Are you a nerd for self-psychologizing like I am? Reading the books, doing the work and the workshops and, maybe, as we start to understand the dynamics label those around us and ourselves as avoidant, anxious, or narcissistic?
Just like I have, you may have listened to your favourite writers, podcasters and workshop facilitators who seem to know everything about relationships (even if their track record is no proof of that) and let them tell you how you work. And maybe, just like I have been doing, you may have bashed yourself more than a little for being a mess at relating.
Personally, I don’t believe I’m an expert at how to keep a long term relationship interesting (I had one for nine years, the others were all way shorter). I do know a lot about relating, mainly because I’ve explored all the more and less common pitfalls extensively. I can tell you exactly what it feels like to attract avoidant folks, and how to stop doing that. Or how to recognize a toxic relationship. Or the importance of safety in a non-monogamous setup.
I also know how easy it is to think it is all wrong (again) when trauma surfaces in a relationship. But I want to reframe that.
Relationships, at first, are usually all exciting. There’s a new person with a brand new body and mind to explore. There are few triggers as the focus is on each other.
But over time, several things can happen. As the hormones of that first wave calm down, excitement may fade a little. At the same time, as we get to know each other better, intimacy and safety increase. Now those are the exact two things needed to let old trauma surface.
There’s this caveat that I do want to point out first: trauma can also be triggered by a partner who treats you badly. Because of your past, you may be an unintentional expert in picking out those narcissists, those who break boundaries and agreements, or simply those who are not available when you need them. This is what I would call ‘unhealthy trauma’: triggers and emotional turmoil that might teach you about your boundaries in the best case, and leave you hurt or traumatized worse in other cases.
But there’s also the trauma that may surface with the most well-mannered, loving, dedicated, available partners. Because you feel safe, you may loosen up the barricades and all the trauma that you stored away safely may come out. This is not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean you’re broken, it doesn’t mean this partner is a bad match after all, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing it all wrong. It simply means now is the time and place with enough safe ground to look it into the eyes and work it through. You have a choice now: to store it away for later (which is an absolutely valid choice!) or to work with it to the extent that feels manageable.
An example from my life. I have a non-monogamous relationship with my partner. They live with their other partner of seven years in Amsterdam. We are both free to see others, although that didn’t really happen yet as we have been fully focused on each other in these first eight months of our relationship. The main agreement that we have is that we take each other’s nervous system state into careful consideration and that we treat everyone involved with the utmost respect. Some days ago they said they had a lovely online conversation with a person they may want to meet in the further future. They told me over the phone at a time where I wasn’t very regulated (aka I felt wobbly after a long day with my kids). As a result, my nervous system went into extreme emotional turmoil for the next five days with hours of desperate crying one, worst, night.
I judged my response. This was such an overreaction to something that wasn’t even certain it would ever happen. But was it an overreaction? In all the previous relationships I had that were non-monogamous, I had partners or lovers that, at the time, crossed my boundaries, pushed me into situations I didn’t want to be in, broke agreements, or had a whole bunch of narcissistic traits. The whole system of my being: my body, nervous system, catalogue of past experiences – they all hauled the emergency bells. This was the moment shit would start hitting the fan and it wouldn’t stop until I got myself out of the situation.
When I finally saw my partner some days later (if you ever find yourself badly dysregulated by your partner, my best advice would be to get together with them as soon as you can and find ways to relax together before the deep conversations can happen. Cuddle, hold hands, sit together, make love, do whatever you need. But there are occasions, like with me and my partner, where it’s not possible to meet right away. In that case, see what your second-best options are: cuddle a friend or a pillow, go for a long walk, lower the expectations of yourself, watch a movie, etc.) and I lay sobbing in their lap. I told them about the fear and sadness in my body.
They reminded me: this is actually untrodden territory for me. A non-monogamous relationship where my partner cares a lot about my wellbeing, and who has no intention of hurting me in any way. Where we both have desires and freedom to explore, but with the utmost care and respect for the other. That just maybe, the safe environment caused that I felt safe enough to feel and express all the unexpressed emotions from the past: my own, ánd that of my ancestors (there’s a lot of fear and sadness about men who are not there in the first generations before me caused by death – intergenerational trauma and epigenetics are amazingly interesting fields of study).
My partner is not a bad person – on the contrary. I’m not a bad person either. I’m not broken or wrong, and my emotions and the responses of my nervous system are valid. My task is to be compassionate about them and to manage them well. How much can I handle, and where does it get overwhelming? Which support do I need from those around me to guide this process (without controlling them beyond their desires and creating a toxic element for the relationship) and what are my boundaries?
Whenever you are noticing trauma surfacing in your relationships, these are the steps, summarized, that you can take. Ask yourself:
– Is this trauma caused by the actions of my partner that are breaking my boundaries? (If yes; talk about it, and change the situation)
– Is this trauma surfacing because I actually feel safe enough?
– If yes: do I want to face this trauma now? (‘No’ or ‘not now’ are valid answers)
– If yes: what do I need to do that?
Most of us carry trauma. Either our own, that of our ancestors or culture. It may come up in the most unexpected of places – our relationships being one of those places. And that’s okay. Nothing wrong with you.
Photo: Fiep Herinckx / @fiepsfotos