Complex PTSD Triggers in Relationships: Insights and Coping Strategies

This article will provide insights and coping strategies for individuals and couples dealing with complex PTSD triggers in their relationships, fostering understanding and support for those affected.

how to cope with complex ptsd triggers

Trauma can linger without treatment and manifest in the form of complex PTSD triggers, especially in relationships down the road. Some people are entirely unaware that they are harboring trauma in the first place, so they don’t understand why certain situations or conversations result in hardships.

Complex PTSD vs. traditional PTSD

Traditional PTSD is something that occurs after a single traumatic event. If, for example, you were the victim of assault once, lost a child, or were in a severe accident, you might struggle with PTSD for several months or years.

Complex PTSD is a disorder that comes from experiencing repeated and prolonged trauma. It is also chronic in nature, which means it is not only the result of repeated trauma, but it can manifest over the span of your lifetime without help.

Common complex PTSD triggers in relationships

Intimacy and vulnerability: The fear of getting close

For many people, there is an issue of intimacy and being vulnerable. If you struggle with chronic PTSD, especially from emotional or physical abuse in childhood, you might have an intense fear of getting close to someone else.

You might substitute sex for intimacy, being frequently willing to initiate or engage in sex because you crave an immediate closeness. In some cases, this is because you mistakenly correlate that physical closeness to intimacy, and in other cases, it’s just because that physical closeness helps to do away with negative emotions you might be feeling as an avoidance tactic.

Past traumas mirrored in present situations

Past traumas can be mirrored in present situations, particularly without realization. These complex PTSD triggers in relationships can result in fights or high anxiety levels for no apparent reason.

Consider an example:

Laura marries a man in her early twenties. He seemed very friendly, loving, and supportive of herself and her two-year-old daughter. After being married in the local courthouse, they left for their honeymoon, and on the first night, he looked at her and told her that he had made a huge mistake and he didn’t want to be married to her. That began a tumultuous, 10-year relationship of physical and emotional abuse.

Laura remarried a genuinely kind-hearted man from her new church thirty years later. On the first night of their honeymoon, Laura started to have panic attacks. It took Laura a while to realize that simply being on a honeymoon again was a trigger for her and that she was worried that this new husband would say the same thing.

Arguments or conflicts

Arguments and conflict within a relationship can serve as common complex PTSD triggers. Anyone who struggled with abuse as a child might be more likely to react poorly to arguments or conflict. This could take the form of shutting down when there’s an argument, having fear or panic attacks because of a perceived threat, or fighting in an abusive fashion because that’s what you saw growing up.

Feelings of abandonment or rejection

Individuals who struggled with abandonment issues growing up, particularly those who had a parent leave, are more likely to feel as though they are unworthy of love and that everyone they meet will eventually reject or abandon them.

These feelings can lead to a common complex PTSD trigger where you have trouble maintaining relationships because you’re constantly looking out for signs that they are about to leave you or because you believe that they will abandon you or reject you, you preemptively sabotage that relationship so that they aren’t the ones causing pain, but instead, you pretend it was your decision.

It might even cause you to be particularly clingy or needy, requiring the other person in your relationship to compensate for your feelings of abandonment or rejection.

Perceived threats or dangers, even if they are not real

As mentioned, arguments and conflicts can lead to perceived threats or dangers even if they aren’t real, and this can be a chronic PTSD trigger.

Consider this example:

Katie grew up in a home with physical abuse. She left her home and moved to a new state to go to college. While she went to therapy as a child, she didn’t really continue any form of mental health treatment in adulthood and instead tried to keep herself busy so that she wouldn’t have time to think about it.

When Katie was growing up, her father would come home intoxicated, and as soon as he started yelling or smacking his hand on the table or a wall, she knew that he was about to get up and be physically violent.

When Katie started her first intimate relationship in adulthood, things were going well until her partner came home angry after a bad day at work, slammed his fist on the table, and started yelling about the issues at work.

Even though it had nothing to do with her, Katie perceived a threat, suddenly anxious, with high blood rates, panic, and fear. She wasn’t able to simply listen to her partner as he vented about his day at work because she was in fight or flight mode, not recognizing the complex PTSD triggers or knowing how to cope with complex PTSD triggers in her relationship.

Trust issues and past betrayals

Without processing trust issues or past betrayals, that baggage can be brought with you into your next relationship, where it can find a new home and cause significant damage.

Let’s look at another example:

Marcus was in a happy, stable relationship for several years. He and his girlfriend had a mutual male friend with whom they remained quite close. That friend was always over for dinner, going out to concerts with them, and hanging out with Marcus’s girlfriend if Marcus was unavailable.

It took two years before Marcus realized that this mutual friend was the person his girlfriend would call whenever he and his girlfriend had a fight. The mutual friend would use that opportunity to undermine Marcus, and this led to infidelity and a breakup.

A few years later, Marcus dated someone new, and she had a best friend named Erin. Marcus learned that his new girlfriend was turning to that friend for discussion after fights within their relationship, and he started to struggle with trust issues from his past betrayals.

These common complex PTSD triggers in relationships that he wasn’t necessarily aware of caused him to go straight to fear and then anger, starting fights with his girlfriend about why she needed any other man in her life and issuing an ultimatum that she was not allowed to talk to this guy anymore.

Complex PTSD vs. traditional PTSD

Why can relationships amplify C-PTSD symptoms?

With learning how to cope with complex PTSD triggers, these situations can arise time and time again. Eventually, they might even result in the destruction of a relationship. But why do relationships amplify complex PTSD triggers in the first place?

Relationships function as mirrors. They are a reflection of our deepest insecurities and fears. Everyone has different attachment styles, and those attachment styles can interact with trauma.

How to deal with complex PTSD triggers in relationships

In order to have a successful relationship, you need to learn how to cope with complex PTSD triggers.

complex ptsd triggers

Recognizing triggers: The importance of self-awareness

It’s up to you to recognize your triggers, which might take a long time as you reflect on why you reacted a certain way in a given situation, especially if that reaction didn’t seem appropriate.

Communication: Speaking with your partner about your triggers

You’ll have to be open with your partner about these triggers, especially as you learn them. It could take several months or years to recognize different triggers, but when you do, be open about it.

Seeking professional therapy or counseling

The best way to help you heal is to seek professional therapy or counseling. Working with an individual therapist can give you a chance to reflect sooner in a safer environment and find your triggers.

Grounding techniques

Try grounding techniques to stay present in the moment, such as mindfulness, deep breathing, and sensory techniques. 

Creating a safe environment

Don’t be afraid to establish boundaries and safe words.

Focusing on self-care

Invest in activities that are soothing and relaxing to you. When you are triggered, these can be activities you turn to to help you cope.

Summing Up

Complex PTSD triggers arise from chronic trauma, usually some form of abuse in childhood. Understanding and coping with complex PTSD triggers in relationships is essential. It’s important to seek support both within your relationship and from trained professionals.