Help me understand the end of my relationship with a trauma survivor
May 7, 2016 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm still trying to make sense of how a man with PTSD/trauma survivor I dated broke things off with me. Looking for insights and resources about the psychology of someone who has gone through hell and come out the other side and how that affects their ability to have a relationship.

I dated a man with pretty bad PTSD from a really really messed up childhood. Pretty much anything bad that could have happened - happened to him (serious physical abuse, ward of the state, extreme poverty/hunger, sexual/verbal/emotional abuse). He figured his life out, got meds for the PTSD, has a career etc.

We dated for about six months. It was awesome. I fell in love and he told me he was in love with me. He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met, incredible conversations. It was an amazing relationship. He helped me through some really tough times. He was good about not letting anger - which he said was something he always deals with - interfere with our relationship.

One night after a really loving evening together, we had what I thought was a relatively small disagreement. We fought about it for less than an hour. I didn’t change my mind, but tried to explain my perspective. He got increasingly angry at what he felt was me being manipulative. I don’t really know if I was being manipulative - I was trying to be honest, but I guess I could have been. I called off the argument and we went to bed. He left the next morning after a very terse goodbye.

And… that was it. He broke things off via text saying cruel things and basically burning every bridge he could. He sent a few more emails, most of them saying more unkind things, calling me names, bringing up things he knew would hurt me. It sucked.

It has been some time since the breakup, but what sticks with me is not really understanding what happened. I know very little about the psychology of someone with PTSD/traumatic childhood but it seems to me that his behavior and his childhood experiences are related. I’ve really never had someone that I’ve felt this close to break something off so abruptly and with so much angst. Especially given that I would have been willing to talk things through, work on what we needed to. He had no interest, he was just DONE.

It seemed like a really intense reaction to something that was certainly important, but (again, to me) not something we couldn’t work through. I could be underreacting I suppose, but it does seem like he was overreacting. We had talked about other things that I thought were more intense and he had only once before had this kind of reaction. We got through that by me listening to him. Obviously this time that didn't work.

Does anyone have insight into this behavior? He’s something of a loner, and that fits with the PTSD/trauma survivor background. Am I right to see a connection here? He did a lot of blaming me - is that related? Mostly I’m looking for some insights into what happened so that I can move on with greater understanding and avoid this kind of thing in the future. If you have books/resources/suggestions for how to make sense of this, I’d appreciate it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Most likely, you triggered him and he wanted no part of it, and broke things off as solidly as he knew how to prevent things from getting worse.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:05 AM on May 7, 2016 [11 favorites]

I have PTSD and am ready and able to answer this question, but we really need to know more details to be able to offer more than "yep PTSD affects relationships".
posted by corb at 10:16 AM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure how much it's going to help you to dwell too much on it. You're coming from such different places in life that I doubt it will ever come up for you again unless you happen to find yourself in a relationship with somebody with a similar background.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:20 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Who knows? Who cares.

No amount of previous trauma can excuse this behavior. Even if you did something really terrible, he needed to tell you, because you loved each other. He may look like he has it together, but he may just have been glue and sawdust. It held together as long as it could, but just a bit of water made the whole thing come apart.

Please don't blame yourself. You didn't intentionally hurt him. You were acting in good faith. HE was the one who broke the trust.

You're well out of it (I know you know this intellectually.) Is he currently in therapy? He needs to be. He's not reacting appropriately if he's not willing to explain like an adult what the problem is and to work with you on it.

Knowing you have PTSD is only part of it. Getting the help you need to deal with it is what allows you to have relationships.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:22 AM on May 7, 2016 [41 favorites]

I can't speak to what exactly he was thinking, however I can relate to the behavior. As someone who struggles with PTSD from childhood stuff, I have noticed that when I encounter situations that are reminiscent of the past (whether I am aware of it or not consciously) I have a tendency to revert to fear. And when my mind gets locked into fear and terror and not being able to see a way out, I feel like the helpless little child I was when the abuse and neglect happened years ago.

Even though I've been through a lot of therapy for PTSD, there are still tender spots that, when triggered, can feel like the abuse is happening all over again. Then starts my pattern of fear of abandonment, fear of being seen, fear of not being seen, and really fear of the uncertainty of the situation. Because in my past, uncertainty meant I was getting ready to get my ass kicked. In other words, I needed to run for the hills.

