Writer Heidi Hanson shares her personal journey defining and coping with PSTD within her relationship.
Note: This is a three part article based on my personal experience recovering from PTSD. Much of it is theoretical, however it is material I consider worth being studied in a scientific manner.
Remember when you were little and you first met a friend? Maybe someone who became your best friend?
I just remember knowing that this person was good, and knowing we would be best buds. I didn’t feel afraid of them. I wasn’t terrified that maybe affection or kindness from them secretly meant they were going to hurt me in some way. I didn’t judge them. If they had some problem or made mistakes, that was fine. Their problem didn’t trigger me into a meltdown. I wasn’t terrified when they wanted to stay or when they needed to leave.
I wrote a song about this called Horses. The first part goes like this:
When we were kids, nothing overlaid the moment. The moment was just about having fun. Later, things began to overlay the moment – competition, popularity, judgments, cattiness, power plays….
Still, there was a brief time when everything was at face value. There was, for a while, a blank slate of the mind. I am me and you are you. This is now.
As in the song, we shared “a secret to behold.” That secret was that we were okay as we were.
I was less traumatized and more intact back then, before the traumatic events in my adulthood that lead to PTSD. I didn’t need my friend to make me whole or to hold my world together.
Today, my boyfriend is my best buddy but most of the time I’m terrified of him on some level. It’s not his fault. I have counted 22 ways he triggers me, bringing up reminders of past traumas. These are all things he can’t help. They aren’t bad things and wouldn’t cause me to be terrified if I didn’t have the diagnosis of PTSD.
Besides triggers, I am more fearful in general and sometimes my boyfriend doesn’t understand. I am simultaneously afraid of losing him and afraid to stay with him. I have no idea what is an expression of love and what is an expression of abuse. I perceive everything as if inside a membrane that plays movies recorded in the past, and therefore I can’t see who he is, or who I am for real. I can’t see the goodness in him and can’t remember all the good times we’ve had because my mind sees only abuse.
I feel like the traumatic events from my past are taking over our relationship.
The mess of trying to have a relationship while contending with PTSD is heartbreaking. Writing articles about relationships and PTSD is a challenge because I feel such sorrow about how my PTSD disrupts our relationship. When I am caught up in the midst of a trigger, I find it incredibly difficult to figure out what is going on. It feels like trying to untangle a ball yarn that cats have been playing with all day but I just get wound deeper and deeper into it.
Ultimately, I think I have forgotten the secret I shared with my best friend from childhood. As an adult, there are no more moments that are at face value. There is no more blank slate of the mind. Nobody is okay as they are because nobody is just as they are, right now, in this moment.
What would happen if I could go back in time and see my boyfriend through my eight year-old eyes? I would see a completely different human being. I would see a friend, not someone that might be dangerous because some other men hurt me in the past. If my reptilian brain would let up long enough I might be able to break free of its perceptual grip.
In these posts about PTSD and relationships I’m going to attempt to untangle the ball of tangled yarn and loosen my reptilian brain’s vice-like grip, bit by bit.
The “Foundation” of the Relationship – Innate Traits and Childhood Wounding
First, I want to describe the layers that form the foundation of any intimate relationship.
The reasons to explore these layers are:
1. Understanding how they influence PTSD
2. It’s good to know how to identify what is NOT caused by PTSD.
Below is a graphic I created to visualize the structure. Layers go from bottom to top.
Layer One: Essence, Who You Truly Are
The base layer of the foundation is your “true self,” the one inside you who is innocent, new, open. This includes skills, talents, passions and personality traits that make you unique. This is you untouched by life. This is the child who just wants to go pick handfuls of bright green grass and feed them to the horses with their new best friend.
The relationship on this level would be the “essence” of you and your partner. It would have no baggage from the past. It would contain all the magic that would unfold if you knew how to allow the essence in you to dance with the essence in them. Your “true selves”would build a “relationship house” and spark a unique dance to take place within that house. This is a creation that only you both could produce.
Layer Two: Attachment Style
As children, we shared with our parents what is called an attachment bond. All of the experiences from the kind of bonding we had with our parents create an attachment style that influences how we experience intimate relationships.
