5 Surprising Ways PTSD Affected My Relationships

By Helaina Hovitz 03/14/17

I was so desperate to get out of the hell of my own mind that I would overlook a lot of things just to feel some closeness, warmth or affection from another person.

A man looking down at his phone; a woman next to him, looking over his shoulder at the phone, suspicious

Let me start off by saying that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) wasn’t my only issue. Some of my experiences coming of age were probably very extreme versions of teenage angst, others may have been the result of addiction. What I do know, nearly 10 years after finding and beginning recovery, is that a lot of the out-of-control behavior that unleashed itself at signs of danger in my romantic relationships was clearly linked to the initial trauma I experienced as an adolescent.

Most people are vaguely familiar with the immediate signs and symptoms of PTSD: nightmares, anxiety, overactive fight or flight response, constant flashbacks, pervasive feelings of fear, trouble concentrating, feelings of guilt, irritability, outbursts, always being hyper-alert for the next thing that will hurt you or others. But what about the signs that are seemingly six-degrees-removed from those initial symptoms, the ones that become more complex and impact our personal relationships? Some people recall all too vividly every detail of their experience, others numb out and dissociate.

While I was still in college, one trauma specialist summed it all up pretty succinctly: “What happened to you was out of control and out of your control, so not only were you subconsciously acting out your story, but you were doing things to try and get that control back and get back what you’d lost: the ability to feel safe.”

After finding recovery myself, speaking to other people living with PTSD and interviewing a ton of experts, I learned one thing for certain: there is no trigger quite like the personal romantic relationship.

The fact that I have a healthy relationship with the man I’m about to marry in a few months sometimes still boggles my mind, and I know that if I had met him any sooner than I did, he probably would have literally run away screaming—and he is a very patient man. PTSD does not manifest in obvious ways when it comes to relationships, and symptoms and behavior often seem unrelated. Here’s how PTSD affected my life, specifically, and the lives of other women I have talked to who went through the same.

Fear of Abandonment:

This fear can rear its head in a lot of ways. In my day, it made me run after someone down the street—many, many times—and even jump on their back to stop them from leaving. It propelled me to call them over and over, text over and over, even after the person’s phone was shut off, because I was so desperate to be in touch, either because I was worried about them or worried about myself. My concern often presented itself as anger fresh out of a maxed-out pressure-cooker.

In the absence of communication, or not physically being with a person, my head filled with these horrific and negative ideas of what was happening. They’re choosing something or someone else over me, they’re going to find someone or something better, they’re going to do something to hurt me, they’re going to stop loving me. I might have started off happy, then ended up afraid, then furious, then weeping, within the span of 10 seconds. My partner was stunned to find all this was going on while they were in a meeting or underground on the subway.

Needing constant reassurance can be exhausting, and when you try so hard to prevent someone from “abandoning” you, something more powerful than you starts fiddling with your nervous system. Maybe you’ll resort to threats, self-harm, or manipulation. Maybe you’ll drink over it. And even if you feel ashamed while doing it, holding on to someone for dear life trumps all else.

I also thought death was coming for all of us at any minute, and this caused me to feel a need to stay in constant contact whether it was flip-phone texting (remember those?) or in-person communication. Unfortunately, as I learned, when you cling to someone this tightly, you actually end up pushing them to do the exact thing you fear: leave, or abandon you.

Paranoia and an Inability To Trust:

People with trauma tend to feel “more” of everything, and that includes including fear and suspicion. Perhaps a little jealousy or worry about opening up your heart is normal, but extreme paranoia—not just about your partner, but also about who they spend time with and what they are doing—can make daily functioning almost impossible. For me, this irrational obsession was the catalyst for a ton of unnecessary fighting. I need to know everything about everything so I can feel safe, so nothing can go wrong, so the “unpredictable” can’t happen.

Being so afraid all the time and needing constant reassurance can lead you to places you don’t like, with people you don’t like, just because you feel like you need to be present, need to be there, not just to be “part of” but to keep an eye on everything and know exactly what they’re doing and with whom. Even if you don’t want to be, you’re always looking for a sign that something is going to go wrong, operating from the core belief that something bad is happening.

