February 22, 2024

Embracing Each Other: Overcoming PTSD Triggers in Your Relationship

Two people holding hands in a comforting manner.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that arises after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. This disorder can profoundly impact an individual’s life, influencing their emotions, behaviors, and interactions, especially in intimate relationships. PTSD symptoms can include intense emotions, intrusive memories, and heightened anxiety, which can be triggered by various reminders of the trauma.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 3.5% of U.S. adults are affected by PTSD. PTSD triggers are sights, sounds, smells, or situations that bring back distressing memories of a traumatic event someone went through. These trauma reminders often cause a big emotional response in a trauma survivor because they bring back the severe emotions experienced at the time of the traumatic event.

Triggers can be unpredictable and vary from person to person. They can seem like normal experiences to someone without PTSD–such as a car backfiring, which can remind someone of gunfire. However, the sound, smell, or experience reminds the individual of the traumatic experience they went through.

This article aims to explore how PTSD triggers can influence relationships and the strategies for coping with these challenges. We’ll delve into:

  • How do PTSD triggers affect a relationship?
  • Communication strategies for dealing with PTSD triggers
  • Seeking professional help for PTSD and relationship issues
african american couple

How Do PTSD Triggers Affect a Relationship?

PTSD can significantly affect intimate relationships. PTSD triggers can cause intense emotional reactions, such as fear, intense anxiety, and anger, which can lead to trust issues, avoidance behavior, confusion, conflict, and misunderstanding between partners.

Common Triggers in Relationships

  • Arguments or conflicts can trigger negative feelings of fear or anxiety, reminiscent of past traumatic experiences.
  • Anniversaries of traumatic events, such as the date of a natural disaster or personal loss, can reignite traumatic memories and strong emotions.
  • Emotional responses such as feeling ignored or abandoned can mirror past traumas, leading to heightened reactions in the present.
  • Physical intimacy can be a complex trigger, especially for survivors of sexual abuse or domestic violence.

It can be hard not to take someone’s reaction to PTSD triggers personally. For example, if the traumatized person becomes triggered during a movie and walks into the other room, it can be easy for the family members to think the person isn’t interested in spending time with them. Or if a partner with PTSD gets triggered during an argument, they may react with anger and their partner may feel like they were overreacting.

You may also find Military PTSD and Relationships helpful.

Communication Strategies for Dealing with PTSD Triggers

Effective communication is needed for every healthy relationship, but it is especially needed when one partner is dealing with PTSD triggers in a relationship. A study by the National Center for PTSD emphasized that effective communication can reduce the impact of PTSD symptoms on relationship satisfaction.

Empathy is vital in understanding a partner’s traumatic experiences and emotional reactions. A supportive environment where feelings of shame, guilt, or fear can be expressed without judgment is fundamental.

Emotional dysregulation is common in PTSD and can lead to overwhelming emotions or defensive behaviors. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other trauma-focused therapies suggest strategies like deep breathing or mindfulness to manage these reactions.

couple watching television on the sofa

Here are some of the most effective communication strategies used in relationships where one of the partners is dealing with PTSD:

Communication Techniques for PTSD Triggers

  • Identifying triggers: Partners should openly discuss potential PTSD triggers, including environmental factors, certain phrases, or specific types of interactions.
  • Developing a plan: Once triggers are identified, couples can work on a plan to manage them. This might involve agreeing on a safe word or signal to use when a trigger arises.
  • Non-verbal communication: Sometimes, words are insufficient or too much. Using non-verbal cues like a gentle touch or a comforting presence can be powerful.

It can also be helpful for couples to develop a coping skill plan together that can be used when PTSD triggers happen. This plan may include strategies to avoid triggers while still enjoying family time, such as avoiding movies and TV shows that contain sexual assaults, or wearing noise-canceling headphones when the kids want to fire off fireworks in the backyard. The plan may also include relaxation and self-soothing exercises for when triggers happen unexpectedly. This may involve breathing exercises, guided imagery, or even just going for a walk to feel more centered.

Self-Care and Boundaries in Relationships Affected by PTSD

The importance of self-care and establishing healthy boundaries cannot be overstated, especially in relationships where one or both partners are dealing with PTSD. Prioritizing self-care and setting boundaries are essential steps toward maintaining individual well-being and nurturing a healthy relationship.