Maybe that's what has happened in your situation. I don't know. Hypervigilance is still a major issue in my life even though I don't want it to be. It has caused me to push people away that I care about the most. And I'm still trying to figure out how to live my life without thinking that something bad is going to happen.

This may have nothing to do at all with what happened with your boyfriend. Just some experience to share from a fellow member of the green.
posted by strelitzia at 10:36 AM on May 7, 2016 [16 favorites]

PTSD is all about mixing up the past with the present and serious amounts of advice behaviors. Some people may run away when they feel vulnerable and attempt to cut the person of because being treated right makes all the past stuff so much worse. Exactly what wad going on, I don't know. Most likely completely not about you.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:09 AM on May 7, 2016

"yep PTSD affects relationships"

Applied to an individual, PTSD and MWM have about the same resolution. I have PTSD, I'm a married white male--know a lot about me yet? In one of my groups we used to say "We don't play well together." I guess trigger is as good a term as any, seeming to describe something without actually describing anything useful. I sometimes think of this as being when the the tumblers line up, the lock turns. We don't go to counseling and get fixed--it just doesn't work like that. When first we go into counseling, we can't even imagine having any tools that might help us cope. Sometimes we simply don't want to be there when the roof falls in on us again. Sometimes we don't have a way to string the words together in the right order--believe it or not, it's less painful when we don't see it coming. One blow up and it's over, and we regroup in Hell, at home. Worse is when you've been down that path too many times, and don't have the strength to turn away because you are just lonely and want to have a few moments of sweetness before it all turns to shit again. The last thing you want to hear is someone trying to pat you on the head and tell you to hang in there, things will be just fine, because you have already seen this fucking movie too many times and you don't know if you can bear even one more sitting: to see your face change, knowing you won't be able ever to not-know some of the shit that he's let you look at. He doesn't want to see himself in your face. But who knows?

I guess you didn't really do anything wrong, you didn't get what you deserved. He may or may not ever get the tools he needs to maintain a relationship. I can't even imagine the freight he was carrying, but it seems to me he put its mass behind those hurtful messages. He's in a dark place. Don't imagine you can know how he feels, or that you even want to know. His life isn't a movie. Your desire to understand is laudable, but reaching that understanding creates a paradox. In a just and fair world he would owe you a decent explanation for his actions and maybe even an apology for the hurtful things he's written. He doesn't live in a just and fair world.

Sometimes a friend at a distance is gold. But keep in mind that we don't always play well with others.
posted by mule98J at 11:15 AM on May 7, 2016 [12 favorites]

The only way people with serious deficits succeed in life is to embrace their deficits, in part by acting decisively and without qualm to compensate for them. Your job was to give him a conflict-free relationship and when you failed, he fired you and happily stated his cause.
posted by MattD at 11:21 AM on May 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

One thing that may have contributed to it: he may have been holding back on a lot of issues during the relationship, and when he got angry enough, he let go of EVERYTHING. I had a generally affable boyfriend who would be incredibly cruel once he was set off. Basically he'd learned to hold all his emotions in all the time, so he didn't address things that bothered him until he was pushed over the edge, and then he'd blow up. And it could be over something I didn't even recognize as a problem; twice it happened because when I was carsick and being less than personable, he saw it as me very pointedly treating him badly because I thought he was an idiot. Another aspect of this in his case seemed to be to take everything I did or said very personally. Which also meant that I am probably too careless in my speech, but his reactions went well beyond that.
posted by metasarah at 11:24 AM on May 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

I guess trigger is as good a term as any, seeming to describe something without actually describing anything useful.

'Trigger' (and the related concept of trigger warnings) absolutely describes something useful: an action or situation or thing that triggers a response in an individual with PTSD. Indeed, the concept of trigger warnings was developed around veterans with PTSD.

