Disclaimer: this article discusses and mentions topics such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and sexual assault, which may be triggering for some.
There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to love somebody, but there are common morals and responsibilities that we should bring into every friendship and relationship: trust, compassion, respect, and communication. When you love somebody who has been diagnosed with PTSD and gone through considerable trauma in his or her life (warfare, car accidents, assault, etc.), it can require even more patience and selflessness to establish a sense of safety and love between the two of you. More than anything else, it’s a reminder that it’s not all about you: it’s about keeping your partner safe and respecting their boundaries, their feelings, and of course, their trauma.
Another reminder I’d like to point out (and this applies to all types of relationships): is to remember that you are not your partner’s therapist, and they are not yours. Of course it is important (and frankly necessary) in any relationship to have a sense of open communication and unconditional support, but that does not mean you have to disregard your own emotional needs. Love is give and take!
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and with that in mind, I want to talk about why dedicating nurturing patience into these relationships is so important, and, from personal experience, what we can do to make our partners feel safe and protect their vulnerability.
When I refer to a survivor of sexual abuse as ‘vulnerable’, I do not mean it in a sense that they are weak or defenseless. What I do mean is this: PTSD entails a wide variety of devastating symptoms, including flashbacks, disturbing thoughts and feelings, mental distress, suicidal ideation, and increased fight-or-flight response. Survivors of repeated, prolonged abuse may exhibit ‘fawning’ symptoms, or a display of people-pleasing behavior to subside conflict. In a general sense, individuals with PTSD can feel an overwhelming desire to mirror the expectations and desires of other people, and neglect standing up for themselves. With all of that in mind, here are ways you can support your loved one with PTSD or a background in sexual trauma in a way that is encouraging, supportive, and gentle.
Perhaps one of the most important things to remember when approaching a friend or partner with trauma: respect their boundaries. While clear communication and honesty is extremely important in any friendship or relationship, that does not mean your partner is obligated to tell you every detail or answer every question you have about their trauma or incident. If he or she is visibly uncomfortable with the conversation and wishes not to speak about any subject, respect that and switch topics immediately. Additionally, if a conversation about trauma does come up, you should not be the one dictating that conversation – it is up to your friend or partner if they choose to start speaking about it. If your partner or friend struggles with anxiety or depression as a result of their PTSD, do not force or coax them into situations which may heighten these illnesses. Signs that someone may be uncomfortable with a situation or dealing with anxiety include sudden quietness, nervous ticks, or obvious discomfort from their body language. It is always important to establish your boundaries at the beginning of the relationship, and make sure your inner circle is aware of these boundaries as well to avoid uncomfortable situations.
Arousal does not equal consent. Ask for clear, verbal consent before engaging in any sexual activities with your partner. If he or she expresses discomfort with any activity or expresses a need to stop, it is your responsibility and obligation to respect that. Your partner does not owe you an explanation for this! Their safety is more important than your satisfaction.
Offer emotional support, resources, and positive affirmations. Remind your partner that they are strong, valued, appreciated, and honored. Thank them for the little joys and favors they bring into your life. Text your partner or leave them notes reminding them how beautiful and important they are. It’s a small effort, but to someone who may be struggling with anxiety, depression, or negative body image, these small reminders can mean the world. Emphasize to your partner that there are resources available and countless people who love him/her, if he ever needs additional support.
Before making a decision together, double-check that your partner is okay with this choice and make sure their voice is heard. This ties back to the fawning behaviors and tendencies sometimes exhibited by individuals with PTSD. Your partner may be afraid to tell you how they really feel about a decision or admit that they don’t want to do something, because they are afraid of letting you down or not pleasing you enough. Remind your partner that his or her voice matters, and ensure as much as possible that they can say ‘no’ any time they feel uncomfortable with a decision or frankly just not up to it.
Be wary of triggers. Like I said before, survivors of trauma may experience flashbacks or uncomfortable feelings when their memories or PTSD is triggered. If your partner has a negative body image, avoid talking about your weight or comparing your body to theirs. If your partner has attempted suicide, don’t make jokes that you’re ‘going to kill yourself’ when something goes wrong (For real, please don’t make jokes about that in general.) If you’re planning on seeing a movie or watching a show that may contain triggering content, make sure you and your partner are aware of this ahead of time, to the best of your ability.
I hope this article is helpful and informative for all of you! I’m not an expert or a psychologist or anything like that, but like I said, I have been able to improve my relationships and maintain healthy communication with my loved ones through taking these actions. And like I said, most situations are not one-size-fits-all, so please be flexible and adaptable with your loved ones depending on their exact situation!
If you are a survivor of sexual assault or any debilitating trauma, please know that there are resources available for you! The national hotline for sexual assault (US) is 1-800-656-4673. Additionally, if you suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts, please do not go through this alone and reach out to an outlet or person you trust. The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Stay safe, everyone, and love each other!