Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties.
Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, heard from someone who wasn't sure about whether or not their anxieties around partnered sex have to do with being asexual. Today, a Refinery29 reader enquires about how to support her partner who is experiencing the same anxiety disorder as her.
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Recently, my partner and I have found ourselves trying to navigate a new situation in our relationship of two decades. We've both been simultaneously dealing with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder over the past year or so. I have old, old trauma and have spent a long time talking and learning about my complex post-traumatic stress disorder in therapy. None of my trauma is new to my partner, and he's always been incredibly supportive to me over our years together.
My partner's PTSD is from a recent trauma, and it’s his first real experience of any kind of trauma. The recency of his PTSD means that it's also completely new for me to have a partner with PTSD, and of course, his PTSD is an entirely different shape than mine is. This hasn't really outwardly created conflict in our relationship per se, but a lot of times it feels like our communication — which has always been one of the great strengths in our relationship — periodically breaks down and falls apart at unexpected times.
I guess, my question underneath all of this is how do we navigate it when we're both simultaneously struggling? I thought that my nearly lifelong experience of PTSD would mean I'd be more set up to respond and be supportive to his newly emerging PTSD, but frankly, I am at a loss and feel like I've been getting it wrong a lot. How do you balance being supportive when you're simultaneously needing support? How do you support someone else's PTSD needs when it’s so different from your own and you feel like you're getting it wrong a lot?
The first time something hurts us is often a shifting moment in our lives, and our intuition is forever changed. The scary thing here is not a diagnosis — or that you and your partner are navigating PTSD in your relationship, because navigating some sort of mental health with a partner is completely normal — but what is so crucial and is the point of your current tension is that you and your partner trauma occurred at very different times. That change point is what might be causing the most confusion in how you connect and respond to each other right now.
You are fluent in the language of trauma — your brain knows no difference, and life pre-trauma seems so far away. Your partner on the other hand just got here, has quickly learned this language against their will, and now has to speak it every day. You both understand PTSD and depression, yet you keep feeling like you are messing up. Since communication is one of your strengths as a couple, let’s lean into what you are amazing at already.
First, ask each other this question: What is something that used to be easy in this relationship, but now feels hard in this chapter of life? Imagine you both respond with: My ability to feel loved by you like I used to, I crave that feeling back (so much shame could be held in this share). One of the often less talked about aspects of PTSD that shows up — especially in our relationships — can be lower self-esteem, physically feeling like you can’t comprehend why someone would love you. And, with increasing feelings of depression, genuinely struggling to access that deeper feeling of love like you did before. That event sucked some feeling of safety and joy from your partner, and, of course, that is going to show up in your relationship. Feeling like you are messing up could also be because both of you are feeling less lovable.
When I was in the process of my own personal trauma work, I distinctly remember the moment I turned to my partner of over a decade and their love hit me like a crashing wave. I had locked away some aspect of my ability to feel deeply loved inside a trauma story of my own — it had nothing to do with how they interacted with me, it was my own dark passenger, and it would dismiss or block deeper moments of connection from my safest person. Trauma is funny like that. Even though I’m a therapist, at that moment I had a new appreciation: therapy works if you truly do the work. It sounds like you might both have the support of therapists, and when things feel ready it could be worth trying couples therapy. To help you both step into each other’s stuff a little less, or have an outside perspective on how you might be bumping into each other’s trauma responses.
Research on empathy and post-traumatic growth tells us that those with childhood trauma often have higher empathy or an ability to understand other’s experiences, greater relationship skills, and the ability to get through tough situations. Now, as a couple, you can learn to communicate in this new shared language about how your life has changed, in a way that is supportive, loving, and moves you into a new relationship stage.
PTSD research also tells us that bringing in a loving and supportive partner into healing can have a profound impact on progress and building a feeling of safety. Really healing and learning to navigate the world with PTSD is about finding safety in your body again, and helping your body feel safe in the world again. You sound like such a loving couple — know that it’s about building safety, and less about making sure you’re doing it the correct way. If you embrace this, you might see you are doing a beautiful job at supporting each other in this chapter.
