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When PTSD Makes Healthy Relationships Feel ‘Too Good to Be True’

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced childhood abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Navigating healthy relationships are intimidating to me. I have always been on the lookout for red flags, trying to prevent one bad thing after another from occurring, that I didn’t realize there are a such thing as green flags in relationships, too. Unlike the red flags that point to the possible danger or toxicity in a relationship that have you knowing down deep it’s time to pack up and leave that partner, green flags point to the complete opposite. They signal that you should, in fact, stay.

• What is PTSD?

A healthy, safe, and happy relationship is a great thing, right? But when you have experienced trauma, especially childhood abuse, finding a person who is safe not only for your adult self, but your wounded inner child, too, can prompt a lot of doubts and worries that are unwarranted, but feel very real. Good things feel like they’re going to go bad and real fast.

When you are only used to chaos, calm can feel terrifying. Your brain has been hardwired to survive one horrible event after another. With caregivers and trusted people in your life failing to meet your needs as a child and adolescent, sometimes healthy relationships feel intimidating and scarily unfamiliar. If you have a history of toxic relationships and friendships in adulthood as well, you can feel the odds are stacked up against you in finding a partner who is genuine. Healthy relationships begin to feel “too good to be true.”

But here’s the thing… sometimes, they aren’t. Sometimes —actually a lot more than your post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would allow you to believe — good, safe, and healthy relationships are attainable. They take learning, making mistakes while you are doing that learning, and actively trying to heal your trauma, but they are out there. They’re possible.

In my case, I am determined to have the healthiest relationships and friendships possible. I’ve worked very hard to get to this point in my life and have learned to not settle for “second best,” so I choose the best. This is a gift I give myself, but it’s still very new to me. I’m not used to being presented with the option and ability to enter healthy relationships. Because of this, I can face bouts of sudden anxiety that stem directly from negative experiences in past relationships and even trauma. I have a lot of insecurities that pop up when life is good, happy, and my relationships are strong. This is often because of old and unhealthy thought patterns that have accompanied me since childhood and experiencing prolonged emotional dysregulation due to an unstable childhood.

Through therapy, I’ve learned this can manifest itself in ways that do not make sense to partners who do not have PTSD. I can go from being happy to having a moment of pure tears after experiencing a flashback that I didn’t realize was even on the horizon. Part of this is because my brain is used to dysfunction. I have anxiety and fears about things that are unwarranted in my relationships because having a healthy relationship is very new to me in many ways. The result can be having a solid foundation in a romantic relationship that trauma wants to come and poke holes in.

Our bad experiences in the past often want to search for some reassurance, needing to test whether or not something good is actually too good to be true. But in reality, when we act on these trauma-induced fears, we can weaken an otherwise healthy relationship. The good news is we do not have to give into those old thought patterns.

A lot of it is learning to follow that thought to its root cause. Often, that search ends in a traumatic experience or insecurities created from a tough time in our lives. For example, I have struggled feeling accepted for who I am as a person. I have been told I was “annoying” when I was being my authentic self. I felt rejected and alone. I wanted to be my authentic self, but it seemed that when I did, that became a bad thing. So now, I have a fear of becoming annoying to my partner, but in all actuality, I fear rejection of the person I am. I feel helpless.

It’s my responsibility to break the old cycles that contribute to my anxiety, however. And that’s why I am in therapy and actively trying to do better. No, it’s not my fault I have a past full of trauma caused by abusive people in my life, that my power was stolen from me as a child. But as an adult, taking back my power and healing my trauma is doing what I need to become healthy and navigate healthy relationships.

A lot it is also learning healthy communication. What do I need from myself and from my partner? How can I best communicate those needs and what does my partner need from me in return? Our relationship is solid, so what fears do I have that could contribute to weakening it for no other reason than my trauma? What are things I can do to get ahead of that fear and rationalize it, because so often, in healthy relationships those fears are really PTSD related? Asking these questions can be a good start. I also strongly recommend therapy as it can help a great deal in navigating life and relationships.

Understanding I do not need to prevent bad things from happening is also key. No, instead, I need to be present for the good things occurring in this season of my life. I do not have to control every aspect of my life, I simply need to lean into it, relying on a courage I do know has existed in me from childhood survival to thriving as an adult.

Being on the lookout for red flags in any relationship is always, always important. Entering and eventually leaving toxic relationships can be incredibly hard and will take time to heal from. But when you are in a safe and healthy relationship, it’s important not to ignore the green flags.

Green flags in relationships can look like a partner who respects your boundaries, listens, encourages you to take care of your mental and physical health, respects your story and your strength, accepts you for who you are, and allows you the safety to continue healing. These green flags can also be kindness, gentleness, and understanding. Finding a genuine person in this world is possible. Navigating a healthy relationship with them as a survivor of abuse who lives with PTSD can be a reality. Don’t lose hope, survivor.

Unsplash image by Pereanu Sebastian

Originally published: February 14, 2022
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