Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Care For My Partner With PTSD?

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Hello, you electric manatees of damnation, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column to help you critical path your way through the Dark Souls of Love.

This week, we’re dealing with dating on hard mode as we cover the difficult, even seemingly insurmountable challenges that lovers can face. When your beliefs collide with your partner’s, whose desires take top priority? What do you do when you’ve escaped an abusive relationship, but the scars still remain? What about when your partner’s trauma means that you two can never actually confront the conflicts in your own relationship?

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Hey Dr. NerdLove,

Here’s the deal, I recently married my wife and she’s excellent in every way. We agree on MOST things, but there are some very definitive differences between how we see the world. I never minded it, I have plenty of friends who are on a different page than me and we get along just fine. Same with her, we can usually have a pretty civil conversation about things and I’ve made many concessions when it comes to one thing we’re pretty opposite about.

Religion.

I’m an atheist, she’s Catholic. I’m not a “you’re dumb if you believe in God” kind of atheist (they suck), just someone who has developed a different answer. I was able to develop this because my parents didn’t make me go to church and when we did, which was rare, it was a Unitarian church so not really hyper religious. Most of the other people in the youth group there were atheist or agnostic and we really didn’t talk about God.

When we got married I didn’t want to be married in a church or by a priest for a variety of reasons. I was marrying her and making promises to her. God had nothing to do with it. I’m not a liar either, I won’t go along with something I’m uncomfortable with or don’t believe in (she knows this). If we had the ceremony in the church I would have felt that it wasn’t real, that I didn’t actually make the commitments.

This wasn’t without concession though. Her uncle gave a very nice blessing for dinner. When this happens, no matter where I am, I bow my head and try to be respectful. I just don’t believe in it.

We were discussing children and how she wants to have our children christened. I said that’s fine but I probably won’t go and she was very taken aback by it. She can do what she wants and if it makes her feel better then she can go for it. But I’m not going to a church to support my child being indoctrinated in something I don’t even believe in. I researched it and they might even make me go to religious classes? No way. Not in a million years.

This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t support my child should they want to be religious, I’d just rather them come to that conclusion themselves when they’re older. Her response to this is that they just won’t believe in it then which, for me, kind of puts the whole religion thing into question if the only way to get our child into it is at a young age when they’re malleable. I think an educated young adult could still be into religion without parents pushing it on them at a young age.

Note that she never goes to church, not even for Christmas. Religion hasn’t played a huge role in her life as far as I know beyond CCD and all the youth stuff. It’s not part of her identity as far as I can see and she never talks about it. I’ve always been open about my atheism and we’ve had conversations about it so I don’t think she’s hiding it from me. Maybe she feels differently, but she’s never come across as religious even though she believes in God.

Is it unreasonable that I don’t want to be at a christening? Again, if she wants to do it that’s fine, I just don’t want a part in it. At the end of the day I’d feel uncomfortable and wouldn’t want to be there. I’d cringe when God is mentioned over my child and I wouldn’t say anything affirming during the ceremony. It may be better if I’m not there.

I’ve been very clear where I stand and I’m trying not to be rude, I just feel like my feelings and concerns should be just as valid as hers. I’m not trying to control her either and I would never do something like that. Am I wrong? Please help!

Trying To Be Reasonable

There’s a reasonable disagreement and then there’s being an asshole for no good reason, TTBR, and you’re trending really close to the latter half of that equation. For someone who doesn’t believe in a god or the primacy of a religion, you sure seem to put a whole lot of importance on it when you have to be around it. I mean, why would your marriage be any less real or committed if you got married in a church by a priest? If you aren’t a believer, a church is just a building, a priest is just a man in a fancy outfit and the liturgy and Mass is just something you have to sit through until you can get to the reception. Your marriage is between you and your wife; its legal validity is conveyed by the state, and the priest’s relevance to that is strictly about being the guy who signed the license. No buy-in required.

Your reaction to it kind of implies a level of antipathy that you’re saying isn’t there, and I think that’s coloring a lot of your reactions here. That antipathy is making you blind to some things that are pretty relevant here beyond whether or not you’re a believer or if your wife isn’t an observant Catholic.

Religion is more than just rules in a book or a series of dictates handed down from on high by a god or goddess; it’s rituals, ceremonies and traditions that can bring comfort and security. It’s a community people take part in and a culture that can be an important part of who they are, even if they’re not an active participant now. There’re plenty of folks who are—to coin a phrase—culturally Catholic: they may not believe in the doctrine, but they like the routine and ritual and showmanship. That can be important to someone, even if they don’t believe in the intercession of the saints or the canonical infallibility of the pontiff.

