Understanding Relationship Trauma

Understanding Relationship Trauma

Relationship trauma arises from unhealthy behavior occurring between partners. The trauma can develop from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse sustained throughout relationships and can give rise to a number of long-lasting negative effects.

What is Relationship Trauma?

Despite being a common condition, relationship trauma is not deemed an official mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a publication by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for the classification of mental health conditions. Instead, it is categorized as a syndrome that sits under the umbrella of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After researchers established similarities between relationship trauma and PTSD, the concept of post-traumatic relationship syndrome was identified.

Post-traumatic relationship syndrome, also known as relationship PTSD, refers to the reaction an individual may have to various exposures to a traumatic incident within the context of a relationship. Unlike typical PTSD, relationship trauma only occurs with an individual who is in an intimate relationship and tends to take place over a long period of time.

Professionals have identified relationship trauma as occurring when an intimate relationship has involved substantial physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. An individual who has experienced such a trauma often develops intense emotions which can lead to poor mental health.

Types of Domestic Abuse

The connection between the types of domestic abuse is rather fluid, although there is a strong differentiation between the several forms of physical abuse and the types of verbal or nonverbal abuse. The three main types of domestic abuse are:

  • Physical abuse (domestic violence)
  • Verbal or nonverbal abuse (psychological abuse, emotional abuse)
  • Sexual abuse

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the use of physical force against another person causing injury or trauma by the way of bodily contact. This form of abuse is often what individuals are referring to when discussing domestic violence.

Examples of physical abuse include:

  • Grabbing, punching, kicking, throwing
  • Pinching, biting, choking
  • Burning
  • Using weapons

Emotional/Verbal Abuse

Mental or emotional abuse of a partner can be verbal or nonverbal and tends to consist of more subtle actions compared to physical abuse.

While physical abuse might seem more serious, emotional abuse can have an equally traumatic impact on the victim’s emotional health, and in some cases worse.

Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Yelling and screaming
  • Possessiveness
  • Name-calling and degrading comments
  • Mocking the victim
  • Threatening or intimidation tactics to gain compliance

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is closely connected to physical abuse. In many circumstances, they may jointly take place, or the sexual abuse may occur after physical abuse has taken place.

Examples of sexual abuse include:

  • Non-consensual sexual activity
  • Sexual exploitation (for example, forcing someone to participate in pornographic film-making)
  • Sexual harassment (making fun of another person to limit their sexual choices)

Signs of Relationship Trauma

Relationship trauma can be difficult to identify as it tends to happen over a sustained period of time rather than a one-off traumatic event. It is characterized by an extensive sense of feeling in danger, humiliation, and uncontrollable thoughts that feel impossible to get rid of.

A victim of relationship trauma can also develop strong feelings of displeasure and hostility towards the abusive partner. In the aftermath of an abusive relationship, an individual may experience negative thoughts or feelings, cognitive difficulties, and reliving of traumatic experiences.

Although ending the relationship can put a stop to emotional trauma and physical abuse, victims are still susceptible to the long-term effects of relationship trauma.

Relationship trauma symptoms may start immediately following a traumatic event but sometimes may not appear for a prolonged period of time after an event takes place.

Signs of relationship trauma can include:

Flashbacks: Flashbacks are vivid, intrusive memories linked to a traumatic situation. They can be extremely distressing and cause an individual to feel as if they are reliving an event. Most of the time, the flashbacks are unwanted and repetitive.

Low self-esteem: Abusive relationships may involve the abuser being degrading, making false accusations and embarrassing their partner, leading to the victim’s self-esteem diminishing.

Obsessive thoughts: This may involve the victim rethinking old arguments and obsessing over how their actions could have been different. They might also obsess about whether the individuals in their life are trustworthy.

Overly apologetic: If an individual has been subject to relationship trauma, they may believe that everything they do is incorrect or that anything that goes wrong is their fault. As a result, they might find themselves apologizing profusely for simple mistakes or something that wasn’t actually their fault.

Persistent fear and distress: Many individuals feel anger and a large sense of fear and stress after relationship trauma, leading to avoidance of the triggering situation or event.

Guilt and shame: Such feelings can make an individual feel ostracized or disconnected from loved ones.

