While many people feel down or upset when a relationship comes to an end, there’s a big difference between taking a moment to pause and reflect — or even spending a few days crying — and experiencing post-traumatic relationship syndrome. If you’re coming out of the relationship with intense baggage, hangups, or symptoms that seem similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there’s a good chance you were in a toxic relationship, or had an emotionally or physically abusive partner, and are suffering as a result.
When that’s the case, and you feel traumatized, some experts refer to the feeling as “post-traumatic relationship syndrome,” or PTRS, which is a “newly proposed mental health syndrome that occurs subsequent to the experience of trauma in an intimate relationship,” relationship expert Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, tells Bustle. “It includes the intrusive and arousal symptoms of [PTSD] but lacks the avoidance symptoms required for a diagnosis of PTSD due to a very different mode of coping with the traumatized state from that which is characteristic of individuals with PTSD.”
Whether you qualify for PTRS, or are simply having a difficult time moving on, these feelings can be very real, and they can prevent you from finding a healthier relationship in the future. So the sooner you can seek treatment, the better. “Treatment approaches can include individual counseling and support groups,” Dr. Bates-Duford says. “The treatment approach should emphasize that traumatic relationships can not only be survived, but post traumatic growth can often occur.”
Here are a few things experts say people often experience after being in a toxic, physically or emotionally abusive relationship, as well as what to do about it — because it is possible to feel better, and move on.
Warning: This article contains information about abusive relationships, which some may find triggering.
1. Feeling Afraid Of Making Another Commitment
It’s fine — and even healthy — to take time to recover after a breakup, before jumping back into the dating pool. But do take note if you want to date and yet can’t bring yourself to do it, as it could be a sign your last relationship has left you with issues associated with trauma.
And that can include feelings of self-doubt when considering making another commitment. “Many people who have been dumped or had the wisdom to leave an unhealthy relationship, often say, ‘Time out. I don’t trust myself to trust anyone again. How could I have been fooled? Am I not good at reading people?’ These people have become self-defeating and their self-worth is at a low point,” life coaches Poppy and Geoff Spencer, MS, CPC, tell Bustle.
When that’s the case, it’s often a good idea to seek support from friends — and sometimes, it can help to go to therapy — in order to figure out ways to move past the trauma you experienced and learn to trust again, so that you can get back out there.
2. Feeling Worthless Or Unconfident
If you feel downtrodden and worthless after a breakup, it could be another sign of trauma. “Being in an abusive or toxic relationship can create huge self-esteem issues,” certified coach Jonathan Bennett tells Bustle. “Many individuals who leave toxic relationships feel like they are damaged goods and that they don’t deserve a chance at love with someone of higher quality.”
Thoughts like these are often a side effect of harsh words from your ex, who may have done everything they could to knock you down and erode your self-esteem. These thoughts, once ingrained, can be tough to shake. But they’re certainly possible to overcome — especially with the help of a therapist.
3. Feeling Relief, Then Intense Guilt
Once a toxic relationship ends, “it’s common to feel as if you have finally ‘escaped’ or gotten out,” clinical psychologist Dr. Josh Klapow, host of The Web Radio Show, tells Bustle. There’s usually a huge wash of relief, as you pack your bags to leave.
But once the newness of the breakup wears off, it’s not uncommon for feelings of guilt and self-doubt to occur thereafter. “There is such a dependency that is created in a toxic relationship that once you have escaped, it’s common to wonder — ‘did I do the right thing?’ or ‘was this really my fault?'” Dr. Klapow says. It’s in this stage that many people get back together with their ex, just to make the discomfort go away.
Rekindling a romance with an ex is fine, in some cases. But when it’s with a toxic ex, it’s important to give yourself plenty of time to adjust, mull over what you went through, and see if that’s really what you want to do. With support and help from others, you may find that it’s better for you to move on.
4. Feeling Intense Isolation And Loneliness
Once an abusive or toxic relationship ends, intense feelings of loneliness may set in, as well. “It’s common once the feelings of relief are over to feel extremely isolated and alone, and to fear the possibility of a new relationship,” Dr. Klapow says. “There is a general sense of wasted time, lost days, months, years of life, and a general desire to get on with it. All of this sets a person up to be in a very vulnerable state.”
Again, this can lead to rebound relationships, as you scramble to make the negative emotions go away. “We see a high rate of rebound relationships — relationships where the person is seeking to sooth the emotional scars and not be alone,” Dr. Klapow says. But if you find these relationships to be unfulfilling, confiding in loved ones, or seeking the help of professional, can be cathartic in helping to heal old wounds.
5. Falling Into Another Unhealthy Relationship
If you haven’t given yourself time to recover, treat your trauma, or learn about what healthy relationship behaviors look like, you might find that you immediately end up in a different relationship — but one that is equally toxic.