When you’re coming from a place where you can’t trust the world around you, anyone in it, or yourself, it’s going to make an easy, happy, and healthy relationship nearly impossible. I was only happy when things between us were good, and if things were not good, I could barely function or focus on anything else.

Lack of a Solid Identity or Sense of Self:

I was so busy being hyper-vigilant and anxious that I didn’t really have the space or time to figure out who I was—so I became a reflection of who I was with, and oftentimes, that person was “tough.” I dressed the part, spoke the part, and acted the part because I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. There were, I now know, some core values that were hiding under the muck, like a nurturing instinct, a desire to make others happy, thoughtfulness and scholarly ambition. But outside of that, I became whatever that person wanted me to be, and I got all of my self-confidence from the love and attention of others—often for all the wrong reasons.

Difficulty Managing and Regulating Emotions:

Negative thoughts are torturous and overwhelming, and the inability to tolerate your own bad feelings can make you act out in big ways. A normal argument may entail some shouting and maybe an open-palmed, good-old-fashioned slap on the table. But for me, it was hysteria. Whoever I was with had all of the eggs from my basket, and so if I felt hurt, or rejected, or ignored—emotionally unsafe, in other words—a switch was flipped inside me that sent me into a tailspin, and I had no idea how to handle the automatic gear that shifted into place. I broke things, I screamed at a level that caused people to call security, I tore through furniture and I got so drunk that I ended up in the hospital the next day. I hid in a closet. Not at age 6, at age 20.

I spent hours in my room crying and screaming on the phone. Sometimes I even got borderline violent when substances were involved; a kick in the shin while drunk or a slap in the face while stoned. All out of fear and desperation, all destructive and impulsive panic moves. Triggers can impact you all the time, even if you’re not arguing, because your flight or fight response is always being kicked into high gear and you’re incapable of calm communication, or taking some time and space to cool down or process your thoughts and feelings in a healthy way.

Low Self-Esteem:

People with trauma, especially early on in life, miss out on the chance to form a solid sense of self, core values, healthy self-esteem. Because they want to feel safe and loved, they may find a “protector” in a partner that makes them feel those things at first, but who can turn emotionally or even physically abusive. There is also a sense, in trauma survivors, that the “darkness” of your trauma has polluted you permanently and turned you into damaged goods.

By staying in these relationships, emotionally or physically, I know now that I was feeding this idea—even though I was smart enough to know better deep down—that I was unworthy, damaged goods, unlovable. It may not make sense to others, but I had gotten comfortable feeling afraid and felt that being with someone was better than having nobody, because that loneliness was too painful to bear. I was so desperate to get out of the hell of my own mind that I would overlook a lot of things just to feel some closeness, warmth or affection from another person. Just to keep me going.


I have seen magazine articles that attempt to normalize behavior like cyber-stalking or in-person stalking, going to great lengths to get revenge and indulging obsession over exes, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s doing more harm than good, and whether there is more going on for these people than just some temporary “crazy.”

It’s been a solid chunk of time since I’ve screamed bloody murder or thrown an object, and I’ve even impressed my fiancé by staying so calm when I’m angry, leaving the room to call someone, then coming back with a clear head. I still recognize some of the old impulses as they come up, because you can’t be “cured” from PTSD. You can recover and continue that recovery, but you need to keep both eyes open even if it’s been years since you’ve felt so angry that you wanted to make a bee-line for the nearest bar/lounge and shove your cleavage in some other person’s face.

I’ve had to face some of my worst fears, like the time that I told myself it was “probably nothing” when Lee was later than usual to come home from work, and it turned out he’d been attacked on the subway. But I don’t let that teeny little voice saying, “See, we told you so, we knew something like that would happen” turn me into the paranoid, scared child who would likely insist on personally chauffeuring her fiancé to and from work every day.

These days he does update me when he’s on his way home and there’s train trouble, and that makes me smile, because it was his idea, not mine.

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Twitter, Facebookor HelainaHovitz.com

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