Sleep disturbances: Trauma-related nightmares may disrupt individuals’ ability to sleep due to their association with feelings of fear, anxiety, and panic.

Suspicion: The violation of boundaries set in an abusive relationship can create deep-rooted trust issues which may cause an individual to be suspicious of their own surroundings and interactions with others. Forming new, meaningful relationships may therefore prove difficult.

Why Does Relationship Trauma Occur?

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, abusive relationships occur when one partner behaves in a way that is controlling and manipulative, in an attempt to gain power over their partner.

Relationship trauma may occur due to the abuser having previously experienced previous traumatic events. Additionally, current and previous substance use can intensify unsafe situations and abuse in relationships. 

An abusive relationship causes a disparity of power and equality between partners which creates an emotional response of danger and anxiety.

There are a number of ways in which an abusive partner creates toxic behaviors and dangerous dynamics, including:

  • Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Threatening behavior towards partner or their loved ones
  • Belittling, insulting, or bullying tactics
  • Being withdrawn and isolated from their support network, such as family and friends
  • Taking away or limiting a partner’s ability to make choices for themselves
  • Controlling their partners’ finances, social media, and other means of independence
  • Being pressured into sex or sexual contact
  • Destruction of personal property
  • Being ignored or a lack of communication
  • Manipulation tactics
  • Constant criticism from a partner

All of the behaviors listed above can cause relationship trauma and affect the victim’s sense of importance and independence. If a victim has experienced such behaviors, they are likely to have low levels of confidence and high levels of self-doubt. This leads to a helpless state of mind where they feel they are unable to make the abuser happy.

All of these thoughts and feelings can have profound impacts on a victim’s mental health.

Healing From Relationship Trauma

Post-traumatic relationship syndrome can have a lasting impact on an individual and given the uniqueness of relationships and personality traits, the healing process is different for each individual subject to abuse.

However, with help and support, it is possible to heal and experience a happy and healthy relationship again.

Relationship trauma takes place over a period of time and so too does the healing process. There are a number of strategies that victims can focus on during the healing process, including:

  • Building a support network with trusted people
  • Communicating their feelings and needs
  • Nurturing an environment that feels emotionally and physically safe
  • Identifying and establishing boundaries 
  • Taking part in activities that provide a sense of security
  • Self-care through diet, exercise, and sleep
  • Seeking help from mental health professionals

Treatment Can Help

Treatment is readily available to help combat the challenges experienced by victims of relationship abuse. It can be helpful to talk about traumatic experiences and relationship troubles with a professional who is familiar with the complex impacts of trauma.

Therapy can offer a safe environment for building trust and learning coping mechanisms to manage anxiety and distress caused by a toxic relationship. Additionally, it can help an individual work through feelings of anger, guilt, and shame.

Working with mental health professionals provides individuals with the opportunity to regain a sense of hope so that they can reestablish new relationships and support systems.

When to Seek Help

As soon as signs of relationship trauma impact mental, emotional, and physical well-being, or other aspects of a victim’s life, it is important to consider seeking professional medical advice.

Where Can I Find Help?

A doctor or health clinic may be helpful in providing a referral to a mental health professional or recovery center, such as Crossroads Antigua, who can offer support to those affected by relationship trauma.

At Crossroads Antigua, our caring and experienced staff will ensure that anyone dealing with relationship trauma, or other forms of PTSD, receives the best possible treatment. We use proven therapies, including trauma-informed therapy, combined with mindfulness, fitness and nutrition counseling to create customized holistic treatment plans for each client.

Crossroads Centre Antigua also recognizes that recovering from traumatic life experiences works best with the involvement of families. Our integrated family counseling program allows family members to participate in the client’s recovery, and begin their own healing with family therapy. As a result, families learn more about relationships and the skills necessary to break destructive boundaries and communication patterns.

Whether you, or a loved one, are struggling with emotional or physical abuse in your current relationship, or existing trauma from a previous relationship, our team of licensed medical professionals is here to offer their support with the utmost compassion and care.


Relationship trauma arises as a result of abusive intimate partner relationships and includes symptoms similar to that of PTSD. Although abusive behavior, shown by a partner in a relationship, leaves long-lasting negative effects on its victims, healing is attainable through various means, such as self-care and professional help. 

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