Adults have four possible attachment styles: secure, anxious–preoccupied, dismissive–avoidant and fearful–avoidant.
I fall into the avoidant attachment style. I took two online tests located here and the results of both indicate I am dismissive-avoidant. One indicated that I feel fairly secure with my boyfriend but not with anyone else, so it can change depending on who you are relating to (a test that measures your attachment style with your mom, dad, partner and friends is located here). As adults we can heal and shift our attachment style, but it’s difficult. Having an avoidant attachment style means that at a young age I learned to avoid intimacy and to rely upon myself; I feel like it is dangerous to rely on others emotionally. Other terms for this are the Distant or Move Away type.
Enmeshment and Abandonment Attachment difficulties can include experiences of being overly bonded (enmeshed, smothered) as well as a lack of bonding (abandoned, neglected). These could create tendencies to act in the same ways with our significant other. We may:
– enmesh with them, not know how to individualize and explore the world as our self, clueless about how to have healthy boundaries with our partner
– abandon them, or cling due to deep fears of abandonment, or sometimes feel sorrow and grief from past abandonment that still needs resolution, projecting it onto our partner
Insecure Attachment means, even without PTSD, I might find it difficult to feel secure and safe internally and in the world. It is hard for me to know, in a real way, that I have the inner security to break the attachment bond with my boyfriend and explore life on my own. I may not feel whole or able to depend on my own inner resources.
If I don’t feel that I can be my own person and be both safe and independent (a well developed internal working model of secure attachment and a healthy exploratory system), I may be dependent and I may feel trapped by my dependency. This could lead to a lot of problems. Healthy independence is the prerequisite to healthy interdependence.
Every couple has their own attachment style dance. My partner’s attachment style and my attachment style will have a particular dance they do together including enmeshment, abandonment, and struggles with over-independence and over-dependence as we work on achieving a state of healthy, balanced interdependence.
If one partner has PTSD, this struggle to understand and achieve interdependence will be more challenging and confusing and likely not be addressed. The state of being shattered and fragile makes one much more dependent.
Dependency is an Act of Courage for Those with PTSD. In my opinion, when someone has a mental illness, they are sick and it’s okay for them to be dependent on others. If a family member has cancer, it would be expected that they depend on loved ones as they recover. I think that the same is true for mental illness.
One problem I see is confusing the healthy, courageous dependency that occurs when one is suffering PTSD with the unhealthy dependency generated from childhood wounding.
It’s okay for the work on overcoming childhood wounds and becoming a functioning adult to remain unaddressed when the symptoms of PTSD dominate the picture. This is the time to focus on healing and learning to handle the mental illness. It’s time to invest in therapy and focus efforts on the most pressing issue, the mental illness. When the mental illness is treated and a balance and competency around it is holding up, then it may be time to work on the issues of dependency, enmeshment and abandonment that most people need to work through in relationships.
If you have a mental illness and are dependent on your partner, forgive and accept yourself and know that asking for help, receiving help, and being dependent are acts of courage. However, when you have achieved a certain level of stability and balance in regards to the mental illness and are more capable of interdependence, don’t let habits of dependency you may have developed stop you from healing the deeper childhood wounds that create pathological forms of dependency in intimate relationships.
Pre-verbal Issues need a Somatic Approach. Note that I mention some issues on this attachment style layer are “pre-verbal.” I am including that to point out that some of the deepest issues inside of us are things that do not necessarily have words or language attached to them, and that is why somatic work can help with certain issues where dialog is ineffective.
Layer Three: Defensive Structures
A defensive structure is any mechanism built internally and used to protect one from getting hurt in a way they were previously hurt.
A defensive structure is also something built up around a belief about self and reality that formed out of painful experiences.
