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Childhood trauma: cPTSD in relationships

Childhood Trauma: cPTSD – understanding and supporting your partner on the road to healing

Understand your loved one better and support him on his road to recovery: If your partner suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD), living together can be emotionally challenging. But it’s important to know that you can support him on his recovery journey. This blog post will teach you everything you need to know about cPTBS and how you can best support your partner.

What is cPTSD?

cPTSD stands for “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” and is a severe trauma triggered by long-lasting, overwhelming, stressful events. These can be caused, for example, by domestic violence, war experiences or prolonged sexual assault. cPTSD can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or cultural background. It is essential to know that while cPTSD is treatable, early diagnosis and treatment are critical for a successful recovery.

A challenging aspect of living with a partner with cPTSD is the impact the condition can have on your relationship. cPTSD can cause trust issues, intimacy problems and difficulties with emotion regulation. That can lead to trust difficulties, intimacy problems and difficulties with emotion regulation. This can make it difficult for your partner to fully engage in the relationship, and it can also be difficult for you to feel fully supported and understood.

It is also essential to understand that cPTSD cannot be “cured” or “fixed”. They are consequences of a past experience that require personal growth to overcome. This can be difficult to accept, especially if you are used to being able to “fix” problems in your relationship. However, it is crucial to understand that cPTSD is not quickly resolved and will likely require ongoing support and patience from both partners.

How does cPTSD develop?

cPTSD is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that results from a series of traumatic experiences in childhood. These traumas can be abuse, neglect, violence, conflict within the family or similar events. cPTSD affects a person’s daily life in many ways, from emotional and physical symptoms to behavioural problems. As cPTSD results from a complex combination of traumas, adapted treatment is necessary for successful personal growth.

The symptoms and signs of cPTSD

The symptoms and signs of cPTSD can be many and vary from person to person. Some common symptoms may include emotional withdrawal, anxiety and phobias, depression, self-harm behaviour, sleep disturbances, loss of attachment, alcohol or drug abuse, survival and flashback experiences, and physical symptoms such as headaches or chronic pain.

Pete Walker is a respected expert in the field of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD). He has compiled a comprehensive list of symptoms and signs of cPTSD that encompass the consequences of a traumatic childhood. He highlights these symptoms:

  • Constant fear and insecurity,
  • Emotional lability
  • Unprocessed trauma memories,
  • Hypersensitivity to stress,
  • Self-esteem problems, and low frustration tolerance.

Walker also emphasizes that cPTSD often leads to a breakdown in the ability to regulate emotions and a tendency towards self-destructive behaviour. It is essential to recognize that these symptoms result from traumatic childhood experiences, not character flaws. It is important to note that everyone may react differently to trauma and that this list is not exhaustive. If you think your partner may be suffering from cPTSD, you should seek professional help.

cPTSD: Complex trauma affects identity

It is particularly frightening for trauma survivors and their loved ones how much complex trauma affects identity when it is repeated and begins in childhood.

First, trauma at a young age can impair development and limit one’s ability to realize one’s full potential, especially in terms of assertiveness and mastery and control of emotions. Trauma survivors are also often excellent at recognizing the needs of others. As a relative of someone who has experienced trauma, you may already know this – it may be one reason why you fell in love with that person in the first place! People who have experienced trauma can be susceptible to the needs of others, and this can be a good thing, as it helps develop relationships.

However, over time, when people with cPTSD focus only on others, they miss important aspects of their feelings. I guess you could call it “people pleasing”, or in some cases, just a focus outside their own mind, but trauma survivors often forget to think about what is on their minds.

This can be a problem in close relationships. When people develop deeper attachments, we can all be triggered by things from the past. For example, your boyfriend’s tidiness can remind you of your mother, which can be reassuring or disturbing depending on your relationship with her. Your partner’s anxiousness may remind you of a parent who was anxious and then drank too much. We all get triggered in relationships, but for people with cPTSD, memories of the past are not just frightening. They can lead to overwhelming and intense feelings and behaviours you may not understand.

Let’s take a moment to consider whether some behaviours in someone you love might be confusing for you and possibly related to cPTSD. Tick all the items in the list below that apply to your loved one:

  • Your loved one seems to withdraw or disappear when difficult or highly emotional things happen.
  • He has problems with eating, either by excessively restricting calories or by binge-eating and vomiting.
  • Your partner seems to overreact and take things personally for reasons you may not understand.
  • Your loved one may explode with anger in a way that seems out of context or unrelated to the current circumstances.
  • Your partner becomes suicidal or self-harming when disappointed or angry.
  • He has nightmares and/or difficulty talking about bad dreams.
  • They have the feeling of being excluded from important aspects of their inner life.
  • Your loved one sometimes seems startled when you approach them.
  • Your partner seems to have different personalities, sometimes almost like other people.
  • Your partner blames you for things that seem to have nothing to do with you.
  • Your partner uses drugs, especially when r is struggling with difficult emotional states.
  • Your partner sometimes becomes suspicious for reasons that seem unclear to you.
  • Your partner has suggested that they have a traumatic past, but you don’t really know much about it.
  • Your partner sometimes reacts very strongly to people or situations, and you are unsure what has upset them.
  • You get mixed messages about what your partner prefers or what feels OK regarding physical intimacy.
  • Their partner seems very anxious or agitated when they have contact with the family.
  • When everything is going well or calm, your loved one may suddenly become distraught.
  • Your partner sometimes seems numb, and you can’t tell what they think or feel.
  • Seemingly “random” things in the environment (like a song, a place or a smell) will trigger your partner and cause them to get upset.
  • Your partner cannot relax and looks for things to occupy or distract him or herself.

cPTSD in the relationship: So how can you best support your partner?

