Dating is hard. It’s hard enough to find someone that you can connect with, have similar interests, ideals, and values with, and someone you’re attracted to! Adding medical and mental health conditions into the algorithm of dating can be difficult and is a process that people must navigate when considering a long-term relationship (LTR). Dating someone who struggles with mental health conditions is not uncommon; the World Health Organization averages that one in four people are affected (or will be affected) with a mental health or neurological condition at some point in their lives. That means that it is pretty common to encounter a person who is struggling with a mental health condition, and even more likely that you have had experience dating someone who has or it is you that has a diagnosis yourself. No matter who it is, dating someone who struggles with mental health issues requires the same skills and qualities as dating someone who does not: patience, empathy, and a willingness to understand is key.
One particular mental health condition that warrants this understanding from a romantic partner is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition that arises after a person has been through or witnessed a traumatic experience; research shows that, currently six out of 10 men and five out of 10 women experience a traumatic event in their lives that can lead to PTSD. PTSD is something that causes a person to experience severe symptoms, including:
- Having directly experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, learning that someone close to the person has experienced something traumatic, or indirect exposure via professional duties (first responders, etc.).
- Exhibiting at least one of the following symptoms:
- Not being able to get the thoughts of the trauma out of the person’s mind
- Emotional distress or physical reactivity after being reminded of the event
- Exhibiting at least two of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty remembering key details of traumatic event
- Being overly negative and assuming the worst about life and the world
- Exaggerated self-blame or blame of others
- Decreased interest in preferred activities
- Isolating and having decreased emotional expression/positive affect
- Also, exhibiting any of the following:
- Risky/destructive behavior
- Sensitive startle reaction
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
PTSD affects every person differently and the person who has experienced the traumatic event may have some or all of these symptoms presented. Obviously, by looking at this criteria, it is clear that these symptoms can and do often affect interpersonal relationships with others, particularly romantic relationships. Often, as a result of a person’s persistent hyper-vigilance, irritability, and occasionally dangerous or destructive behavior, there can be severe strains on the loved ones of someone with PTSD. And, as a result of these unintentional actions, people can experience difficulties with their own self-worth and self-esteem, which can also impact their ability to sustain a healthy relationship.
Because mental health is so integral to being able to function appropriately in all of the settings in our lives, being able to address and seek assistance with difficulties related to our mental health is of upmost importance to improving our relationships with the ones we love and our quality of life as a whole! Often those who experience PTSD symptoms may feel like they should just get back to normal on their own in time, but often that is not the case and treatment and assistance is necessary to help them figure out the best way to navigate the world from their new outlook following the trauma. Here are some key tips for how to manage dating someone you know or suspect may be suffering from PTSD:
- Understand the diagnosis: PTSD is a serious and real disorder that affects lots of people, from those who are veterans in the military, to children who have experienced abuse and neglect. Understanding that a lot of inappropriate and difficult behaviors and attitudes may arise from this disorder is important in being able to understand your partner and to know when they may need to get help.
- Don’t personalize: Often partners in romantic relationships with those suffering from PTSD will begin to experience difficulties in connecting, irritability, and lashing out, or risky/destructive behaviors as a representation for how they feel about you as a partner. Remembering that these are key components of PTSD and being able to hold on to your own sense of self is important in being able to stay connected to a partner, but also to have the ability to maintain boundaries and expectations that all relationships need to thrive.
- You can’t be their only support: For those who are suffering with PTSD symptoms that impact their quality of life, many times a partner feels like they are the only one that the person can depend on and they try to do as much as possible to help and support them. While this is well-intended, it is important to recognize that you are not responsible for healing your romantic partner all on your own. Supporting your partner in obtaining professional help, reminding them of other people in their life that they can count on, and giving yourself space and time for yourself is just as important as being there to support the person you love.
- Know when to walk away: PTSD, like many other mental health conditions, often comes with a roller-coaster of emotions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and these things can (and do) impact relationships, no matter how aware of them the partners may be. It is important to remember your own needs and desires and to make sure you are addressing them in the relationship, even if your partner suffers from PTSD or another mental health disorder. If you begin to feel like you are being drained of your self-worth or ability to find happiness or meaning in the relationship, it is okay to leave. It is important to take care of yourself first and then try as much as possible to help your partner, but sometimes walking away helps a person more than staying with them ever could.
- Get your own support: If you are dating someone with PTSD or another mental health concern, it is important to address your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions as much as theirs. Seeking professional support from a mental health expert, whether individually, or as a couple, can help partners understand their relationship and how to manage it while keeping PTSD in mind.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events