“People often walk right back into unhealthy new relationships that can also be toxic,” Dr. Klapow says. “If you have gotten out of a toxic or abusive relationship and have the means (and there are many low-cost and free care facilities) then examining how you go there, what kept you there, and how you see relationships now is critical. Not examining these issues — not dealing with the trauma — positions you to walk right back into it again.”
6. Having A Hard Time Letting Go
Again, it’s common to feel a bit down after a breakup. But when it comes to toxic relationships — due to the very nature of the circumstances you fell into, the gaslighting you may have experienced, etc. — it can be even more difficult to move on.
“After a breakup [you] may be focused on what the ex said and try to replay scenarios of how things could have been different,” Rori Sassoon, NYC’s go-to relationship expert and CEO of the elite matchmaking service, Platinum Poire, tells Bustle. “[You] may be thinking and wondering about who [your] ex is dating.” Or other things that may be preventing you from feeling confident enough to move on.
It is, however, possible to fill your brain with other, healthier thoughts. “The goal is to start re-centering yourself to focus on you and to re-pattern your attention,” Sassoon says. This can be done with the help of friends, or a trained therapist, who can assist you in addressing any issues you might have in letting go.
7. Having Intrusive Thoughts
While it’s OK to think about your ex or what might have gone wrong, be on the lookout for signs you’re getting obsessive. “Individuals who have post-traumatic relationship disorder have a tendency to struggle with obsessive thoughtsabout following relationships,” relationship therapist Naphtali Roberts, LMFTtells Bustle. “They often doubt their choice in relationships and others intentions and therefore can find it hard to trust the process of relationship building and trust their gut about others. This can often lead to distraction, acting impulsively … difficulty falling or staying asleep, or constant crying or irritability because you remember past choices or are overwhelmed by current relationship interactions and your connected fears.” Again, therapy will be a good choice here to help you move on.
8. Feeling Distrusting In New Relationships
If you haven’t given yourself time to heal from a past relationship, it’s not uncommon to go into a new one, and expect bad things to happen all over again.
“After an individual exits a toxic relationship they often can find themselves reacting to friends, family, or new relationships with patterns or suspicions or attributing simple mistakes or relationship misses as attacks or boundary crossing,” Roberts says.
And sometimes, being aware of this tendency can be the first step in recovering. “As an individual with a toxic relationship history it is important to be aware that you might be sensing something negative, but you may also be labeling a simple mistake as something harmful when really it is just a natural misunderstanding in the development of this next relationship,” Roberts says. Although it may be challenging, speaking with a therapist, or loved one can help you cope with any trust issues you may be experiencing, as well as deal with any underlying trauma that still resides.
9. Apologizing A Lot Due To Insecurities
Plenty of people feel insecure, and don’t have any trauma in their past that they can point to as the cause. But for others, insecurity can come about due to trauma. So, if you feel like you need to apologize all the time with your new partner, or like you’re constantly dealign with doubts and insecurities, take note.
“When you’ve been in a toxic relationship you often develop coping patterns to try to keep the chaos to a minimum,” Roberts says. “One of these patterns can be saying you are sorry for all of your thoughts, feelings, or actions. Often an individual in a toxic relationship has trained their brain that by apologizing they can control their partners reaction patterns. Even once an individual has left the unhealthy relationship they often can find themselves automatically apologizing to try to protect themselves from the hurt and judgment they previously experienced.”
10. Feeling Anxiety
If you think you might have PTRS, or something like it, be on the lookout for signs of anxiety — especially how they relate to your relationships.
“Essentially PTRS stems from the fear and mistrust of relationships,” says Dr. Bates-Duford. “PTRS can be defined as an anxiety disorder that can occur subsequent to the experience of physical, emotional, or psychological abuse in the context of an intimate partner relationship.”
There are so many causes of anxiety, so don’t jump to any conclusions and assume you were in a toxic relationship, or that you’re traumatized, simply because you feel anxious. But if it lines up with what you experienced in the past, it might not hurt to look into this as a cause, and seek treatment where necessary.
11. Having Flashbacks & Nightmares
While this is more common when PTSD symptoms are present, it is possible to experience intense flashbacks to moments in your relationship, or wake up in a cold sweat while having a nightmare, after leaving a toxic relationship.
“Many people with [trauma] have flashbacks from times where the relationship was painful and distressing, [or] nightmares associated with themes of the relationship,” clinical psychologist Dr. Paul DePompo tells Bustle. “You become on hyper-alert for the things you endured and feeling they can happen again at any moment, you can get bouts of intense anger or sadness, you can get waves of doubting yourself and taking too much of the responsibility for what happened.”
And since all of the above is not a healthy way to live, it’ll be important to seek support, ASAP. If you find that you’re in a dangerous situation, there are places you can turn to or call for help. Once you’re out of the relationship, there are plenty of ways to move past baggage, emotional trauma, and even PTSD or PTRS, and create a healthier relationship in the future.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.