The Importance of Self-Care

  • Self-care is vital for managing the symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety, overwhelming emotions, and traumatic memories. Self-care practices can significantly reduce the symptoms of PTSD and improve overall well-being.
  • Self-care includes a range of practices that nurture physical, emotional, and mental health. These could involve regular exercise, a balanced diet, mindfulness practices, or engaging in hobbies and activities that bring joy and relaxation.
Communication is key to a good relationship

Establishing Healthy Boundaries

  • Setting boundaries is crucial in any relationship but becomes even more critical when navigating the complexities of PTSD. Healthy boundaries help manage expectations and foster a sense of safety and trust.
  • Boundaries may include setting limits on discussions about traumatic events, respecting personal space, or establishing routines that support a sense of normalcy and stability.

Self-Care Tips for Individuals with PTSD

  • Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practices like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help manage anxiety and muscle tension, promoting a sense of calm.
  • Physical Activity: Regular exercise can alleviate symptoms of PTSD by reducing stress and improving mood.
  • Balanced Diet: Eating a nutritious diet supports overall health and can impact emotional well-being.
  • Art Therapy: Engaging in creative activities like painting or music can be therapeutic and offer an outlet for expressing difficult emotions.

Awareness of personal triggers and emotional responses is essential in identifying when boundaries need to be set. For instance, recognizing signs of emotional dysregulation or distress can signal the need for space or a break from certain discussions.

Communication is key. Discussing and mutually agreeing upon boundaries ensures that both partners’ needs are respected and met.

Asian Couple Smiling and Laughing on Sofa at Home

Seeking Professional Help for PTSD and Relationship Issues

If you or your partner are experiencing PTSD triggers in your relationship, it’s important to seek professional help to manage the PTSD symptoms. This could be in the form of individual therapy from a qualified mental health professional, and it could also be from a trauma-informed marriage counselor who can help you work through the relationship PTSD triggers together. Both individual and marriage counselors can help teach you effective coping and communication skills to manage PTSD triggers.

While PTSD triggers have a serious impact on relationships, there are ways to cope and manage them! Learning to understand PTSD and PTSD triggers, and to communicate effectively around PTSD triggers in a relationship, will go a long way to improving the relationship. Ultimately, the more understanding and communication there is, the more couples can create a supportive environment around the PTSD triggers.

Seeking professional help, from individual or couples counseling, can help you manage PTSD triggers and improve your relationship. It takes some patience, but couples can work together to build healthy and meaningful relationship even when one or both partners are living with PTSD.

Learn How to Find a Marriage Counselor.

Let Us Guide You Through the Process of Managing PTSD Triggers

If you’re seeking to strengthen your relationship in the face of PTSD triggers, you’re not alone. PTSD can bring unique challenges to a marriage, but with the right counseling, couples can find a path to understanding, resilience, and deeper connection.

Communicate & Connect Counseling works with therapists specializing in Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD (CPT), Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and their approach is rooted in empathy, deep listening, and a trauma-informed care perspective. We understand the importance of creating a safe and supportive environment for our clients, where issues like trust, emotional dysregulation, and the aftereffects of traumatic events can be explored and healed.

happy middle aged couple

Your journey through counseling is a shared one. It’s about navigating the wide range of PTSD symptoms as a team, where both partners support each other and work together towards healing. Our role is to facilitate this journey, offering empathy, understanding, and professional insights tailored to your unique relationship dynamics.

Seeking marriage counseling to address PTSD triggers in your relationship is a brave and impactful step. It’s a commitment to not only individual healing but also to the health and future of your marriage. 

Looking for Marriage Counseling to Help You Navigate PTSD Triggers in a Relationship?

Communicate & Connect Counseling provides online Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling, as well as weekend-long Marriage Intensives, throughout the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. Click the button below to schedule a complimentary consultation. ​

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    About Author

    Elizabeth Polinsky is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist (EFT) providing EFT marriage counseling in the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. She also provides EFT training and supervision to therapists looking to become certified in EFT Couple Therapy. As a military spouse, she has a special passion for working with military and veteran couples, and is also the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships.


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