How Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Affects Relationships

What implications does post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have in the social sphere? What are the main interventions currently available to treat it? Join us as we delve deeper into this subject.
How Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Affects Relationships
Sharon Laura Capeluto

Written and verified by the psychologist Sharon Laura Capeluto.

Last update: 08 April, 2023

Many of us have encountered lived experiences that have demanded a number of our resources. Fear is a defense mechanism that accelerates our reaction to these kinds of adverse situations. However, experiencing an extreme event can cause us to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

So what exactly is PTSD? How does it manifest itself? Furthermore, how does it affect the relationships of those who suffer from it?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

A diagnosis of PTSD requires the sufferer to have been exposed to a real-life traumatic event. For instance, an accident, war, sexual assault, or natural disaster.

Events that are likely to be classified as traumatic usually possess an element of surprise. Being unexpected, they leave the sufferer with a feeling of profound vulnerability. In addition, they usually manifest with high intensity in a short space of time.

PTSD can develop in the face of any event that poses a threat to our own physical integrity or that of other people. In other words, living it firsthand or witnessing something happening to someone else. Its main manifestations are the following:

  • Intrusion. The sufferer involuntarily relives the traumatic event through flashbacks or distressing dreams. In fact, the aggression they suffered is constantly repeated through their intrusive images, thoughts, or memories.
  • Avoidance. They tend to avoid or flee from places or situations that are associated with the traumatic event. Their main objective is to avoid the appearance of distressing memories or sensations.
  • Alertness and reactivity. They experience altered alertness. This manifests itself through disproportionate responses and a permanent state of hypervigilance. In addition, they commonly experience problems concentrating and falling asleep.
  • Mood and cognitive disturbances. They often possess negative beliefs about themselves, others, or the world. They also persistently suffer the unpleasant emotions of fear, anger, guilt, and shame. Furthermore, they may have a distorted perception of the causes or consequences of the traumatic event. This causes them to blame themselves or others.
Woman suffering from PTSD
PTSD can leave behind cognitive, emotional, and social consequences.

How does PTSD affect social relationships?

The characteristic symptoms of PTSD end up causing a deep discomfort in the sufferer. In fact, it can alter every area of daily life: work, study, health in general, enjoyment, and social relationships.

The way PTSD interferes with daily functioning will vary depending on personality traits and the type of traumatic event that the sufferer has been subjected to. However, common effects that may manifest within a relationship include:

Difficulty setting boundaries

It’s natural to feel vulnerable in the face of an element or circumstance that we interpret as threatening. A sense of helplessness and weakness can make that threat seem even more significant.

Self-doubt hinders setting boundaries. That’s because it becomes extremely difficult to make decisions and be assertive when the wind isn’t blowing in our favor. Nevertheless, being able to set agreements and boundaries is fundamental to building healthy relationships.

Difficulty asking for help

A feeling of helplessness is extremely common in people suffering from PTSD. They often feel that others won’t understand how they’re feeling. As such, they decide to face their difficulties alone.

Inability to enjoy

When people live with an ever-present threat, they find it really difficult to enjoy themselves, whether they’re alone or with others. Indeed, living in a permanent state of alert, with excessive rigidity and self-control brings negative consequences to their relationships. That’s because they see everything that they should be enjoying as risky.

For this reason, a person with PTSD is likely to, either voluntarily or involuntarily, decide to stop attending social gatherings or recreational events. This will cause them to move further and further away from their social circle.

Anxious man looking out the window
People with PTSD can end up isolating themselves from others.

Intimacy becomes a problem

If the traumatic event involved sexual violence, it’s possible that physical and emotional closeness with other people becomes quite a challenge, even if they’re in a stable relationship.

There are different treatments to address the symptoms of PTSD that are well supported by research. These include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, and dialectical therapy.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • American Psychiatric Association –APA- (2013). DSM-5. Manual diagnóstico y estadístico de los trastornos mentales. Madrid: Panamericana.
  • Guerra, Cristóbal y Barrera, Paulina. (2017). Psicoterapia para víctimas de abuso sexual inspirada en la terapia cognitivo-conductual centrada en el trauma. Revista de psicología (Santiago) , 26 (2), 16-28.
  • Maxfield, L., & Hyer, L. Relación entre la eficacia y la metodología en los estudios que investigan el tratamiento del TEPT con EMDR.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.