Defensiveness can take forms such as:
•Withdrawing – doing it “by myself,” cutting people off, leaving before being left
•Cynicism – expecting the worst defends against disappointment, negative attitude
•Too friendly – being overly accommodating, never get angry
•Controlling – exerting super extreme control over things
•Stoicism – pretending nothing hurts
•Toughness – hiding emotions that are “weak” to appear strong
•Seduction – getting things to go your way, pressuring, childishness, selfishness
•Perfectionism – trying to do everything perfectly, pleasing others due to fear
•Intellectualism to avoid emotions, stay cut off from emotions
•Future dreaming – living in one’s daydreams and imagination and not facing the reality of now
•Idealism – only seeing what one wants to see, pretending bad is good, not seeing anything negative
•Projection – putting your issues onto others
Every Couple Has Their Own Defense Dance. Each partner has their own defense structure. The combination of defensive styles in the relationship will have its own particular, usually highly difficult, dance. This would occur even without PTSD. When you add PTSD on top of this dance, it makes it very challenging.
I’ll give a recent example: My boyfriend was keeping a secret from me because in the past when he opened up and was vulnerable he got criticized, ridiculed, and judged. He was using a defense. He was protecting himself from the pain of humiliation, and the belief that he did something wrong and I would be judgmental, causing further pain.
For me, a boyfriend who holds back information reminds me of a traumatic experience with a sick, manipulative man so the holding of secrets can throw me into a terror on a body level. Actually this just happened recently. I became frightened because my boyfriend wouldn’t tell me something and I had a total meltdown (felt panicky, shaky, confused, helpless and overwhelmed). I tried hard to figure out what the secret was and I became so afraid and imbalanced I had to leave and go on a walk outside for a long time. I was filled with ideas of what the secret could possibly be and mean. When he finally told me, it was something kind of innocent and my reaction seems crazy now that I look back. This is just one example of how one partner’s defensive structures can set off the other partner’s mental illness.
Layer four: Other Psychological Issues and Coping Mechanisms
Let’s take a look at addictions. If one or both people in the relationship have certain addictions, that adds another dynamic into the mix.
Generally, the addicted partner abandons their partner, themselves, and their relationship when involved in the addictive activity. Even if it’s a mutual activity, they may be emotionally abandoning their partner and involved in relating more to the addiction than their partner during this time (this may be very subtle).
For example, two people may both enjoy playing video games and even at times play together. The one who is addicted to video games might not be present emotionally with the other person in the way that person would like while playing. The addicted person will also play more frequently, sabotaging goals they have personally and also goals they have with their partner. Both people spending an hour playing a video game may appear to be a fun time, but in reality the one who is addicted to video games is destroying the relationship.
Let’s say one person is struggling with an addiction and the other has PTSD. This will be a huge mess because both the addiction and the PTSD cause them to abandon one another.
Also, both disorders set each other off.
The addiction could easily trigger the person with PTSD into emotional meltdown as if they were traumatized in a context in which someone close from the past was addicted. The person with PTSD would sense their partner’s addictive attitudes and behavior and they would feel that there is something dangerous lurking around them (they would be triggered by the presence of the addiction but not understand what was going on).
As for the addicted partner, their partner’s PTSD could push them to do more of their addictive behavior. Witnessing their partner endure the painful, terrifying experience of PTSD could be way too much for them to deal with and they may end up trying to escape reality and their feelings by engaging in their addictive behavior.
This is where the yarn really starts getting tangled up! And remember, this layer is sitting on top of layer two and three which are already huge challenges.
Layer five: Mental Illnesses
Mental illnesses set each other off. I have PTSD and depression. If my boyfriend also had a mental illness, my mental illnesses and his mental illness would have a dance in which the symptoms of one mental illness would set off the symptoms of the other.
Note that some of the issues that fall in this category are actually biological in nature, with psychological components (like depression and bipolar).
Now we have built the basement of the relationship house, the foundation two people walk upon when in a relationship. The first layer of the foundation is all the personality traits and talents that make up each person’s unique essence. Upon this is their unconscious minds – their past wounding in childhood and previous relationships, the way they perceive their partner and the relationship itself (internal working model), which is based on parental attachment bonding, any defensive structures they have developed based on painful experiences, and finally any other psychological issues such as addictions and mental illnesses.
It’s very complex.
Can one even begin to build a house if one partner has PTSD or is the house doomed to fail?
This article was originally published on Heidi’s blog, The Art of Healing Trauma.
Featured photo credit: Petras Gagilas/Flickr
All other photos/artwork: Heidi Hanson