Surviving a relationship break with PTSD
There’s a lot of information on the Internet about PTSD and many times more sites with breakup and divorce advice, but trying to get guidance on how to deal with a breakup or a divorce when you’re suffering PTSD can be lonely and frustrating: It’s very difficult to find good advice that applies to your very unique situation.
Before I get into things too much, however, I’d like to make three very important points that you have to understand and eventually come to terms with if this article is to have any relevance to you at all:
(1) I admit that the title to this article was playing to your feelings and not the reality of the situation: PTSD did not ‘cause’ your divorce or break up. The breakup was a human decision and probably had a lot of factors involved. While PTSD may have certainly made living together difficult and challenging, it’s too easy to blame the elephant in the room rather than taking a more honest inventory of the relationship to see what really went wrong. This applies to both of you, but you only need to be concerned for yourself, right now.
(2) PTSD is a common term that’s often thrown around to describe (or self describe) anybody that can point to a trauma in their past and who is having a hard time with their life. The fact is, only a tiny percentage of people that experience trauma – even severe trauma – also suffer PTSD. Further, merely having a lot of the possible symptoms or even ALL the symptoms doesn’t mean you have PTSD. This article is intended to help people who actually DO have PTSD and are facing a life without a major support structure in their lives.
(3) This article is intended to give advice on what to do with a new life WITHOUT your Significant Other, who I will refer to as your SO, whether it is wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, or long-time friend with benefits or even just a friend that became central to your life and has decided to distance themselves from you. It is NOT about maintaining some hope that you’ll ever get back with that person if you straighten yourself out.
My credentials are that I suffer from PTSD and I will have PTSD for the rest of my life. As with all PTSD sufferers, my brain was physically remapped with a glorious set of neural connections at the point (or points) of trauma. They will never be unmapped in the same sense that you can’t un-cook an egg. That said, in the past three years I went from complete amnesia and homelessness and a loss of everything, to getting the help I need and learning techniques that make PTSD manageable and livable.
I’m not quite there, yet and I’m still working on it, but I’m working on it alone, because my girlfriend just simply needed to move on. At first, I blamed PTSD, but the fact is – that thing you realize when you’re actually in a place to be honest with yourself – there were a lot of problems and it’s only when I was finally alone and on my own that I’ve been able to deal with those AS WELL AS the PTSD: I can’t blame PTSD for everything.
I’ll lead you in that direction, but I warn you, I’m not pulling any punches with this article: I know all the excuses and arguments because I used to have many of them myself.
I was a non-military, 19 year old, freelance photographer in 1989 West Beirut, which was supposed to be experiencing a cease fire in a 30 year civil war, but which was instead experiencing a very bloody time. I’ll come back to different of those events from time to time to illustrate points, but don’t let that alienate you from your experiences.
So, enough about me, let’s talk about you.
What Do You Do, Now?
The first thing anybody would do when they’ve been dumped is to react to that and you probably already have. The problem with suffering PTSD is that we can’t trust ourselves to act as ‘normal’ people would without also acting out a very severe mental illness with symptoms that can be bewildering to other people if not actually scary and threatening. On the other side of that, many of us suffer symptoms such as depression that can push us into thoughts of hurting ourselves, or others.
You have to understand that you just suffered the loss of a major support structure in your life whether you want to admit it, or not. You have almost no chance of getting that person to stay and even if you could convince them to change their mind, you’d never be able to trust that they wouldn’t just leave again in the future: That breeds distrust and an unhealthy spiral for both of you.
The first thing you have to wrap your mind around is that they ARE leaving you, or have already left, and they’re not coming back. You’re alone. You have to decide what you’re going to do with that new situation and try to see it as an opportunity and a wake up call.
(1) Breathe. Ground yourself. These are the two most important skills in your arsenal. If you haven’t learned how to do these things, you’re dead in the water and you might as well stop reading this article. Breathing is literally concentrating on taking a breath in, holding it, letting it out slowly. If you’re suffering panic or anger, this is going to be hard to do for a while and that should tell you that breathing is exactly what you should be doing right now. Nothing else.
Grounding involves sitting in a chair, relaxed, and merely feeling your body and noticing your surroundings. You’re literally pushing against the floor, a little bit with your feet and just noticing how it feels to have the ground push back against you. When you relax, you note how your feet feel and try to get just your feet to relax. Get your shins to relax after noticing how they feel. Notice how your thighs feel. Butt, Stomach, Chest -- get that to relax with more breathing if it feels tight and the same with your throat. Shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, hands, each finger, facial muscles..
If you think that sounds silly and yoga, or something, then stop reading because you’re not ready to help yourself, yet, and you will not have the two tools you need to manage yourself.
I’m serious: Do it, do it now. I’ll wait.
You back? Ok, I’m trusting you did the whole thing and if you’re doing it for the first time, it should have taken you at least an hour, though as you gain practice by doing it every day, it can get you to where you need to be in like 10 – 15 minutes.