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So while your wife may not be an active Catholic, it certainly sounds like some of the rites are pretty significant to her. She may not believe that baptizing your theoretical children will give them an in with God, but the ritual of it can be a link in a chain that unites her with her background and with her family’s history. That can be more important to somebody than whether or not it brings their soul in line with God. It may also be an important concession from her to her family. She may be cool with marrying a (in their minds) hell-bound heathen, but her family may be less so. Having a traditional baptism can help soothe ruffled feathers and ease tensions.

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Now look, I get it. It ain’t like the Catholic Church doesn’t have a long and profoundly fucked up history, or that religion hasn’t been as much scourge as comfort. But right now, you’re picking fights that don’t need to happen for no reason other than stubbornness. Marriages and relationships are about compromise. Sometimes the compromise is “you do your thing, I do mine,” but other times, the compromise is “you do this thing you don’t really care for because it’s important to your partner.” While she may not be practicing, your wife’s Catholicism is clearly important to her. By digging in your heels and saying “nope, I refuse to participate,” you’re not making a principled stand, you’re directly insulting something that has significance and meaning to your wife… and by extension, insulting her.

That ain’t a great recipe for a long and happy relationship, chief.

And incidentally: I know you’re hoping to keep your kids away from religion until they’re old enough to reject it on their own, but frankly, baptism and christening ain’t indoctrination. Your theoretical kids aren’t going to be Clockwork Orange’d into being believers, nor are they going to be spirited away and not returned until they’ve had their First Communion. They get a little water sprinkled over them, a priest says a few things, godparents say they’re going to make sure the kid grows up to be a good person and you’re pretty much done. The most the kids would get out of it is being a little confused by all the people around them, being a little damp and then probably having a nap.

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Letting her have this, even just for the sake of “happy wife, happy life,” isn’t asking much of you. All it’s ultimately asking of you is the cost of a couple hours out of an afternoon and a little stand, sit, kneel, stand action. You’re a grown-ass man; presumably you’re capable of going along to get along and keeping your poker-face on during the parts you disagree with. If it’s ultimately just words and ceremony, you can make this sacrifice for your wife’s happiness.

Dear Dr. NerdLove:

A few years ago, I managed to escape an abusive partner. As you well know, these sorts of things are messy, and leave lasting damage. All the behaviors she’d exhibited throughout our relationship—sexual aggression, gaslighting, social control—got cranked up to 11 during this period. One particular element she leaned on was telling me that I deserved this treatment, and that I was complicit in her behavior. She laid the blame on me and accused me of being abusive, as I was—in this conception of reality—the root cause of her behavior. One of the most depressing elements of this whole disaster is that I cannot shake this repulsive, gut feeling that she was right, even though I believe this to not be true.

I’ve since taken steps to ground myself when this feeling bubbles up. I’ve written down an account of my abuse that I revisit just to look at it and go “this was real, this happened, and I did not deserve this violence.”

Still, there is that little voice that lives inside me that says “well, when she yelled, when she threw things, when she locked you out so you couldn’t eat, etc. you did shout back.” I’m not in a place where I can afford therapy, and have no clue if anything I’ve done to curb this is healthy. It’s been so long, and I’m just so tired of living with this part of myself that thinks I am a monster. Even as I write this, I fear even these vague gestures towards my story implicate me somehow, or will draw her attention (I don’t even know if she reads Kotaku! She was a gamergater for christsakes! But this is what my brain tells me to be afraid of). What can I do? How do I change this?

Apologies for the gravity of this. I recently read your piece on signs of an abusive relationship, and you seem much more well-read on this stuff than I am, so I thought I would try for your advice. Thanks for your time.

Tired and Afraid

Hey TAF:

First of all, I’m so sorry that you went through this, but I’m incredibly proud of you for having recognized that you were in a bad scene and that you got the everloving fuck out. That took a lot of courage and strength, and you should be commended for having done it.

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Just as importantly, you need to not be down on yourself for dealing with the after-effects of abuse. You’ve been through the fires of hell, and you’ve got the scars to prove it. Abusive relationships are traumatic, and trauma leaves its marks on people, often in ways that we rarely expect.

So first and foremost, I want you to understand: this was not your fault. To be clear: THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. I want you to tattoo this backwards on your forehead so that it’s the first thing you see in the morning. Shave your head if you need the room. THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.

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What your abuser did is a very common technique called DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. So “I’m not abusing you, you’re MAKING me do this because you’re the one being abusive and I’m forced to do this.” Abusers do this because it’s a distressingly powerful way of controlling their victims.