In this case, what may well have happened is the ex feeling attacked, perhaps specifically in a way that one of his past abusers did. That triggered a "run, flee, and salt the ground behind me" response, to prevent the perceived attack from escalating into the abuse he suffered.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:54 AM on May 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

To me it sounds like your small disagreement (was it your first?) crossed an invisible boundary that lies in front of something he can't or won't talk about, which is expressed instead as rage. Maybe it was the argument, maybe it was the way it was not-resolved ("I called off the argument") that was the trigger. Hard to speculate.
posted by rhizome at 12:03 PM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah I have his history of severe abuse and have PTSD. When triggered in a relationship my first instinct is as fff mongering says "salt the earth!" It takes a lot to override that but in PTSD any thing that brings up something from the past even minor becomes a HUGE THREAT and I want to flee and burn any bridges between me and that THREAT. it isn't rationale and even with meds and therapy there are things that catch us unaware. It isn't fair to you but hope it helps explain why he reacted the way he did. His brain is literally telling him you are the same as his abusers and he must protect himself. Not excusing it but explaining it. Meds and therapy are also not fixers. With abuse that severe it's a life long work and not a lot of people understand it. I'm sorry you bore the brunt of his primal brain reaction. It wasn't you. It was the PTSD.
posted by kanata at 12:45 PM on May 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

You didn't give details concerning the disagreement, so I am hesitant to reply at all because it would be all too easy to just blame him and/or blame his past when it is possible the disagreement was more significant than you are letting on.

Having said that: Yeah, people with a lot of trauma fairly frequently go off the deep end when they hit a boundary that is all kinds of Nope for them.

The other thing that can happen: They feel vulnerable, they wonder if this might actually be love, and they don't feel good enough for real love, so they look for a good excuse to end it. Or they feel vulnerable, they realize they need to disclose something for some reason, that disclosure is a bridge too far, so they dump with extreme prejudice and salt the ground in order to keep their secrets.

This may seem insane, but if divulging such information has a long track record of horrifying outcomes, it is just a protective mechanism. It is sometimes the only way they know how to protect themselves.

If they are protecting themselves from horrors so extreme that most people could not imagine them, well, sometimes, the only humane, compassionate thing to do is let them go. Gently saying "no thanks" to their abuse may be the only time they sincerely hear "Abuse is really not okay. (I won't accept it from you, and I also won't dish it out to you.)" Sometimes, that is as good as it gets.
posted by Michele in California at 1:11 PM on May 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have considerable experience dealing with PTSD survivors through my work, and a number of my friends suffer from this problem to varying degrees. From what I've seen, I'd guess that his actions could stem from any number of things: you inadvertently hit some kind of nerve/boundary with your discussion, he can't handle any form of stress and so dumped you when he realized that you weren't going to be "easygoing" forever, or he has problems with anger management and let things that had been bothering him build up until the straw broke the camel's back.

But, the thing is, while all of these things can be exacerbated by PTSD, the disorder is not an excuse to treat other people like crap. The guy could still just be your garden-variety selfish jerk. You don't say how long it's been since he walked out on you, but if it's been more than 48 hours and he hasn't contacted you to at least apologize for the way he handled the breakup, I'd say that might be what you are dealing with here.

Either way, don't blame yourself. It sounds like this guy just isn't ready for a relationship with a real human being, either because he hasn't addressed his PTSD issues well enough yet, or because he just isn't that kind of guy.
posted by rpfields at 1:25 PM on May 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

It seems like it could be splitting behavior. (I'm not a psychologist.)

Splitting (also called black and white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person's thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism used by many people. - wikipedia
posted by little eiffel at 1:35 PM on May 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

I've had a childhood very similar to his in the ways you've described. I think if I knew more specifics of the argument there's a chance I may be able to shed some light on what could've been the issue. You could contact a moderator to have them post a follow-up if you wanted.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 1:49 PM on May 7, 2016

It sounds like he misread something as an attack by someone he had let inside of his defensive perimeter. If so, I bet he wasn't reacting just to a threat but also a betrayal. That would add a lot of emotional intensity to removing the threat. So yeah, we in general don't play well with others.

As to what specific thing caused his overreaction, probably best not to know. There's a reason shrinks that deal with PTSD have their own shrinks.

