It was early in my dating relationship with my now-husband, Wes, when we encountered a pretty disruptive event on the road home from Mobile, Alabama one Sunday afternoon. We were on I-10 keeping up with traffic just outside Mobile, which means I was driving about 75mph, when something under the hood of my SUV loudly popped. I immediately lost power steering and all the warning lights on the dash lit up like a Christmas tree. I was in the middle lane of travel and had to navigate all the way over to the right so that I could take the next exit and attempt to safely maneuver us to a parking lot to try to assess what had just happened. Every time I had to stop I was scared it would completely die on us, so I did everything I could to slow without stopping. I had to make 5 or 6 turns to get to the Wal-Mart parking lot just off the exit ramp, and I struggled with each one. Whatever had just happened wasn’t obvious to either one of us when we popped the hood to look, but what we clearly understood was that we would not be driving my car the 90 miles between us and home. Fortunately, I’m a longtime AAA member so we called for help right away. A tow truck arrived within an hour and we towed my car to the dealership a few miles away . We then had to call a taxi to get us to the airport to rent a car to make the trip home, as we both had to work the next day. Everything in those two or three hours seemed to happen rather quickly and when we got in the rental car to head home I remember actually exhaling a little bit. But I was still flustered and anxious. We made it home and fixed something quick to eat. As we sat at the table and were rehashing the events of the day, I found myself apologizing profusely and commenting about all of the ways I could try to prevent something similar from ever happening again. In response to my third or fourth apology, he actually said, “It’s really OK, Jenn. This is life, Things like this just happen. We are safe. No one was hurt. We’ll make plans to go back to Mobile to pick up your car when it’s ready, and we’ll put this behind us. In the grand scheme of things this is not a major deal.”
My mouth fell open and I stared at him in shock and amazement. I said, “What? You aren’t upset? You don’t blame me for what happened?” He stared at me in confusion and finally said, “Why on earth would I blame you? You didn’t do anything to cause this. It is not your fault.” And I responded to him that I’d never before gone through a stressful situation similar to this – one that disrupted plans and required a great deal of effort to deal with – without feeling responsible, blamed and targeted. Wes then said, “Ahhh. I see. You must have PTRD.” “What is that?” I inquired. “Post Traumatic Relationship Disorder,” he said, and we both burst out laughing.
I have no idea whether the mental health community actually utilizes such a diagnosis, and I don’t use it here as any formal term or in anyway regarding an actual clinical diagnosis. The way I’m using it here is strictly to describe an effect of the baggage we carry from one relationship to another. When we are experiencing “PTRD Moments” we are struggling with expressing feelings about something the other has said or done and are tempted to respond based upon our past experiences with someone else. This causes confusion and frustration that wouldn’t have been there otherwise and further complicates an already tense situation. When we find ourselves in the midst of these “PTRD Moments” we need to clarify what is really causing our discomfort in the situation and understand that our reactions likely have little to do with what has actually just occurred between us, and has everything to do with habitual reactions we have developed from our previous significant relationships. This has been a total game-changer for my husband and me. If one of us reacts to the other in an out-of-the blue way, we can inquire as to whether this may be a “PTRD Moment,” which most of the time will diffuse the situation to a point that we can calmly discuss the actual issue at hand.
Long term, close relationships are tricky to navigate. Communicating our needs in a time of high emotion is difficult, even when we aren’t dragging our past relationships right up into the middle of the stressful situation. The next time you feel triggered by something someone else says, take a minute to take a deep breath and ask yourself if you are responding to what actually just happened, or if you are reacting based upon experiences you have had in previous relationships. You owe it to yourself and to the others with whom you are in relationship to honestly assess the origins of your feelings and reactions and to respond based upon the reality of what has occurred as opposed to the quick, snap reaction that was previously so well-rehearsed that it has become a knee-jerk reaction. With some intentional thought and self-analysis we can interrupt the old patterns and save ourselves a good deal of grief by truly communicating with the person with whom we are interacting. Are there legitimate disagreements to address, or are you transposing into the present moment your feelings and emotions from something someone else did to you some time ago? Did this person intentionally push your buttons to upset you, or are you simply having a “PTRD Moment?”