First, it makes the victim feel complicit in their abuse, making it harder for them to get away. They feel as though they are the ones who are in the wrong, that their abuse is something that they are responsible for. As a result, they’re much less likely to seek out help; after all, who’d help someone who was so shitty that their partner “had” to treat them this way?

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Second, it controls the victim’s behavior by putting the onus on them to manage their abuser’s moods and whims. If you feel that your actions are causing your partner to lash out at you, you’re much more likely to give in to whatever your partner wants at the time, lest you be an awful person and trigger another outburst of abuse. So now you’re walking on eggshells, trying to anticipate your partner’s moods and desires in the name of being a “good” partner and not a shitty person who “deserves” whatever punishment your partner is forced to dish out.
Shit like “well, I did shout back” is not only not being abusive, it’s the reaction of a reasonable person in a supremely unreasonable situation. Your being intolerant of her abhorrent behavior doesn’t make you an awful, intolerant hypocrite; it makes you someone who was trying to defend themselves against somebody who was determined to break you.

So quite frankly, fuck that and double-fuck HER and the mustache she rode in on. Because—say it with me now—THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.

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Now that you’re free of her, you have two responsibilities. The first is to protect yourself from her getting back into your life. That means you need to do everything you can to keep her from getting any claw-hold into you or your info. You can start with locking your shit down. Change all your passwords and put two-factor authentication on everything you can—ideally via an app like Google Authenticator, not via SMS or email. Invest in a password manager like LastPass or 1Password to make it all easier. Next: block her on every form of social media you have or think you might ever make an account on. If she has friends or enablers, block them too. Make sure your friends and family know that under no circumstances are they to share any information with her about you, even seemingly innocuous shit. The less access she has to you and the fewer ways she has of reaching you, the less you’ll worry that she’s going to rise up behind you like a demon rising up from a tomb.

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The second responsibility is to yourself and your emotional and mental health. You’ve got some serious wounds and trauma and honestly, that shit isn’t going to heal itself. Not cleanly and certainly not quickly.

The good news is, you’re doing a lot of things right. Writing everything down is a good start; it helps exorcise your ghosts and creates a record of what happened to you. This is important because abusers will gaslight the shit out of you and convince you that it didn’t happen and if it did it wasn’t that bad and if it was then you deserved it. Having that record is proof that yes it happened, it was fucking awful and she was a heinous abuser who hurt you. And most importantly THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.

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But you need more than this. As tempting as it can be to think that you should be able to do this on your own… you’re wrong. This is a time when having people who can help you, guide you and support you is incredibly important.  I know right now money is tight, but there are ways of getting help for relatively cheap, or even free.

To start with, there are apps like TalkSpace or BetterHelp, which connect you with therapists. These advertise fairly heavily on podcasts, so you may be able to find referral codes for discounts on a few sessions. You can also try self-directed therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy via sites like MoodGym. Another viable option would be to find group therapy or a support group for survivors of abusive relationships. Group therapy has some stigma to it based around stereotypes like the movie Anger Management, but it can be an invaluable resource for getting help. Similarly, support groups can help connect you with people who’ve been where you are, who can share some of the ways they recovered and remind you that you’re not alone.

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But there are also ways of finding low-cost or even no-cost therapy. Captain Awkward has some excellent posts about finding cheap mental health care in the U.S. and Canada on her site, and I highly recommend that you check them out.

But the most important things to remember: you’re not damaged, you’re not broken, you’re not weak and IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.

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You’re stronger and braver than you realize. You’ve been through some shit, and that’s going to leave marks, but you will get better. You’re ok, I promise.

You’ve got this. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.

All will be well.

I know I’m going to come off as an asshole but I need help so here goes.

My partner of five years suffers from PTSD from a past relationship. I am doing everything I can to support them both physically and emotionally. It can be very demanding at times (a fact that I really wish was discussed more when we talk about PTSD), but I do try my best, and because of that my partner feels safe. We have a good life together for the most part.

My problem is that there is no way to resolve a conflict without my partner breaking down emotionally. Any argument we have ultimately ends the same way. My partner is in pieces, and I have to swallow my own feelings to help them come back down from the anxiety attack. Please don’t misunderstand when I mention arguing, I don’t mean full blown screaming matches. I mind my tone, take care in the words I use, and am very careful with my body language. The issue is that the act of arguing is the trigger.

It has gotten to the point where I need to avoid expressing my thoughts or feelings if they aren’t 100% positive. I have no way of communicating when my partner hurts me without another emotional collapse. I am out of ideas, and it’s begun to make me feel like I’m being manipulated by all of this. I know they aren’t having anxiety attacks to hurt me. I know this isn’t some way for them to trick me into getting their way, but if I’m being completely honest there is still that tiny speck of doubt at the back of my mind. It’s the ugly little voice that says “isn’t this convenient?” when I’m reassuring them instead of addressing my own pain.

