How do I deal with the ghosts of bad relationships past?
December 16, 2011 4:23 AM   Subscribe

Some years back, I got out of a really bad(/abusive/weird) relationship. My life is so different and so much better now, and I truly thought it was behind me. But recently, out of nowhere and eight years later, I keep getting this itch to talk/think about it all in gruesome and miserable detail. What's going on?

I'll try to keep the backstory as short as possible here: I met my ex when we were still in our teens, and we were together for five years or so until I left him. The relationship wasn't unreletingly miserable and we had some great times, but in the last couple of years things went very, very bad.

My ex was a pathological liar, and also lacked coping tools for managing when his life wasn't going the way he planned. When some circumstances came up which affected his/our finances and living situation, he dealt with it by denial followed by devoting ridiculous amounts of effort and energy to maintaining an elaborate fiction about what was really going on. I believed him, partly because he was incredibly convincing (there were a whole cast of characters involved from which he regularly fabricated phone calls, emails and letters) and partly because I just, well, didn't want to believe he'd be making all that up.

The result was a big, painful mess. I ended up seriously broke, a combination of lending him money, using my money to pay all the bills, and him outright stealing from me. For several months we were in a very miserable situation, with utilities getting cut off and hardly able to afford food. There were a lot of screaming arguments during which he was sometimes physically violent, and I ended up in a really miserable slump of a depression for months before I found out the extent of his lies and left. He took the breakup very badly, with months of yelling and stalking, but eventually gave up.

Immediately after the breakup, I didn't tell anyone the full story other than my immediate family and a counsellor with the university's counselling service, who was wonderful and really helped. Everyone else, including mutual friends of mine and ex's got "we broke up, it's painful, I don't want to talk about it." In the years since I've told a few more close friends what went on, and my current, awesome boyfriend knows as well. Mostly, though, that's been in the context of a single conversation just covering the basic facts, and I haven't talked about it since. And until recently, that suited me fine. It hasn't been a huge thing in my life, it hasn't stopped me trusting new people and making new relationships, I never really considered myself traumatized, and most of the time I honestly just didn't think about it.

But now, things feel a bit different. My mind keeps drifting back there, and while the memories don't really horrify me, it feels quite weird to have it start to take up space in my head again after eight years. I find myself wondering about various (probably unanswerable) questions, like what would have happened if I'd done X instead of Y, or whether anything happened that I don't remember. (The nightmare months were just so miserable that I sort of blocked part of them out of my memory - I have no reason to think there's any particular horrific thing that got blocked with them, but now I can't stop wondering.)

And I keep wanting to talk about it, talk and talk and talk and be totally public about it and make up for all the years where I didn't want anyone to know. That's quite unlike me, and I don't think I would like to be that open about it in reality, particularly because I've felt very vulnerable talking about it before and have really resented it when people didn't totally 100% get it - which isn't really fair, because most people just don't. I am pretty sure I could talk to my boyfriend about it, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of talking and talking and talking about it with him with no end in sight, particularly when I don't know what it is I want to achieve with all this talking.

I have wondered whether the sudden reappearance of all of this in my mind has something to do with things getting serious in my current relationship, though - we got a house together and we've been talking seriously about marriage, something I haven't done with anyone since that ex. (I wasn't married to the ex, although we were engaged.) I really hate thinking that my past, bad experiences might negatively affect my current, great ones, and that is what I'm most bothered about here. So in short, I'm wondering why all of this would start taking up space in my head now, and what it means (for my future, for my current state of mind, for my relationship) that this is happening.

I suspect a lot of the answers are going to be 'get therapy'. I am not totally opposed to that idea - the counsellor I talked to in the immediate aftermath of the breakup was a great help to me - but it's not the easiest option. I don't live in the US and therapy isn't so popular or so easily available here, and what does exist is more short-term crisis counselling, of the kind I had before. (My employer even pays for that, although I am kind of familiar with the program and really don't believe that what I'm dealing with now would count as a crisis as they define it.) I think I could probably find and afford something that sounds more like the therapy people recommend here, if necessary, but it would be tricky to obtain and I would feel seriously uncomfortable about it, which in itself might be hard to get past. So I'm not saying don't recommend therapy, just that it would really help to hear a few more details than 'get therapy' if you do think that's the best option!
posted by smockpuppet to Human Relations (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Much of therapy is exactly what you're describing. The urge to talk about what you've kept hidden for so long, be it abuse, or anxiety, or depression, or any number of other things.

