Updated: Jul 29, 2020
I regret letting myself break instead of the relationship, I regret surrendering myself to someone else’s emotional restraints, I regret that at some point I began to believe that this was the cost of ‘true love’.
Somewhere along the way, we have all learned one common popular myth, great relationships take great sacrifices and anything less is a personal failure. So when abuse happens in context of an intimate relationship from the one person you trust to share your most vulnerable self with, it doesn’t just result in a traumatic break-up. Rather it could leave long standing negative impacts on how we choose to further perceive relationships in life. Beyond the regret, hovering past all the pain; it is often the shock of realisation that what we went through in many of our relationships was actually Abuse. This 5-letter word comes in many more forms than our popular understanding of physical or sexual assault alone and covers for emotional, verbal or even financial mistreatment ranging from minor forms of neglect or control to complete deprivation and isolation.
So what goes on with someone who is a survivor of such an emotionally abusive relationship? Enter, Post-traumatic relationship syndrome.
Even long after a break-up, we may continue to feel bad about ourselves doubting our ability to form meaningful relationships in the future. We may find ourselves being hyper-vigilant, extremely sensitivity to our surroundings; mistrustful of others in future relationships, anxious and even unknowingly seek new abusive partners. Although, we don’t exactly refrain from forming new relationships, but it is common for us to be in a constant look out for danger signs and red flags, walking on eggshells around almost everyone. These behaviours are now becoming so common that mental health professionals have come up with a name for it: Post- traumatic Relationship Syndrome (PTRS). It is considered to be an upcoming diagnosis with significant relevance in our society today.
Identifying in ourselves signs of PTRS could be tricky for a number of reasons. First, a very unhealthy trend encouraged in our society is to remain in a hurtful relationship despite the personal damage and attempt to ‘fix’ the other person. We might know of that one friend/ neighbour/ relative/ acquaintance struggling to please their partner in an effort to keep their relationship intact. And sometimes, we judge them or worse, normalise their pain which makes it harder to identify that what is happening is wrong. There are culturally prescribed gender norms that pressure us to remain committed at the stake of our own mental health (especially for someone with financial restraints). On one side, there is the romanticising of aggression and exploitation amidst lovers through art and movies (read Kabir Singh) on the other, is the hook-up culture which seems more convenient all of which greatly adds to the dilemma of where to draw lines in a relationship, that deciding the acceptable amount of tolerance and adjustment in an intimate relationship has never been harder.
"I didn’t know if I should stay or leave…mostly because I didn’t feel right giving up on him. Somewhere I kept telling myself that he still loves me and it’s just a phase. But then the distance only kept growing and every-time I tried to reach out, I was accused of being too needy and immature. And even I started believing that I was asking for too much from him and justified the pain he was causing me." - Survivor 1
As a result, there is a gross underestimation, acceptance and normalisation of abuse in the context of intimate relationships, especially when it is emotional. And so if the world keeps saying it's okay, it starts becoming okay. So we keep going from one bad relationship to the other because that's all we see and end up learning.
But, studies now tell us that the distress of an abusive relationship extends beyond the relationship itself and persists long after a break-up. The extent of this distress caused in us not only leads to lowering of our own self-esteem and well-being but may also affect the younger on-looking generations who learn that such ‘behaviour is normal in a relationship.
On the outside, people suffering from scars of an abusive relationship might seem functional. This could be because contrary to popular belief, people who have had traumatic relationships don’t always become emotionally numb, visibly troubled or learn to avoid new relationships. The after effects of a relationship like this manifests in other ways. Very often they might not be able to completely turn their guards down around their new partner or find themselves holding on to their fears, related suspicions and doubts of having that similar experience again. This is where PTRS takes the villainous role, blocking one from fully loving their partner and forming a new meaningful relationship. PTRS can place us in a strange situation where one one hand, it becomes difficult to live without a solid emotional support but we also struggle to reciprocate the same gesture genuinely.
“It’s been 3 years since my divorce and I still can’t get over my fear of being cheated again. I’m afraid of any woman I see now. I live a sad, lonely life…yet I simply cannot get myself to trust another person and dare to live with her…I feel terribly changed.” - Survivor 2
However, it isn’t a situation where all is lost. The key is helping ourselves understand what happened to us was not our fault and learn to recognise signs of what made us stay and find the strength to forgive ourselves. It is time to separate past hurt from defining our present and finding new reasons to love ourselves. Read Breaking Beyond Bad Break-Ups- What you can do! to know what you can do to help, be it yourself or someone you might know.
Disclaimer: PTRS currently has only been studied in the context of intimate relationships and does not extend to other kinds of relationships with family/friends/acquaintances.
The writer of these two features is Ria.M Jojo, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Kristu Jyothi College of Management and Technology interested in explaining the depths and shallows of human relationships. She also identifies as aspiring artist interested in painting, poetry, philosophy and also the creator of this alliterated title :p