulation. Sometimes, even if you don’t say anything, just noting to yourself – oh, they’re dysregulated again — can help you stay neutral and even supportive, without getting sucked in.
Second, you can try to reduce overwhelm for your partner by slowing down, keeping your voice gentle, and not asking a lot of questions or making demands. And again, you don’t have to mention that you’re doing this. You can just do it and see if it helps.
Third, you can mention what you’re noticing and ask what they need. You can say “Hey, I notice this is making you a bit overwhelmed. Is there anything you need to make this easier?” Or you can say “Would it help you if I gave you a hug right now?” Squeezing hugs can be really helpful, but you want to make sure it’s wanted and expected, just so it doesn’t set off more dysregulation because it was sudden, or felt constricting.
If things start getting tense, it can really help to get a little space, or a tiny bit of separation, and the trick is to do this without setting off an abandonment trigger.
So let’s say you’re on the phone, and you can hear your partner getting wound up, and you know it’s about to turn into an argument. You can ask for five minutes apart, and make a concrete plan for when the conversation will start again. Just five minutes can discharge a lot of that dysregulation that was bubbling up.
If your partner uses my daily practice techniques of writing and meditating, you can very politely suggest he/she might want to do that, or you can do it and invite them to do it with you. But since any kind of comment about dysregulation, can, to a dysregulated person, feel like criticism, sometimes the kindest thing is to tell a white lie and pretend you have to go to the bathroom, just to get a few minutes apart.
Whatever you do, don’t resort to giving the silent treatment, or storming out, or threatening the relationship. Even if you knew you were actually going to leave (which you probably aren’t) announcing it to a dysregulated person is only going to lead to a blow-up. So my advice is, stay polite, stay kind, stay out of the drama, and it’ll pass.
Your partner might complain and try to get the conversation started again, but he/she will thank you later when her brain and emotions are re-regulated, that you stayed calm and sturdy and didn’t let things turn into a big fight. Everyone’s exhausted after that, and arguing can cost a person with Childhood PTSD days of dysregulation, where they are only quasi-functioning. Calm is good. Steadiness is good.
Now I mentioned at the beginning that there is NO scenario where you are obliged to put up with abuse, either emotional or physical. I don’t care if you’re a man or a woman, I don’t care who started the argument, you don’t deserve abuse.
If abuse happens, the right thing to do is to get out, with kids if there are kids, and get to safety. Anything that needs to be worked out can be worked out when things are calmer. If they’re getting abusive, it’s time for your partner to seek professional help (they may not see it that way, of course). But for you, if your partner can’t or won’t control abusive behavior, then it’s sad, but it’s not best for you or your kids to be trapped with that.
That’s what I wanted to say about abuse.
IF you are blessed enough to have a safe, loving and supportive relationship, that is one of the most wonderful, healing things that could happen for anyone, and is a great gift for a person who had trauma as a kid. Not everybody is called to that kind of relationship, and some people are not healed enough yet to pull it off right now. But a good relationship is worth really putting your heart into. It’s a good reason to work hard on yourself as a person.
So thank you, to all the partners out there who do that, and make the world a more loving place because of it!
Want to learn the science and strategies for recovery from past trauma? Take my online course, Healing Childhood PTSD, here.
You’ll find all my courses, including the Daily Practice mentioned in this article here.
Want to learn more about the symptoms of Dysregulation? Take the Dysregulation Quiz.
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