You don't necessarily have to talk to a licensed therapist in an office for talk to be therapeutic. What you need is someone you trust, who will listen to you and not judge. This can be a friend, a family member, a member of the clergy of your chosen religion, a social worker, or just about anybody, so long as that trust is implicit.

It's very normal to need to talk about horrible things much later after they've happened. It's a way to sort out your emotional needs, figure out where you were, and where you're going.
posted by xingcat at 4:28 AM on December 16, 2011 [8 favorites]

Personally, this is my "Life Cycle of Embarrassment":

1) I hide it. Too ashamed to speak of it to others. Depending on the level of hit to my pride, this stage could last from days to years.

2) I learn to accept that "it happened" and begin to want to get it off my chest. The personal effort required to withhold a topic that I feel I need to answer for, or that I feel needs to be heard, overrides my desire for secrecy.

3) I talk about it until I have become desensitized to it. Like how they use war video games to ease PTSD in solders threw desensitization.

4) It becomes a "teaching anecdote" I relate to others who are in similar situations.

I need to get threw each stage individually to truly have closure on any Big Embarrassing And Hurtful Event. I have no way of knowing if this cycle is similar for you, but if it sounds familiar then you may just be entering stage #2.
posted by Shouraku at 4:36 AM on December 16, 2011 [14 favorites]

Well it was an exceptional mindfuck, and you were too busy getting through it at the time to figure it all out. As an Aspie, I'm not satisfied until I have picked the bones clean of every last molecule of useful detail, so I know I'm more obsessive than most... but there's so much to learn, you know?

What does raise a little flag-ette for me is the fact that you're preparing to get married. I would think hard and see if there's anything that you should be facing about the new relationship but aren't because you're using this to distract yourself. Not suggesting you're avoiding any serious problems, it could be something really small like you need to find a nice way to ask him not to leave his socks on the floor, but every time you start to think about it this shiny distraction comes up.

Apart from that, I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to think this through, if there are issues you left unexamined at the time. I like to use books and get a number randomizer to help me pick a page and see if anything on that page resonates. If there's anybody you know who would be open to talking about it, go ahead and ask. Or if you are really stuck you could memail me as I totally understand the urge to go on and on about something and I'm the last person who's going to think less of you for it.

A good book is "Labyrinth of the Psychopath" by Thomas Sheridan. Maybe your guy wasn't a psychopath, but if he was or had tendencies that way, this book really explains it all on a gut level. Sheridan's a conspiracy theorist/artist and not a scientist, and some of what he says is factually incorrect, but emotionally, his exposition of the Uncanny Valley these guys lead you through is completely accurate.
posted by tel3path at 4:42 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think I know what you need!

Your body holds onto emotional and physical trauma by default. You're right, these new commitments are dangerously close to tender spots you thought were long gone. Surprise! It often happens like that.

Get a few weeks (maybe 2 to 5 months?) of regular body work like acupuncture or shiatsu. Ask around, interview practitioners. You didn't know holistic doctors treat this sort of problem? Well they do! In fact, it's the basis of everything they do.

Memail me if you want to know more, but yeah, it sounds like you've reached a legitimate, yet little talked about, stage in your healing process. Good for you! Lots of folks get to this spot and just carry the baggage forward because they don't know what to do. You don't have to. You don't have to.

I think you can let go of all traces of this past trauma via holistic therapy. It's worth the investment and will likely be more effective at this stage than talk therapy. IMHE.

You could easily achieve the same results through a practice of Yoga and meditation for a few months. Or exercise like walking at the beach or in parks/forested areas followed by meditation. Are you near any natural hot springs? You're looking for a mind/body solution. Find something that works for you.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 5:15 AM on December 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

tel3path hits on a very important point, which is key to why so many of us who've been in therapy, recommend it so often that it's become predictable :)

What does raise a little flag-ette for me is the fact that you're preparing to get married. I would think hard and see if there's anything that you should be facing about the new relationship but aren't because you're using this to distract yourself. Not suggesting you're avoiding any serious problems, it could be something really small like you need to find a nice way to ask him not to leave his socks on the floor, but every time you start to think about it this shiny distraction comes up.