The first step is to learn about cPTSD and its symptoms. This will help you understand what your partner is going through, and it will also help you recognize when they are having problems.

It is vital that you support your partner to self-regulate and stay away from triggering events. Develop understanding and empathy rather than judging or blaming your partner. The cPTSD can lead to difficulties in emotion regulation, and your partner may need more time and space to process their feelings.

Good communication and clear agreements are also essential to support the partner in difficult situations.

Exploring therapy options together and actively supporting the healing process is also helpful. It is crucial that both partners be willing to work on themselves and work on the relationship to achieve positive change.

It is also essential to know the triggers for your partner’s symptoms. If you know that certain events or situations likely trigger his symptoms, you can help avoid them or prepare for them in advance.

You must understand that he needs therapy or medication.

Supporting a partner with cPTSD can be emotionally exhausting. Therefore, also take care of yourself. This may include taking time for yourself, getting support from friends or a therapist, or engaging in self-care activities.

cPTSD in the relationship: When you are at the end of your patience

There may be times – and this may be a consequence of you being over-committed – when you f be unsympathetic and distant. As you might imagine, this can be a trigger for your loved one, who is very sensitive towards you. In my experience, these extremes of getting too involved and not caring as much are common. So bear in mind that it can be understandable if your persistence wanes. If your partner is going through a crisis and may be anxious and depressed, it can be hard to know how to help them. Life can be dramatic when you are with someone who has suffered trauma. I don’t think all survivors necessarily seek drama, but the inner world in which they have processed dramatic and traumatic events can lead to a chaotic external world.

It hurts to lose patience when someone you care about is suffering, but that is normal. Again, it is essential to remember the limits of your own responsibility, but also the possibilities you have to help.

It is important to ask what your loved one needs and not assume you know. And if your tolerance for what is going on seems on a fine line – if you are not confident about how much you can take – you should exercise your right to get some space, but in a way that does not convey abandonment.

Ultimately, it is best to have an ongoing dialogue with your loved one that expresses that you want to support them, but also that you need to take care of yourself so that you can continue to be present and each of you feel as known, supported and caught up by the other as possible.

People with cPTSD can have different or varying memories depending on their state of mind. So, that means that someone can remember something one day or even one minute, but not afterwards. This has to do with how difficult it is to think of stressful memories. I know this can be confusing for you as a family member, but it is normal. This is when dissociation is present. In short, dissociation has to do with the way trauma survivors process stressful experiences.

We don’t know precisely what the reasons are for this way of dealing with trauma and stress, but it could have to do with intense anxiety, and so that overloads the system. This has neurological effects on the formation of memories, making it difficult for people to remember events. When they do, the memories are often fragmented or shards of an incomplete kaleidoscope. So, you may feel left out of understanding your loved one, which is simply part of the process of CPTSD. But they are not deliberately leaving you out; your loved one may struggle with deep confusion about their history. Sometimes they are just trying to survive.

So, you have to find a way to help him and yourself. This task starts with finding a balance between feeling overly responsible, feeling completely helpless, giving up or falling into resentment. So let’s consider some practical tips that will meet your needs and those of the person you care for when dealing with CPTSD.

cPTSD in relationships: Conclusion

Feeling helpless and not knowing how to help your partner can be challenging. For people who have experienced trauma, their healing journey is very personal, but they also need a broad support system and a community of people who care. For loved ones, it is about finding a balance between being a comforting presence and avoiding excessive accountability, as it can lead to even more feelings of helplessness.

Since you are attracted to someone with a traumatic past, this may mean that you are a sensitive and caring soul. It may also mean that you have your own ghosts from the past – for example, the experience of caring for others in childhood, which causes you to take on that responsibility in an adult relationship in ways that are not always healthy for either of you – and if this is the case, remember that your own mental health needs are just as important as those of the person you are caring for.

In summary, living with a partner with cPTSD is a challenge and an opportunity to grow and learn. With patience, understanding and the proper support, you and your partner can overcome the difficulties and build a stronger, more resilient relationship. Remember that it is important to take care of yourself, process your feelings, and understand your partner’s needs.

It is also worth reiterating how incredibly important it is to have the right support for your partner with cPTSD. As a loved one, you can play an important role in this process. By understanding what cPTSD is and how it affects you, you can better support your partner and help them move forward on the road to recovery. It is also important that you support yourself and take time for yourself. Find out about the resources that are available and take action to support your partner on their journey.

Resources and further support.

  • Online forums for trauma survivors.
  • Therapy: Trauma-focused services, including Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).
  • Trauma-specific support groups.
  • Books and blogs on cPTSD.
  • Body therapy (e.g. yoga, meditation).
  • Psychiatric care and medication.
  • Relative support groups and coaching for relationship partners.


Greenberg, T. M. (2022). The Complex PTSD Coping Skills Workbook: An Evidence-Based Approach to Manage Fear and Anger, Build Confidence, and Reclaim Your Identity. New Harbinger Publications.

Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma. CreateSpace.

Walker, P. (2015). The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness Out of Blame. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

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