(2) Get it out of your head that your divorce or breakup is because of PTSD, that the other person betrayed you, that they are bad, you are bad, that it’s unfair, unjust, a mistake… just stop it! Two people came together like threads in a weave and now it’s time to accept that the two threads must part. Get it into your head like that: It was time for you to go one way and be alone to get back on your feet. They also had to get back on theirs.
If it helps and you really did LOVE that person and weren’t just using them because you selfishly felt that you needed them and it’s all about you because you’re the one with PTSD, you’ll force yourself to think this: They were suffering from YOUR PTSD and they also need time and space to heal from PTSD. THEY had the courage to do the very difficult thing of going toward health by making a very painful decision.
The question is, do you have the guts to start making painful decisions for your own self, or are you going to let your SO turn you into a pitiful wreck, desperate to do anything to keep them? A monster that will hurt them out of spite and revenge because they made you feel the pain of loss, fear, shame?
I didn’t think so.
It was time for you two to part so that you could be alone to concentrate on yourself. You NEED to be alone for this.
(3) Basic Needs + Immediate Emotional ones. A lot of PTSD sufferers very simply can’t work a steady job. It’s difficult to explain to the boss and coworkers why you ‘flipped out’ and started acting strangely after a trigger. Thus, the SO might have been a source of financial support as well emotional structure and support. That’s gone.
This means that you have some hard and fast decisions to make about basic needs. I’ve been homeless exactly 2 times as a direct result of PTSD and I climbed out of it both times. The one thing you have to understand is that you need 4 things and you really don’t need anything else: Air (of course), Food and water, clothing, a warm bed / shelter from the environment. If your SO leaves you that desperate, then do as I did: Grit your teeth, get whatever clothing together you can into a comfortable bag, your laptop, all important papers and ID, and enjoy the fresh aroma of homeless in a homeless shelter. Do whatever you can to store your other things that you can’t carry even if it means begging the ex to help you.
Three benefits of most homeless shelters is that they can set you up with food, medical, therapists, medication, etc. They take some immediate worries off your mind, they offer structure, which you’ll hate, but it offers some hidden benefits. The downside is that they tend to smell and you feel like shit being there and the staff tends to be ignorant and look down on you.
Who cares? You won’t be there long and the smell gives you added incentive to get out.
If you’re NOT going to be that desperate, then move on to step 4.
(4) Organize. One of the biggest problems of PTSD (at least for me and several others) is being able to concentrate and stay focused on things that need to get done RIGHT NOW. Loss of focus is a very common symptom and the To Do list is not only helpful to keep you on track, but if you flip back to see what was and wasn’t accomplished on any given day, you will be able to self-evaluate your progress in getting better.
I HATE writing lists and it goes against my nature to follow them, but If I didn’t force myself to write a list of things I needed to do and force myself with every trick in the book to stick to the list, I’d be dead in the water, probably literally.
If you’re going through a divorce, this is especially important because you have a lot of legal things you have to go through. A break-up is just as painful, but there are still things you have to sort out for the first week, month, 3 months, year and five years.
If you’re not good at writing and shy away from it, get over it. Invest in a pad of paper (or, preferably a day planner) and some pens and realize that this is the most precious friend you have in the world.
I’ll be talking about what needs to be on that list.
(5) The List. Consider “The List” of things to do to be an escape from having to think of what just happened, if it helps. The List is about you muscling through mostly practical, daily things that you don’t want to do, but will make your life better.
The List of To Do items should contain even basic every day things you need to accomplish: Grooming, Daily chores that need to be accomplished, things related to your job if you have one, or getting a job if you don’t. What are you doing today about your PTSD (that includes the ‘chores’ of breathing and grounding even before your first coffee in the morning), etc.
It may seem weird to write down a ToDo list that includes something as simple as taking a shower, but you want it on the list for two reasons: You get to cross it off when you accomplish it. You also get to see in writing when you’re not getting basic things done, which means you’re slipping into depression and you may need extra help.
(6) I don’t care what condition you’re in from PTSD, you need to replace your SO with people. Real, live, annoying, cloying, needy, smelly, self-interested, disloyal, shallow people. This was really hard for me because I was an introvert even before Beirut, but if I can do it, so can you. If you’re reading this, you have access to the internet, so you can do searches for “meetup” groups in your city. Do not isolate yourself!
Feel free to be silent, sullen, uncomfortable, pissed that you’re doing this, but DO it. Give it one full hour, then leave if you have to. Next week, do it again. Make it a challenge. REWARD yourself for doing it, somehow and put that reward on your ToDo list.
(7) If you don’t have a therapist, get one. Many PTSD sufferers will use every excuse in the book to avoid this: “I don’t need one.” “I had one, but it didn’t work out.” “Therapy is useless.” Etc.
