When you come into a relationship in which your new partner had a family before you, particularly when there are kids involved, it is profoundly important to recognize how jarring it is to bring a new person into this system. Even though it was a dysfunctional system, there are so many emotions swirling around your partner’s previous relationship that it can be a confusing process for your partner and their ex to discover their new roles.
Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be a huge event or a more subtle pain that you try hard to overlook, though it still haunts you. Collective traumas are suffered by many. They include war, terrorism, an accident, or a catastrophic weather episode that results in death or other forms of mass loss and upheaval. Individual traumas are those that happen uniquely and specifically to you, such as threats, assaults, abuse, family strife, and physical or mental boundary violations. Individual traumas are often experienced silently and can feel like your own personal prison.
When you’re traumatized, there’s a driving internal force to feel safe and cared for, especially by your partner. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, this can become your central focus as you try to heal. You delve into if/then scenarios in an effort to soothe yourself and look for a way out of that uncomfortable place you are in. If your partner can just reassure you, support you and help you deal with your pain, then you will feel protected, validated and able to heal. However, it’s essential to be aware that what you’re hoping to receive from the relationship may be unrealistic or disproportionate to what your partner can give.
Trauma is so overwhelming and creates such internal chaos that it distorts your ability to gauge what your partner can realistically offer. This may be in part because they have been traumatized too, whether or not either of you realize it. Not only does your trauma affect how you perceive the comfort you receive, but your partner’s trauma affects their ability to provide what you’re looking for as you seek out safety and security.
When you’ve endured collective or individual trauma, your trust in how things are supposed to be is drastically altered. In turn, your sense of safety and connection to yourself and others is negatively impacted. You are bracing for the next impact, whether or not one will follow. Understandably, there’s a need within you to secure your foundation, and establish or reestablish a sense of stability in the world. Whether you’re in a new relationship or one that’s established, you may be looking to your partner to do the impossible: fill the void created by trauma.
Be aware that being traumatized is akin to being betrayed, and that you might carry feelings of vulnerability, exposure and pain. The last thing you want is for your relationship to create further feelings of betrayal and disappointment because you don’t feel understood or validated. Therefore, it’s crucial to remember that your partner comes from a different background, life experience, and has different communication patterns from you. They exist in a different body and have a different brain. The onus is on you to communicate with your partner and to describe as best you can what you’re feeling and why. Try to resist slipping into a thought process of expecting them to “just know” what you are feeling and experiencing. While your pain may be all-consuming, and those thoughts in your head may be very loud, understand that these feelings belong to you. You might have to power through your own trauma just long enough to help your partner help you to feel better.
For example, patients often describe the things they wished their partner had said or done in certain situations. The disappointment and experience of being let down by them can be a huge disappointment in its own right; it is as if they feel the relationship history and connection should leave little room for error or misunderstanding. Feeling betrayed, misunderstood, and diminished all culminate in what you view as your partner’s insensitivity because your partner did not or could not handle your needs in a way that would better meet your longings. When patients talk about their disappointment, it’s often clear that the extent to which they feel disappointed is not about the partner’s failure to soothe, but about the trauma that preceded it. You don’t want them to feel your outward anger about what they did wrong – this just perpetuates a cycle of distrust. Your partner is working hard in their own way to forge and maintain the connection. It’s so profoundly important to recognize that your hope for what your partner can give likely far exceeds what they’re capable of giving. This is no one’s fault.
In approaching your partner to talk about your painful experiences, rather than continue to build a case for disappointment, frustration, and distrust, start a conversation by showing gratitude for what they have done, and acknowledging that it must be so hard for them at times to figure out what you need. Communicate your needs very clearly to them.
Knowledge is power and self-knowledge is the ultimate power. Creating healthy dialogue around expectations will help you discern whether or not there is enough of an investment by both partners to work on and progress in the relationship. Keep in mind that it is more important to acknowledge your partner’s efforts. Even when they don’t succeed, knowing they are trying to help you through your pain is the most validating contribution they can make to your recovery.
