That toxic person you dated left a mark on you. Maybe not a physical mark, but you’ve changed the way you feel and the way you relate to your new partner.
Could it be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Can you get PTSD from a relationship?
PTSD happens to people after they experience or witness a life-threatening trauma. Unfortunately, some toxic relationships fall into this category.
Some toxic relationships are not physically threatening. Or, at least, not life-threatening, but they cause deep emotional trauma that affects mental health. They can leave you with symptoms that are similar to full-blown PTSD.
Here are 5 painful signs your toxic relationship gave you PTSD:
1. You now believe that all relationships are bad
After a toxic relationship, you might find yourself believing that all men can’t be trusted or that all women cheat.
Even though you’ve left your toxic ex and are currently with a great new partner, you may constantly check up on that new partner.
You find yourself accusing them of lying or of seeing someone else, even with a lack of evidence. Every little thing they do — or don’t do — is proof that something is wrong with the relationship.
When they do or say something nice, you don’t trust them.
You feel guilty, even though you were the victim. Or you blame a third party.
After a traumatic, toxic relationship, you may — strangely — feel overwhelmed by guilt and shame. You tearfully regret “causing” your toxic ex to mistreat you or not giving the relationship one more chance.
Or you decide that everything is fine until the other man or other woman enters the picture. That other person was the homewrecker who seduced your ex as if your toxic ex didn’t have any choice in the matter.
2. Reminders of your toxic relationship bring back all of the pain
A song brings you to tears. You cringe when your new partner says an innocent phrase that your ex used to say. Emotional and physical intimacy can trigger a sense of panic.
Your new partner’s touch feels like it’s nothing but seduction or taking advantage of you. Even if you like the idea of closeness, you end up shying away or gritting your teeth and bearing it until it’s over.
You avoid places and activities that remind you of your ex.
You may refuse to drive by your old house or you avoid your old friends. Familiar situations bring up that “Oh no” feeling in the pit of your stomach.
You avoid thinking about your ex and feeling the feelings you had with them.
The feelings are so painful that you try to become numb. You may not even be aware of any of your feelings anymore.
When you tell the story of your toxic relationship, you don’t feel anything. It wasn’t a big deal, you say, and you’re over it. When someone asks you what’s wrong, you say, “Nothing.” Yet, it’s obvious to others that something is wrong.
Increasing amounts of alcohol or drugs come into your life to keep those feelings at bay.
3. You appear withdrawn in your relationships
Fun is difficult to have when you refuse to go places that remind you of your ex and you don’t have many emotions except sadness and anger. Your new partner says that you’re not here, even when you’re here.
You don’t want to trust your new partner, so you don’t open up to them. Emotional and physical closeness and intimacy are out of the question, out of fear that if you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you might be hurt again and end up alone.
Maybe you choose porn over your new partner, just to stay emotionally safe.
Asking your new partner for help feels like burdening them with your problems, so you keep it all inside. You don’t want to feel like you need to depend on someone, anyway.
You stop communicating, even about your own needs. So your partner doesn’t know what you need and your needs aren’t being met.
Your relationship stays on the surface level because developing closeness and intimacy would mean you’d have to start feeling.
4. You explode in anger with very little reason
Angry outbursts can occur in an instant, and even you don’t know why they happen. Your new partner thinks you’re attacking them, and they react in anger.
Then, you feel hurt and yell out anything you can think of that will hurt your partner even more. The fight escalates quickly and painfully.
You don’t understand why your new partner, who has always seemed wonderful, is now against you.
Your new partner doesn’t understand why you overreact with more anger and criticism than the situation calls for. You don’t want to admit it, but you secretly wonder if you’re going crazy.
Part of the reason you attack is to push your new partner away. Or, to try to control them so that they don’t say or do something that triggers your pain. You just want to avoid that pain.
5. You go to great lengths to avoid triggers
One way you avoid triggers is to appease your new partner. You swallow your feelings and opinions and go along with whatever they want, ignoring your own needs.
You do or say whatever it takes to avoid a fight. You apologize when you weren’t wrong just to keep the peace. All of this is a frantic effort to avoid a negative reaction that might remind you of your toxic ex.
Or you may go the other way instead. Maybe you’re harsh, complaining, demanding, and criticizing. You aggressively take control of your new partner to try to keep them from taking control of you.
Again, you’re desperate to keep them from acting like your toxic ex.
What do you do if you spot these signs of PTSD after a traumatic relationship?
First, pay attention to how it feels when these negative thoughts and emotions come up. How does it feel in your body when this happens? What are the first signs that an outburst is about to happen?
Try to catch it when it’s first starting up next time. Go to another room and do something relaxing until you are calm. Take deep breaths.
When you’re calm again, sit down and talk openly with your new partner about what you’re going through. Talk with a trusted friend. Supportive people are your best defense against PTSD-type feelings.
Your toxic ex may have also separated you from your support system, so go get those supportive people back into your life.
And, consider therapy. A good therapist can help you work through your bad experience and process your feelings.
Your toxic ex might have left you with PTSD along with some intrusive thoughts. But that ex doesn’t get to control the rest of your life. You can love again and be happy.
If you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of ongoing emotional abuse, you are not alone.
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and is not a reflection of who you are or anything you’ve done wrong.
If you feel as though you may be in danger, there is support available 24/7/365 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233. If you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474.
Frances Patton, LMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in couples and intimacy.