OFFTOPIC: " ... the concept of trigger warnings was developed around veterans with PTSD."
I think this is misinformation, vets' triggers are too idiocentric for warnings to be useful, probably promotes misunderstanding of concept of triggers in general.
posted by ridgerunner at 1:58 PM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm answering this question specifically because you wanted responses from trauma survivors. I'm not really into giving super intimate details of my trauma to anyone except my therapist anymore, but I'm comfortable saying that my childhood left me with CPTSD, and that I likely "inherited" depression/OCD-like tendencies that then also became full-blown disorders of their own. I also have fibromyalgia, which my primary physician believes is a somewhat "natural" consequence of being female-bodied with the right genetics and undergoing a lot of trauma, i.e. stressing out my developing body to that extent. While I love her in general, since she's highly educated, female, works at a teaching hospital but manages to spend time with her patients... I'm not sure how much I agree with her there, yet I mention it because it pointed me to learning more about theories and studies about how stress affects development. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff, again, both as a survivor and someone who works as a peer with other people with mental illness today.

I don't form relationships easily but the ones I do tend to form will either: last a long time or very little time at all, because of a combination of "putting up with stuff until I break" a la metasarah's comment or salting the earth, as others have mentioned (fff mongering & kanata above). For me, "salting the earth" is limited to telling other people that their behavior was unacceptable and that therefore I won't accept an apology with no behavior change, and a lot of crying when (I hope I'm) alone.

I want to agree with Michele in California in general as well, but I'd rephrase the last sentence as "If they are protecting themselves from horrors so extreme that most people could not imagine them" to be "if they think they're protecting themselves but are actually emotionally re-living the abuse" and point out this Emotional Flashback Management PDF by Pete Walker, author of CPTSD: From Surviving to Thriving and encourage everyone to read more of his website as I think he really gets it.

I would like to underscore that the behavior of your ex-boyfriend is the problem here, not his diagnoses. I believe that if someone is hurting you, you should tell them they are behaving in a manner that's unacceptable to you, and hurting you. If they continue to hurt you, then you have a problem entirely separate to whatever the initial behavior was.

Please don't conflate "unacceptable behavior" like firing tons of insults at you and "trauma survivor". I might instead recommend screening for adults who own their baggage. We all have some, and some of us with a lot do a better job of handling it than others who believe that they're healthy.
posted by saveyoursanity at 2:05 PM on May 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

Sometimes, people dangerous to them are still part of the equation. So, while it can be a case of them thinking they are protecting themselves while actually just reliving the abuse, it isn't always that simple. It may not be "all in their mind."

Refusing to disclose information that could put them at risk should a naïve third party repeat it, post something to the internet or what have you is not insanity. It is how people stay alive when they have connections to people who would be willing to do them real harm.
posted by Michele in California at 2:42 PM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Some very good answers here but I will add a short-ish anecdote from when I first became a medic. I'm from a pretty milquetoast upbringing so the a-ha moment was really helpful to me.

I did a 12 hour shift on an ambulance as part of my quals. We transported someone on a psych hold to a distant hospital, a trip of about an hour and a half. He was secured to the gurney, was being sent to another psych ward and was not really allowed to make a lot of choices for himself. And we had to check his blood sugar every 15 minutes during the trip - a seemingly minor thing but just another thing about which he had no choice. Instead of letting us put a bandaid on his finger, he just clutched a tiny wad of tissue over the lancet prick. The medics didn't push him since it wasn't vital and they were good at their job. Finally, it clicked that everything else in his life was out of control - his brain, his body, his surroundings, what he wore, what he ate, what medications he was give, everything. That tiny shredded wad of tissue was completely in his control and come hell or high water he was going to control it.

Eye. Opening.

So your ex's actions sound very similar to me. As all the other answers above suggest, he identified a threat, felt like he was in an out of control situation, and exerted control the only way he could.
posted by Beti at 2:48 PM on May 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Rather than dwell on this I'd maybe think of this a just a lesson learned, and quickly move on.

From what you said It seems that you had pretty strong romantic feelings for the guy, which is cool and all, but does sometimes mess up one's judgements on things.

It seems to me that you might still feel some sort of guilt or responsibility over the way things went down. Though I think there's nothing you could have done.

Its a bit weird, but being awful to you and burning the bridges via personal insults is a pretty clear statement of intent and of not asking you to follow.

In romantic life we often think of these sorts of things as "tests of true love" and feel that if we loved other people better or were more understanding of them that we could make this right. But I think that this clearly isn't the case.

