Relationship trauma is a serious consequence of a toxic, unhealthy relationship. It refers to the physical and physiological effects that stem from being in a sexually, physically, or emotionally abusive relationship. In fact, the abuse can be so severe that it triggers relationship PTSD or post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS).
What causes this kind of relationship trauma? There are all kinds of abusive behaviors that can trigger trauma in a relationship, including a partner that is controlling, intimidating, manipulative, threatening, or violent. Bullying, belittling, and gaslighting are other examples of abusive tendencies that can contribute to trauma.
Sometimes, relationship trauma symptoms show up immediately after an abusive event, but other times, they develop after a while—even long after the initial traumatic incident. For example, you might feel an immediate sense of panic and anxiety but might not develop flashbacks or nightmares until months down the road. Because of this, you may not even notice signs of past trauma until you’re already begun a new relationship.
Regardless of when or how they appear, these symptoms of trauma can negatively impact you—and your future relationships—as they may prevent you from enjoying your everyday life, making you feel stressed, confused, sad, and even fearful. Therefore, it’s crucial to identify and address these symptoms so you can begin to focus on healing and overcoming the trauma.
If you think you might be coping with relationship trauma, dating someone with relationship trauma, or actively partaking in a toxic relationship of your own, our guide can help you recognize some of the common symptoms and effects of this abuse.
Below, we’ve listed 11 of the most common relationship trauma symptoms and included a few suggestions on ways to overcome and heal from these challenges.
Relationship trauma can have PTSD-like symptoms, which include flashbacks. A certain sight or smell might trigger a vivid, visual episode or intrusive memory that feels like you’re experiencing the abuse all over again. Because these flashbacks bring the trauma to the foreground and remind you of the harm you experienced, they can reopen wounds, setting back your healing process.
If you’re dating someone with relationship trauma, you may notice that they’re constantly nervous or anxious. This is because relationship trauma can make you feel on edge, always bracing for something bad to happen. For instance, you might feel like you’re walking on eggshells all the time or looking for ways to avoid conflict. This intense anxiety can lead to insecurities and an inability to feel safe and calm on your own or in a new relationship.
Those anxious feelings can also contribute to a level of paranoia, where you feel panicked and in a constant state of fear. For example, you might find yourself constantly looking over your shoulder to ensure you’re not being followed, or you may feel constantly worried about running into your ex. Paranoia can cause you to isolate yourself from others and avoid doing things you once loved out of fear of being harmed.
Like flashbacks, nightmares are another common relationship trauma symptom that aligns with those who suffer from PTSD. These nightmares can be terrifying as they bring back bad memories and make you feel like you’re reliving the abuse. You may wake up in a cold sweat with your heart racing, unable to calm yourself down.
Aside from disturbing nightmares, you may also struggle with falling asleep or staying asleep due to your past relationship trauma.
Whether you’re in a toxic relationship or getting out of one, you might be experiencing intense feelings of sadness or depression. After all, you’ve gone through a lot of pain and hurt, which certainly causes emotional distress and despair. Feelings of sorrow, disappointment, and overall unhappiness are all common after enduring trauma.
6. Inability to trust
Any kind of abuse is a violation of your human rights. Therefore, trauma in relationships can make it difficult for you to trust others. Because of this, you might feel weary of your new partner or unwilling to let your guard down out of fear. This inability to trust can make it challenging for you to maintain healthy relationships because you feel like you always have to protect yourself and can’t let your guard down.
No kind of abuse is warranted, but those who experience trauma in relationships often blame themselves for what they went through. And if you experienced gaslighting or manipulation at the hands of your partner, those feelings of blame could run especially deep. While self-blame is considered a coping mechanism for those who have experienced trauma, it can lead to other issues like low self-esteem and self-sabotage in future relationships.
A toxic relationship can bring on all kinds of feelings of confusion. You may find yourself questioning why something occurred or what triggered the abusive response you received. And if your partner was especially manipulative or controlling, it can be extremely difficult to make sense of your situation. This confusion can also cause issues when you begin to date again because you might have a skewed concept of what’s considered healthy in a relationship.
As you struggle with symptoms like sadness, anxiety, self-blame, and confusion, you might notice yourself starting to retreat from your friends and family. After all, it might seem like no one will understand or believe what you experienced. You may also find yourself not engaging in things you once enjoyed, like writing poetry, playing basketball, or going to the movies.
While it’s easy to feel alone (or want to be alone) while you’re going through your struggles, now is the time to surround yourself with a strong support system of people you can trust and communicate how you feel. It’s also important to focus on doing things that bring you joy during this trying time.
If you’re self-medicating to make yourself feel better, numb or dull your feelings, or help you forget the abuse, then you’re likely trying to mask your relationship trauma symptoms. Self-medicating can present itself in various ways, such as drinking alcohol in excess, taking pills, or using drugs. However, it could also involve other tendencies or addictions like excessive shopping or gambling. These risky behaviors can lead to more harm than good, as they can exasperate your symptoms or even put you in dangerous situations.
11. Repetitive dating cycle
Until you heal from relationship trauma and understand what constitutes a healthy relationship, you may keep on repeating the cycle. For example, you might find yourself drawn to partners who have violent tendencies or controlling behaviors. Or perhaps you don’t feel worthy of a relationship in which you are treated with kindness and respect. These limiting beliefs can prevent you from healing from your trauma and experiencing the safe and secure relationship you deserve.
These symptoms can have a major negative impact on your life, but it is very much possible to heal from relationship trauma. The first step is to recognize that you are experiencing these symptoms and then focus on ways to address them. While everyone’s healing journey is different, the following are some ways that may help you overcome these challenges:
- Surround yourself with friends and family that make you feel safe and calm
- Express your feelings and communicate with those you trust
- Journal about your feelings and emotions
- Practice self-care, such as eating healthy, exercising, and meditating
- Speak with a professional therapist who specializes in relationship trauma
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233 for help.