How do I communicate what I need to say without triggering my partner? How do I tell them I’m their partner too, not just their caretaker?

- Not Just A Caretaker

First and foremost, I want to give my standard disclaimer: Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor and there are going to be times when it may be a better idea to talk to a counselor or actual doctor instead of a loudmouth with an advice column.

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You’re right, NJAC, we don’t talk much about what it can mean to live with someone with PTSD or how to care for yourself when your partner is recovering from trauma. It can feel a little selfish to say “yeah, this is hard on me” when someone you love is dealing with the aftermath of having survived some heavy shit… but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important or that it can’t be difficult.

It can also put you into a tricky situation because on the one hand, you don’t want to treat them like spun glass, but on the other hand, you don’t want to trigger their PTSD. In a very real way it can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield and never being entirely sure if you’re on safe ground or if you’re about to hit another landmine.

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One of the hard parts, especially in cases like yours, is dealing with the nagging doubts. When you’re in a relationship with somebody who has issues with intense emotion or just arguing, it can certainly feel like maybe it’s not entirely genuine. And that can be rough, because it’s an ugly catch-22. It’s a legitimate concern—people can and do abuse the concept of triggering to get their way—but folks do have very real sensitivities after trauma that can make life difficult for them and the people around them.

That’s why when those doubts creep in, it can be important to look at things logically. Are these events things that only happen with you, or does it manifest in their day to day life outside of your relationship? Are they having trouble navigating the world around them or does it seem confined to a very specific set of circumstances? Looking at it dispassionately can help reassure you that yes, it’s a real thing and a real problem.

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It can also help you find solutions. If they’re able to find ways to work around this, say, at work, then that might be something that you can incorporate into your own relationship in order to resolve conflicts. If they’re talking to a counselor or therapist—and I hope they are—then their therapist may have some suggestions for how the two of you can work through these issues together.

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However, one thing that may help is to put a layer or two between you and your partner at times when you need to have these discussions. If the issue comes from having these discussions, then it may help to disperse the impact of them a little by not having them in person. If the issues don’t require immediate action, it may help to have these discussions in an asynchronous manner via text.

Consider setting up an email thread or a Discord channel specifically for discussing these issues. Text can feel less confrontational and less in-your-face than an in-person discussion. It can often be easier to say things in an email, where you’re able to think about what you need to say and how to say it, than in person. You’re in a better position to find the right words and the right phrasing when you’re writing something out, instead of trying to come up with it in the moment. And because writing accesses a different part of the brain than speech, the message may not be as intimidating or triggering.

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The other benefit of email or Discord, rather than texting or DMs, is that it’s inherently asynchronous; you’re not expected to respond in real time. This way, there’s less immediacy and, with it, less of an expectation to react right then and there, which may be easier for your partner to handle. Having more time to sit with their thoughts or to process their reaction and then respond, may make it easier to actually resolve things if you don’t have to worry about either avoiding a panic attack or comforting them through it while you’re having these discussions.

Just as importantly, though: Take care of yourself. It doesn’t do you any good to help and care for your partner if you neglect yourself in the process. You may also want to look into finding help or counseling for yourself. Secondary traumatization is very real, and it affects caregivers and partners of people with PTSD.

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You need your own support network and a Team You outside of the relationship for your own emotional health and self-care. You need to have people you can talk to about your own frustrations and needs and people who can provide you with support and nurturing as well. You and your partner may be part of a whole, but you’re individuals too, and you have your own needs. You can’t be all things to one another, nor should you try.

And it’s important to note that there can come a point where you just can’t continue in this relationship and be healthy, and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean that you’re selfish or that you’re an asshole leaving someone in their time of need; it means that you aren’t right for one another. It doesn’t do them or you any good if trying to help them means destroying yourself in the process. You have a responsibility to yourself as much as you do to them. Breaking yourself into pieces isn’t going to make them better; it just makes things worse for both of you. Sometimes the kindest thing for both of you is to be free to find someone who is better suited and better equipped for what you both need.

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You’re in an incredibly difficult place, and I wish I had an easy or simple solution for you. Hopefully the two of you are able to find an accommodation that works—one that resolves your issues without triggering more in the process.

Write back to let us know how you’re doing.

Good luck.


Do you and your partner come from different religious backgrounds? Did you survive an abusive relationship? Share your story in the comments below and we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.

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Ask Dr. NerdLove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write doc@doctornerdlove.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.

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Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove YouTube channel. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.

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