How to Know If You Have 'Relationship PTSD' — and 7 Steps to Heal

If you're experiencing intrusive thoughts or nightmares, rage towards your ex, and anxiety around relationships, you could have this new subcategory of PTSD.

Signs You Have Relationship PTSD – and How to Heal
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I am recently out of a really bad relationship with someone who was critical, controlling, and generally emotionally abusive. There was no physical abuse but I keep having flashbacks about things that happened and find myself obsessing over the whole relationship and can't move forward. I feel like I have relationship PTSD. Is that a thing? —Relationship PTSD


I'm hearing 'relationship PTSD' come up a lot lately in my practice and in pop culture and the answer is yes, it is indeed a real thing.

While it doesn't sound like what you're experiencing, relationship PTSD can be an actual clinical diagnosis. This occurs when there has been a life-threatening situation like domestic abuse or other types of violence in a relationship. In situations like this, the person's symptoms meet the clinical diagnosis for PTSD, based on a list of symptoms in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), the handbook therapists use to diagnose psychological disorders.

But even if you haven't experienced a life-threatening situation or physical violence, it doesn't mean you can't be dealing with another form of relationship PTSD. In fact, a group of therapists are looking to propose what they call Post-Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (PTRS), to become a new addition to the DSM. PTRS is a subcategory of PTSD that results exclusively from an abusive intimate relationship and may result in some similar symptoms, but does not meet all the diagnostic criteria for PTSD diagnosis.

The trauma that causes PTRS (also sometimes just called 'relationship PTSD') could be from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. People with PTRS can experience a range of symptoms, including rage towards their former partner, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or nightmares of abusive experiences, changes in eating or sleeping habits, and extreme psychological distress when reminded of the trauma. Relationship PTSD can also lead to fear, mistrust, and anxiety about relationships.

Official diagnosis aside, know that it's common to obsess and ruminate about the end of a relationship — you reflect on your history, play things over and over in your head, and wish that you could go back and do things differently. Oftentimes you wish you got out sooner, spoke up for yourself better, or made better boundaries. It's easy to beat yourself up for these missteps and to forget that there is a learning curve when it comes to relationships. Part of how we learn to stand up for ourselves and make better boundaries is through trial and error.

How do you stop obsessing? How do you move forward? How do you trust again? Here is what you need to do.

1. Take the time to be introspective.

Don't take your relationship at face value. Be willing to look at what issues from your past may have made you vulnerable to the bad behavior of your partner. Take a look at what behavior of yours might have contributed to a negative cycle in the relationship. We all make mistakes in relationships but it's important to learn from them. Be willing to take a fearless inventory of your own behavior and where you may have gone wrong. This is an important step in making better choices for the future.

2. Get stronger where you are weak.

When you know what skills you are lacking or could use some growth in, you must work to strengthen those skills. Whether it is taking an assertiveness training class, getting yourself into therapy, taking anger management, joining a support group, or doing some bibliotherapy, it is important to be proactive to strengthen your relationship skills.

3. Hone your picking skills.

Typically the first mistake many people make is in picking the wrong person. Do you have any unhealthy patterns? Do you tend to pick the same kind of person? Are you recreating any unhealthy patterns from your childhood? Do you ignore red flags? Do you get attached too quickly? Are you too scared to let yourself get attached at all? Are you drawn to emotionally unavailable partners? Work on developing some criteria for your next future partner. What qualities are really important to you in a healthy relationship and partner? What qualities are deal breakers for you? Write it down and utilize that list.

4. Take a deep dive into your childhood.

Your childhood is one of the greatest influences on your romantic relationships. Most people don't realize how impactful those early years are. Even if you were someone who did not have blatant obvious trauma, you may be recreating unhealthy patterns from your family of origin. Take the time to explore your childhood with a therapist or the help of a good book that can give you instruction.

5. Forgive yourself.

We have a tendency to beat ourselves up for the choices we made, the behavior we allowed or things that happened in our relationship. Give yourself credit for doing the best that you could with the tools that you had at the time. Beating yourself up does not change the past. That kind of self-loathing does not lead to healthier choices. On the contrary, it makes you think that you don't deserve good healthy relationships. Spend some time working on letting go of that anger towards yourself.

6. Let go of your anger toward your ex.

Notice that I am not saying that you should forgive. There are some things that people do in a relationship that are unforgivable. Only you can determine if your ex partner's behavior is forgivable or not. Either way, you will need to work on letting go of your anger towards that other person. There is a period of time where that anger can be empowering and motivating. But, if you hold onto it for too long it will only hurt you. Work on letting go of the negative emotions that hold you back or hurt you.

7. Empower yourself.

Develop the skills to make good boundaries and speak up for yourself in all of your relationships, even your friendships. When you know that you can do that, you are more likely to pick healthier people who appreciate those behaviors. Also, when you do not pick healthy people you will know how to extricate yourself from the relationship quickly and effectively.

In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.

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