My first experiences were with psychiatrists that did a 10 minute conversation and a prescription… for Bi-Polar. I was VERY down on the psych community because of this until I found a therapist that figured out what was wrong and fought for me. Without her, I would never have been able to make the improvements I’ve made in managing my PTSD, though two years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed that therapy could possibly help me or that I needed it.
It’s FRUSTRATING to go through the process of finding the right ones, but do it anyway. Put it on your ToDo list.
(8) Meds v.s Self Medication. I can put down two 80oz bottle of Natural Ice without even getting a buzz, anymore. I used to drink just to cut the edge off panic attacks, flooding, hyper-awareness, intruding memories, anger, etc. That’s what I told myself. Not only did it never work, but it made pretty much everything and every symptom worse, not just for me, but for everyone around me. They were no longer dealing just with my PTSD, but my PTSD and my drinking.
Self medicating with drugs and alcohol never works and never kills the feelings associated with PTSD. If you’re doing it, I’m not going to bother to suggest stopping because you won’t. However, I would suggest that you consider replacing that with prescription meds that actually do give you the mental space to deal with therapy and the day-to-day of living and getting things done. Make sure that you and your therapist work with the psychiatrist to figure out a drug regimen that works with you. If you have an arrogant psychiatrist that won’t take the time to work with both you and the therapist as a team, then fire them and get another.
I personally found that a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner was far more friendly and cooperative than any psychiatrist ever was. If your state allows them, try that as an alternative if you’re frustrated with psychiatrists.
(9) Allow yourself to feel the pain and grief! Don’t avoid it or try to hide from it. If your SO left you, it’s going to hurt like hell. Self medicating, rebound sex, trying to convince the SO to change their mind, even following all the above advice with the wrong mindset of winning your SO back, someday, is destructive and will only lead to frustration and even your PTSD symptoms getting worse.
This may seem counter-intuitive (it seemed so when it was taught to me) but what you need to do is to literally spend time sitting with your pain and grief and allow yourself to feel it. Experience it. Try describing it out loud to an empty room what it feels like. Be honest to yourself about whether you’re feeling things you don’t want to admit: Fear. Loneliness. Shame. Etc.
What happens, when you spend a little bit of time every day just simply doing that, you’re actually allowing time to literally heal your wounds. The other methods, which avoid the pain, doesn’t allow time to heal you and the pain festers and turns into something worse.
Literally, spend a bit of time alone in a room and sit with your pain.
(10) The most important thing is that you have no time for a pity party or to ‘blame’ either your ex- or your PTSD. You need to focus and stay on track so that you can reach a point in your life where you can have a stable and lasting relationship in which you’re able to provide support as well as receive it.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
SD on February 05, 2018:
Thank you for this, I started dealing with PTSD last September and it has been a very lonely and painful road. By far this has been the article that has encouraged me the most.
I'm in the battle with this thing but I'll kick it away. It hurts like hell to loose/push away the people you love and expected to be around for you. But I learned that no expectations on anyone but yourself you can really have, people leave, specially if you ask them to....
I literally have spent this time with myself, the pain, and trying to put myself together for my son.
Thanks for this!
AnnaCia on June 27, 2015:
Thank you for this hub which contain so much important information. I do always think that my conditions (mostly PTSD) done define me, but I need to educate myself about it and how much affects others around me. I am proud of myself because I am taking responsibility to gather all I know so when I have an episode. Thank s again for this important hub. Thumb up
BRAIN CANCER SURVIVOR on May 03, 2014:
This must be about dating and BF/GF relationships, not marriage...I have PTSD, I'm getting LENS treatment...your suggestion that the break up wasn't from PTSD is BULLSHIT! This won't help anyone to see mental illness correctly...how about this...STAY TOGETHER...work it out...LOVE the one your with who has PTSD? Remain, there is hope and help out there! Your relationship can survive this! It's worth it if you LOVE each other! Don't puss out and just accept defeat! It's sounds like this guy is in denial about some of his PTSD related issues...I call BULLSHIT! :)
braincandy on March 21, 2014:
Like your straight forward approach. Life saving ideas.
AnnaCia on January 25, 2013:
I relate to your hub, Matt. I also suffer from PTSD and the story is what I am struggling with now. Having a condition, no matter which one is, can be a trigger, along with other aspects, for others near us to make certain decisions like the one you discuss. Only those who are involved in a relationship know the real reasons to terminate it. New steps and little ones. A new path has to be created with a broken heart. A new way to understand and learn more about our conditions and how we manage them should be the focus. You are right, no pity.
icestar1995 on September 29, 2012:
Dealing with someone with PTSD requires a lot of love. Most people can't handle it, partly because they don't fully understand what you're going through. If they can't handle it, then let leave. You'll get over it, just like hopefully someday you'll get over your PTSD. But I agree you should focus on other stuff then take pity on yourself. Those that get completely depressed over this crap, they're the ones who really loose.