It’s crucial that you meet each other in this process, as some days one of you might be functioning higher than the other. Each day might feel different, but striving to have some balance, even when one partner is in an active healing mode, like right now, is still possible. Here are some ways:
1) How can I achieve balance in my relationship when one person is in pain? It’s being clear on what the limits are so you don’t have to guess. This might sound like the partner who is in pain saying, “This is what I can do on my own,” or “Here are other places I will turn to for support, and here is what would be helpful from you. Does that sound okay?”
This decreases your anxiety because they’re communicating their needs with you, even if those needs are increased in certain moments. An example may be holding them if they wake up from a nightmare, or leaving a holiday gathering a bit early because it’s just too much.
You are fluent in the language of trauma — your brain knows no difference, and life pre-trauma seems so far away. Your partner on the other hand just got here, has quickly learned this language against their will, and now has to speak it everyday.
2) What questions can I ask to help navigate mental health as a couple? Leaving our partners to guess what is happening internally to us can cause a lot of conflict in any relationship. I suggest you create a routine of checking in regularly with each other. Maybe it’s the same time each morning — this way you have scheduled time to open up, not just when you are feeling down or when you are feeling good. We need to balance the burden one person might feel to check to see how the other is by asking such questions:
1. What’s one thing that feels a little safer this week?
2. Does any part of your body feel calm right now?
3. Did you have a time this week when you wanted comfort and did not ask for it?
4. Did you have a moment this week that made you feel especially warm and loving towards yourself?
5. Did you have a moment this week that made you feel especially warm and loving towards your partner?
6. What did you learn about yourself this week that surprised you?
While these are some questions to start with, you might find other ones that fit better. The underlying thing we are building is safety in the body and bringing back feelings of safety to the relationship, so a little repetitiveness here is purposeful.
You have yourself in many ways a brand new relationship, and in many ways a brand new person who you have loved for decades. When things change, our brain doesn't have a system to organise that difference just yet, so going back to a feeling of dating each other and building fresh routines can actually be significant right now.
Although no safety concerns are expressed here, intimate partner violence has risen globally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I do want to make a point that just because our partners are in pain does not mean we need to stay in that pain with them, especially at the cost of our own safety and wellness. Some engage in trauma bonding, or your high empathy might feel profound guilt when asking them to turn to other forms of support. But as you have been committed to your own healing, your partner must also learn what their healing and support look like. Sometimes as we navigate our mental health, a relationship might be unsustainable to navigate at the same time. It’s good to be honest with each other about that, it does not mean the love is gone or that you can’t come back together. Sometimes it’s just hard to do both.
Understandably, in intimate relationships boundaries can get blurred between healthy loving support and codependence. Equally, you might find that in these situations we lovingly support our partners in ways that we never predicted, such as soothing them during a panic attack or helping them into a cold shower. I have recommended each partner making a voice recording for the other partner to listen to when they wake up, so they don’t have to wake their partner up each time. Additionally, even if a partner is with them, not feeling any pressure to do anything besides press play can make it easier for all involved. I've seen many couples, although it's motivated by such a loving desire to care for a partner, where one or both people completely burn themselves out. Sometimes people do have to navigate their demons on their own, and we have to lovingly give them space to do that.
Navigating this chapter of understanding who you both are and how you feel safe and close as a couple will be one you remember, but not all of that is bad or even hard. You will have intuitive moments and wiggly moments, especially as you learn your new needs. The right response might just be something that is completely opposite to how it would have been six months ago. What allows us to get through these stages with our partner is embracing and reaching for more intimacy. In this learning of each other a new love will start to blossom, for many of us a much deeper love forms. We don’t get to choose the situations we will navigate with our lovers, but we get to delight in what it feels like to come out the other side of a chapter more bonded and secure than before.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specialises in intimacy, LGBTQ+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.