While you might feel disapointed for the end and upset by his insult I don't think you need to dwell on this deeply, other than to take this behaviour at face value - and of showing you clearly that it wasn't you but him that was the problem, and most importantly not something you can fix.

I know this sucks for you, but overthinking this situation doesn't feel helpful - live on, live long and don't give this guy a second thought.
posted by Middlemarch at 3:10 PM on May 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

This does sound a lot like splitting. Something ticked him off or triggered him in some way, and he treated the situation as if the good did not exist. People who split will write off people in their life if they fuck up even once.

I've been guilty of this in the past, and have been lucky enough to have made a lot of progress since then, but many of us trauma survivors are guilty of black and white thinking. People with cptsd will often "test" friends and romantic partners until they fumble, then write them off as horrible/dangerous and cut them out. It's done as a way of self preservation, but deep down it's based in a fallacy. He probably felt very real fear/anger, but for incorrect reasons.

The biggest thing I want to say: It is not your fault. The only thing you owe to a partner with ptsd/cptsd is basic respect and understanding, and you've given him all of that. You cannot spend your time around someone walking on eggshells until you hit some random trigger. You are not a mind reader. His awful behavior can be explained by his trauma, but NOT excused.

I honestly wonder if he's getting the counselling/meds he needs if he's still showing behaviors that are very typical of non-recovered survivors. It takes a lot of work to let go of those thought fallacies and reflexes that are taught in childhood, but it's necessary in order to have non-abusive relationships and to trust others.

I'd say to never talk to him again, and to know that it is in no way your fault that he said those awful things. No one can be his savior but himself.
posted by InkDrinker at 6:36 PM on May 7, 2016 [11 favorites]

Also CPTSD here. I split often when people make what seem to some as minor mistakes. I'm also curious about the content and context of the argument. Unless the person is completely rabid and is ending a relationship over spilled milk, it could be that the CPTSD simply quickened what was otherwise an incompatible/complicated relationship. The thing about PTSD is that it opens what I call the "third eye" or a metaphor for hypervigilance. You see things and sense things that most people either completely miss, shrug off, internalize, or tolerate including what can otherwise be described as shitty behavior by others. Just as other people have mentioned, we just don't tolerate it. Not trying to blame you or excuse him. It's a shitty situation to be in that no one deserves. I just think sometimes when dealing with people with trauma sometimes we get a glimpse into our own not-so-great behaviors/traits that maybe no one bothered to call us out on so explicitly and blatantly.
posted by Young Kullervo at 7:26 PM on May 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

One thing to take from this experience is when you're in earlier stages of a relationship and your partner says they have fill-in-the-blank disorder (whether physical or emotional), this is the time to get some information from them about what this may look like with the two of you. If they haven't volunteered anything, it's okay for you to say that maybe ___ can be an issue for you, or that you've dated someone with ___. Because pretty much everyone has SOMETHING.

Having OCD or PTSD or depression or bipolar or mania does NOT mean that there's one standard flowchart to follow, so thinking people with ___ will do ____ isn't the best way to think about things.

In these conversations, you can ask how their ___ presents, what if any help they've gotten for it, how it interferes with their life. Obviously this isn't first date material, but this is stuff you want to know at least by month 3 of seeing each other. Ask them how they deal with it and what, if anything, you can (reasonable) to accommodate this disability.

A good analogy is thinking about accommodations that are used for students on IEP; they're things that are done to literally accommodate a student's disability. Kids with anxiety get extended time on assessments because their academic abilities are delayed when they're anxious. Kids with PTSD always sit facing the class door. Kids with ADHD are allowed to take movement breaks or scratch velcro taped to the underside of their desk. But none of these accommodations work if the student won't use them and the kids are taught to use these strategies throughout their lives.

In the same vein, if an adult with a disability chooses to deal with their issue by expecting the world to bend over backwards for them, it's an unfair burden. Its THEIR thing, it's THEIR responsibility to know how to deal with it. What I'm trying to say is almost everybody has something, and those things affect our ability to maneuver within our environment.

It's important to know early on how this person deals with their thing.

And one big thing you can take away from this experience is that moving forward, when they discuss their ___ and indicate they've never gotten help for it, this usually means they're going to use their ____ as an excuse for all shitty behavior.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:03 AM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

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