Up till now being in a relationship may have been a determining factor in how you view yourself and how comfortable you feel in the world. It may be hard to know or trust who you are without a relationship. Therefore, even when you have said your goodbyes, it can feel like the only way you will get through to the next minute is to hear your ex’s voice: Like they are anchor that brings you back to who you are, or who you understand yourself to be. But, at the same time, you know that indulging that connection feels awful because you don’t want to keep depending on it.
Breakups can be challenging not only for you, but for the people who care about and support you. You are in too much pain to explain what you need, so they have no way of knowing the best ways to help you. To help them help you, I have created a guide to prepare and instruct them on some things they can expect to encounter as you go through your agonizing grieving process. It describes some of your feelings, reactions, and tendencies as a result of the breakup so that they can better prepare for and manage some of the frustrating, challenging, even overwhelming situations that lie ahead.
Here are five key guidelines written from you to the person, people or group you may turn to in your life for how to best prepare themselves and support you as you go through withdrawal from your ex.
Your partner is speaking loudly with a tense look on their face. Is he or she angry, rageful, looking to argue? Or are they expressing themselves passionately, intensely, fervently excitedly, emphatically? These two vastly different emotional expressions can be easily confused because they can look and even sound similar. When you and your partner misinterpret each other’s expressions of excitement or intensity, it can evoke frustration. Then what started out as emphasis can escalate into anger. Reminding yourself and your partner that these differences exist can ease tension in your relationship. It can help you shift your focus from arguments and misunderstandings to working together toward a better understanding of each other’s expressions and intentions.
If you are in love with a person with whom you have a friendship/sexual relationship, who is kind, compassionate and a “good friend”, but is unable to reciprocate your adoration, it can be extraordinarily painful to navigate that relationship in a way that is not consuming for you. It’s hard not to feel as if you are losing yourself. In order to be “in” it and keep it alive, you continually infuse life into the relationship, if you can call it that, by having to compromise your well-deserved longings for more. You try to convince yourself that you are okay with less in return, just to keep the connection. You may pretend it is not so, but this experience levels you and shatters you over and over. You become more confused about what you deserve and can have in this or any potential romantic relationship for that matter. It also heightens the desire, the incentive, the overwhelming “need” to win over this person once and for all so that your self-esteem will be “restored.”
Like violent waves crashing against your very being, overwhelming, disorienting emotions overtake you during the breakup process. As time passes (often lots of time) the reality of the breakup begins to set in. For many, it is later in the breakup process that you begin to experience feelings of anger toward self, and other(s), including your ex. Anger is a healthy stage in the grieving process and should not be confused with blame, even though they appear very similar. Blame toward self or other indicates that you are stuck in a cycle. Blame at self or other for why the relationship went awry keeps you focused on outcomes that have already occurred.
In the beginning of a relationship, before a woman feels trusting and open, and both parties are working to deepen the emotional connection, the pressure can make it difficult for a woman to achieve orgasm. But it was shown long ago that one of the most arousing aspects of the heterosexual sexual experience for men is being able to turn on a woman. Many women learn through time that the more sexually expressive they allow themselves to be (or seem), the more their partner enjoys the sex. This means that, especially early in the relationship, women may fear that if they don’t orgasm during sex, they will appear to be unresponsive, deadened, and their partner will lose interest. Their anxiety, even shame at “how long it takes” may end up compelling them to fake orgasm.
Some painful stuff went down between you and someone who once held great meaning in your life. It reached a point where the only option left was to sever the connection. But as time has passed, you’ve become increasingly aware that the amazing moments you shared with this person are part of who you are, part of your identity, forever in your heart.
As painful as it is—and as backward as it seems—there is a common experience in which a woman sleeps with a man in the hopes that sex will encourage a more consistent relationship, and then is disappointed when it doesn’t work. Maybe it’s a pattern that started in college or even high school: A girl who feels interest from a guy sleeps with him because she feels like it’s just the beginning. She remembers what he said before sex—that he was into her, found her attractive, liked her—so she is hopeful that a relationship will grow out of a night of sex.
Of course, there are men who have sex quickly and still work toward cultivating a meaningful, intimate relationship afterward. But in my practice I have seen and heard both sides—the woman’s disappointment when no relationship materializes, and the man’s waning interest when sex occurs quickly in the dating process—and vice versa, of course.
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