Understanding Relationship Trauma

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Relationship trauma results from abusive behavior occurring between intimate partners. The trauma can stem from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse endured during the relationship and produce long-lasting psychological and physical effects.

This article discusses the signs of relationship trauma and how to find treatment and support.

A traumatized woman in therapy

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Defining Relationship Trauma

Post-traumatic relationship syndrome is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association's handbook for diagnosing mental health conditions. However, it is a proposed syndrome that would fit under the umbrella of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The concept of relationship trauma emerged as researchers studied individuals after the end of abusive relationships and found symptoms similar to those observed in PTSD. PTSD is characterized by a variation between avoidance and intrusion.

There is still a lot to learn about the effects of relationship trauma specifically. However, what is known is that relationship trauma differs from PTSD in the individual's ability to avoid trauma-related triggers or stimuli.

Signs of Relationship Trauma

Ending an abusive relationship is just one step in the process of healing from an unhealthy situation.

Relationship trauma can include feelings of rage and anger toward the abusive partner. In the aftermath, a person may experience distressing thoughts or feelings, cognitive difficulties, and re-experiencing of trauma. Some research suggests lingering psychological, physiological, and relational challenges.

Signs of relationship trauma can include:

  • Flashbacks: Flashbacks are vivid, intrusive thoughts related to a traumatic situation. They can be incredibly distressing and cause a person to feel as if they are reliving an event. These intrusions may be repetitive and unwanted.
  • Feelings of fear or distress: A person may experience anger, fear, stress, or anxiety in the relationship. This can lead to avoidance of the triggering situation, event, or person.
  • Guilt and shame: Feelings of guilt and shame can make a person feel isolated from or detached from others. Establishing meaningful relationships may prove complicated, as these emotions may be accompanied by hopelessness, stress, anger, or fear.
  • Nightmares: Relationship trauma can cause sleep disturbances. A person may struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. Additionally, frightening or disturbing dreams related to the content of the trauma may occur.
  • Trust difficulties: Establishing meaningful relationships may prove complicated, as the nature of the abusive relationships can instill mistrust with self and others.
  • Feelings of suspicion: The violation of emotional, physical, or sexual boundaries that can occur in an abusive relationship can breed deep mistrust in and suspicion of others. As a result, an individual may be hypervigilant of their surroundings and interactions with others.

Why It Happens

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, violence and abuse occur in an intimate relationship when one partner engages in behaviors to control, manipulate, or gain power over the other partner. In addition, stressful life events, history of trauma in the abusive partner's life, and drug or alcohol use can escalate dangerous situations and abuse in relationships. 

Abusive and harmful behaviors cause an imbalance of power and equality in a relationship. It also diminishes safety, which creates a persistent fear of experiencing abuse or extreme anxiety about abuse in other relationships.

Some ways in which an abusive partner creates unhealthy and dangerous dynamics include:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Belittling, insulting, or bullying behaviors
  • Threatening to harm a partner or loved ones
  • Emotionally and physically isolating a partner from their support system
  • Limiting a partner's autonomy or ability to make choices for themselves and act with agency
  • Controlling their finances or other means of being independent
  • Intimidation with weapons
  • Destruction of personal property
  • Keeping a partner from being able to seek help when needed
  • Gaslighting (manipulating reality to make a partner question themselves)
  • Stonewalling (not communicating with a partner or giving them the "silent treatment")
  • Lovebombing (attempting to influence a partner through shows of love and affection)

Trauma Bonding

Sometimes in an abusive relationship, trauma bonding can occur. This happens when the partner experiencing abuse feels an attachment to the abusive partner. Feelings of sympathy toward the abusive partner may lead the other to rationalize or justify their behavior, which can perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

How to Heal From Relationship Trauma

Relationship trauma does not develop overnight, so it's important to keep in mind that healing may take some time. Strategies to focus on during the healing process can include: 

  • Cultivating an environment that feels emotionally and physically safe
  • Identifying and establishing boundaries 
  • Building a support system with trusted individuals
  • Communicating your needs
  • Engaging in activities that help you feel calm and safe
  • Self-care through balanced meals, regular sleep, and movement
  • Seeking professional help from a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist 

When to Seek Help

When signs or symptoms of trauma impact your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, your relationships, or other aspects of your life, the support of a mental health professional may be needed. 

Therapy can be a safe environment for individuals to learn coping skills to manage anxiety, fear, or distress. It can also help a person work through emotions such as guilt, shame, or anger. Working with a therapist or psychologist creates an opportunity for individuals to process their thoughts and feelings, identify healthy boundaries, and expand their support system.

A healthcare provider may recommend a consultation with a psychiatrist for further evaluation of mental health. If other symptoms or mental health conditions are present, a psychiatrist or healthcare provider may prescribe anti-anxiety, antidepressant, or other medications to manage and reduce symptoms.  

Additional Support

If you are in a relationship that feels unhealthy, unsafe, or dangerous, you can seek support by reaching out to the following resources: 

If you or your loved ones are in immediate danger, call 911.

Summary

Relationship trauma develops as a result of abusive intimate partner relationships. Relationship trauma includes PTSD-like symptoms and includes feelings of anger and fear toward the abusive partner. Though abusive relationships leave long-lasting negative effects on partners, healing is possible through self-care, support, and professional help.

A Word From Verywell

Relationship trauma can develop as a result of harmful relationships, and the aftermath can be psychologically and physically devastating. If you are in an abusive relationship, it's important to remember that abuse is never the fault of the person experiencing it. Working with a mental health professional can be an essential step to beginning to heal from trauma. Remember that support is available through advocacy organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When is it healthy to share past emotional trauma in a relationship?

    You are the best judge of when it feels healthy to share your history of emotional trauma in a relationship. While some may want to be open early on, others may choose to wait until they have a better sense of what support looks like from their partner. Some signals that it might be safe include seeing support, trust, and empathy in your relationship. Sharing can be an opportunity to talk with your partner and identify your emotional needs, boundaries, communication styles, and talk about how you can resolve conflict together.

  • Is it possible to have PTSD from a relationship?

    PTSD develops in response to extremely stressful or traumatic events. If there is emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or violence in a relationship, a person may experience relationship trauma. Relationship trauma can lead to an onset of PTSD.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Geralyn Dexter, LMHC
Geralyn is passionate about empathetic and evidence-based counseling and developing wellness-related content that empowers and equips others to live authentically and healthily.