Understanding Relationship Trauma

Abusive behavior between intimate partners leads to relationship trauma. Trauma can stem from emotional, physical or sexual abuse experienced during a relationship and has long-term psychological and physical effects.

This article discusses the signs of relationship trauma and how to seek treatment and support.

Defining Relationship Trauma

PTSD is not an official U.S. diagnosis Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association’s manual for diagnosing mental health conditions. However, it is a proposed syndrome that fits within the category of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The concept of relationship trauma emerged when researchers studied individuals after an abusive relationship ended and found symptoms similar to those observed in PTSD. PTSD is characterized by changes between avoidance and aggression.

Specifically, much remains to be learned about the effects of relationship trauma. However, it is well known that relational trauma differs from PTSD in the individual’s ability to avoid trauma-related triggers or stimuli.

Signs of Relationship Trauma

Ending an abusive relationship is just one step in recovery from an unhealthy condition.

Relationship trauma can include anger and feelings of anger toward an abusive partner. Following this, a person may experience distressing thoughts or feelings, cognitive difficulties, and re-experiencing the trauma. Several studies show lingering psychological, physical, and interpersonal challenges.

Signs of relationship trauma may include:

  • Flashbacks: Flashbacks are vivid, intrusive thoughts associated with a traumatic situation. They can be incredibly distressing and make it feel as if they are reliving an event. These intrusions may be repetitive and unwanted.
  • Feelings of fear or distress: A person may experience anger, fear, stress, or anxiety in a relationship. This can lead to avoidance of triggering situations, events or people.
  • Guilt and shame: Guilt and shame can make a person feel isolated or alienated from others. Building meaningful relationships can be complicated because these emotions can be accompanied by despair, stress, anger, or fear.
  • Nightmares: Relationship trauma can cause sleep disturbances. A person may have difficulty falling or staying asleep. In addition, scary or disturbing dreams related to traumatic content may occur.
  • Trust Difficulty: Building meaningful relationships can be complicated because the nature of abusive relationships instills mistrust in oneself and others.
  • Feelings of Doubt: The violation of emotional, physical, or sexual boundaries that can occur in an abusive relationship can lead to deep mistrust and suspicion of others. As a result, individuals may be highly vigilant about their surroundings and interactions with others.
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why it happens

According to the National Domestic Violence Helpline, violence and abuse occur in intimate relationships when one partner engages in behaviors that control, manipulate or gain power over the other partner. Additionally, stressful life events, a history of trauma in the life of an abusive partner, and drug or alcohol use may exacerbate risky situations and abuse in relationships.

Abusive and harmful behaviors lead to an imbalance of power and equality in relationships. It also reduces security, which creates a persistent fear of being abused or extreme anxiety about abuse in other relationships.

Some of the ways in which an abusive partner creates unhealthy and dangerous dynamics include:

  • physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • Belittling, insulting or bullying behavior
  • Threats to hurt a partner or loved one
  • Emotionally and physically isolate the partner from their support system
  • Limit partners’ autonomy or ability to make choices for themselves and work with agencies
  • control their finances or other independent means
  • intimidate with weapons
  • destroy personal property
  • Preventing partner from seeking help when needed
  • Gaslighting (manipulating reality to make partners question themselves)
  • Stonewall (does not communicate with partners or give them the “silent treatment”)
  • Lovebombing (attempting to influence a partner by showing affection)

wound bonding

Sometimes in an abusive relationship, a traumatic connection can occur. This happens when the abusive partner has an attachment to the abusive partner. Empathy for an abusive partner may lead the other party to rationalize or justify their actions, which may perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

How to Heal from Relationship Trauma

Relationship wounds don’t develop overnight, so it’s important to remember that healing can take some time. Strategies to focus on during the healing process can include:

  • Create an environment that feels emotionally and physically safe
  • Identify and establish boundaries
  • Build a support system with trusted individuals
  • Communicate your needs
  • Participate in activities that help you feel calm and safe
  • Self-care through balanced meals, regular sleep and exercise
  • Seek professional help from a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist

When to seek help

When signs or symptoms of trauma affect your mental, emotional, and physical health, relationships, or other areas of your life, you may need support from a mental health professional.

Therapy can provide a safe environment for individuals to learn coping skills for dealing with anxiety, fear, or distress. It can also help a person overcome emotions such as guilt, shame or anger. Working with a therapist or psychologist creates an opportunity for individuals to process their thoughts and feelings, identify healthy boundaries, and expand their support system.

A healthcare provider may recommend consulting a psychiatrist for further evaluation of mental health. If other symptoms or mental health conditions develop, a psychiatrist or health care provider may prescribe anxiolytics, antidepressants, or other medications to manage and reduce symptoms.

extra support

If your relationship feels unhealthy, unsafe or dangerous, you can seek support through the following resources:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 Seek confidential assistance from a trained advocate.
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Phone: 1-303-839-1852
  • RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 Confidential support is available from trained staff at your local RAINN branch.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on mental health or substance use support and treatment facilities in your area.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor.
  • For more mental health resources, see our national helpline database.

If you or your loved ones are in immediate danger, call 911.


Abusive intimate partnerships can lead to relationship trauma. Relationship trauma includes symptoms similar to PTSD, including feelings of anger and fear toward an abusive partner. While an abusive relationship can have long-term negative effects on a partner, healing is possible with self-care, support, and professional help.

VigorTip words

Relationship trauma can be the result of a harmful relationship, and the consequences can be psychologically and physically devastating. If you are in an abusive relationship, it is important to remember that the abuse is never the fault of the person being abused. Working with a mental health professional can be an important step in starting to heal from trauma. Remember that support is available through advocacy groups such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When is it healthy to share past emotional trauma in a relationship?

    You are the best judge of when it is healthy to share your history of emotional trauma in a relationship. While some may wish to open early, others may choose to wait until they have a better idea of ​​what the support their partners are offering. Some signs that it may be safe include seeing support, trust, and empathy in your relationship. Sharing can be an opportunity to talk to your partner and identify your emotional needs, boundaries, communication styles, and discuss how to resolve conflict together.

  • Is it possible to develop PTSD from a relationship?

    PTSD is a reaction to an extremely stressful or traumatic event. A person may experience relationship trauma if there is emotional, physical or sexual abuse or violence in the relationship. Relationship trauma can lead to the onset of PTSD.