We enter the world with our abilities to love and trust intact. As we develop, we experience relational violations that impair these instincts. The brains of children who are abused or neglected are fundamentally altered to adapt in an unsafe world. Those who are made to feel different or Other during tween and teen years may struggle to find a sense of worth and dignity for many years to come. Too often, we make significant emotional investments in adult relationships that later result in gut-wrenching, soul-crushing breakups. We are inherently relational beings, and yet with so much working against us, finding courage to love again is perhaps one of the greatest challenges adults can face.
Relationship violations can have a significant traumatic impact on our lifespan development. Whereas we tend to think of trauma as existing purely for cases in which abuse has occurred, we can also experience trauma in nonviolent but nonetheless emotionally upending breakups. These tend to occur when our trust is violated, as in the case of a partner with whom we were deeply in love but who cheated, stopped loving us, or as we came to know, never fully reciprocated our feelings. The reason these violations are so very jarring is that they throw us into a state of disequilibrium. Like a person waking up in a burning house or who experiences an extreme car accident, our brains try to make sense of a world that’s become chaotic.
If we eventually move out of these relationships, we often do so with a heightened state of guardedness which reflects our fear of ever being hurt this deeply again.
A sticky mess of shame, humiliation, and abandonment are the legacy of traumatic break-ups. We assume that we’re somehow not good enough to be loved. Entering new relationships, we pull back on expressing affection when we feel it, working hard to keep ourselves safe. After all, we don’t wish to appear vulnerable if our experience has taught us that our vulnerability can be exploited and used against us. More to the point, we don’t wish to re-experience the acute pain of rejection. We come to fear it, and therefore avoid the experiences that can take us there. The more risk-averse we become, the more we disconnect ourselves from the possibilities that truly growth-fostering relationships offer.
Becoming overly guarded to the point of not allowing ourselves to be seen as our authentic selves ultimately works against our participation in healthy relationships. Our disconnection is often met with confusion by the other person. They may chase for a period of time. If we become more guarded, the relationship is invariably doomed, though. If they choose to drop us, it confirms our suspicions and strengthens the beliefs that stem from our traumatic break-up. Each time we’re rejected, our beliefs about our unlovability are confirmed, and our isolation is solidified.
Over time, we may begin to avoid relationships all together so as not to experience the complicated attraction-pull back-disconnect emotions. We live in fear.
It doesn’t have to be as such, however.
A thing to know about trauma is that all sorts of mistaken beliefs about ourselves are embedded in it. The notion that we’re unlovable, that we have to work much harder if we expect a modicum of affection, that revealing our hearts and expressing love will invariably lead to the information being used against us are not facts. These beliefs have a basis in our history of course, but they do not reflect the possibilities of our lives today. What we need is an updated understanding of ourselves based on who we are in this moment and the love that we are truly capable of fostering. To aid this effort, we can test ourselves by answering a few questions as we enter new relationships:
1) Does this new person seem to be expressing real interest in me? List all of the evidence you can see: the sweet words you’ve received that reflect real interest (not purely sexual), the way the person smiles at you, eye contact, efforts to reach out to you or see you, that sort of thing. Nothing’s too small. List as many as you can.
2) What are the moments when I become most fearful in this relationship? Here, try to pinpoint all that you notice about these fearful moments, including the circumstances that create the fear, the beliefs that come up, and any self-talk you put yourself through to convince yourself that you’re being played or that your interest isn’t mutual.
3) When have I experienced similar thoughts and sensations? Try to isolate all of the relationship situations in your life where this has been present for you in the past.
4) What’s different about this relationship here and now? List all of the ways this is unlike other circumstances from the past. Spend time here.
5) What do I want to continue to be different about this relationship tomorrow? Here, you will guide yourself by clarifying how you wish to proceed in a manner that differs from what you may have done in the past. You can choose a way of connecting that maintains your dignity while also allowing you to foster a connection that will work for you. Being authentic and inviting will likely draw the other person into your world, and vise versa, creating a space that nurtures you both.
6) What can I do when I have questions that come up? Having a strategy to address the inevitable miscommunications, disagreements, etc. will help you avoid attaching a lot of erroneous beliefs about your worth each time you misunderstand a text, experience a delay in receiving your 7:30 phone call, or see that the other person is distracted by competing priorities.
One of the great challenges for humanity is in overcoming the sense of isolation that’s inherent in a world in which we all struggle to form healthy and growth-fostering relationships. Yet, as we learn to overcome our fear, we gain courage to take bigger emotional risks that can promise the payoff we deserve. In next week’s blog, I’ll talk about healthy risk-taking strategies for our relationships that serve to deepen the connections that we make.