One reason that "just not thinking about the past and moving on" is less than optimal (to put it mildly), despite our strong wishes that it would be, is that you don't learn from what happened on a deeper level. "Oh yes I have!!" is often the knee-jerk response to that, but I can tell you, from my own experience, that it can be helpful beyond what you're able to currently conceptualize.

I too live in a country where "therapy" isn't easy to find, but I did, and oh, my, goodness it has been worth it. It's normal to feel uncomfortable at first; it takes a little time to build rapport with the therapist and, naturally, for them to get enough context to best understand where you're coming from and what will help you the most. I think you would benefit from this; you would have a third party to bounce ideas and remembrances off of, and who, furthermore, would have professional training in what all of that meant (what kind of person your ex was, for instance – one thing that surprised me in my therapy was how helpful it was to hear my therapist's analyses of my abusive parents and an abusive long-term ex), and of course, what it now means for you.
posted by fraula at 5:23 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

One possible alternative explanation for why this is coming up now could be that you're finally feeling safe and supported, and like you can process what happened. (It could be many things -- just mentioning that as a possibility.)

I agree with tel3path about trying to think about *when* these thoughts occur. Who are you with when you feel like talking about this? What kinds of things are happening? How are you feeling just before?
posted by pie ninja at 5:34 AM on December 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

You're ready to deal with it.
posted by Miko at 5:42 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Different levels of your psyche process things at different rates. As you continue to get stronger and grow as a person, and as your perspective shifts, there are things about your past that you may just now be finally ready to tackle thinking about. (I literally just yesterday had a major epiphany about a breakup I had in 2008.)

The fact that you're moving into the same sort of living situation with someone else as you did with that guy soon also means that, at some level, you're subconsciously comparing the two situations ("whoa, wait, I know that Boyfriend isn't like Evil Ex, but we're about to do the same thing, lemme be careful here...") That happens too. In fact, maybe thinking a lot about the bad guy may help -- because that will help you realize with more and more clarity that "wait, okay, the reason things went bad with Ex was because he was an asshole, not because we were living together. Okay, good."

You'll be fine. I know it sucks, but it's a sign that you need to do some more mental processing, and that will ultimately be a good thing. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:42 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

"particularly when I don't know what it is I want to achieve with all this talking. "

You're lancing the boil and releasing the poison, dude. And it's just going to flow and flow and flow for a while until it's empty. You've been holding this neatly and safely encapsulated and now, for whatever reason (upcoming marriage, feeling safe in your relationship, it's just been enough time, whatever), you're ready to finally just get it OUT.

Telling stories about Big Things that happen to us is a huge part of the way humans make sense of what happens to them, render the incomprehensible comprehensible, and incorporate these events into our self-understandings and life stories. (I mean, have you ever been around a new mom, who tells the story of her labor and delivery over and over and over and never gets tired of it? She HAS to, to make sense of, "HOLY CRAP, I just popped a WHOLE NEW PERSON out of me, and now I have to take CARE of it for 20 years. How on earth did this HAPPEN?") And yeah, it's not unusual at all for things from earlier in your life to come back and need re-telling when a new thing reminds you of them -- I mean, one of the ways we cope with death as a society is telling stories of that person's earlier life and what they meant to us. Same exact function.

Therapy would be fine, especially if you feel you need it or if this gets traumatic, but if you just want to TALK about it, talking to friends will serve the purpose. I'd give yourself a fairly generous deadline (I'd give myself 6 months, based on past experience), and if the flow of talk hasn't started to dry up by then, I'd a) ask my friends for a reality check and b) consider therapy. You'll probably talk yourself around in circles with it for a while before you start talking through it, and that just takes a while. So give yourself a while, and if after several months it's getting worse, or showing no signs of lessening, or you've super-irritated everyone in your immediate vicinity (friends are required to put up with a certain amount of belly-button gazing politely), then I'd think about therapy pretty seriously because you're not processing it on your own.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:12 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you feel like you need to talk about it, you should. You could try finding a support group in your area.

You could also try writing it out - in a private journal, in a memoir, or through a blog. A blog might be a good way to share your story with other women and encourage others in bad situations to get out and get help.
posted by bunderful at 6:39 AM on December 16, 2011

I find myself rehearsing the past whenever I'm going through a life change. It makes perfect sense that your bad relationship would come up in your mind just as you're reaching an important pivot in this new, better relationship, especially since a large part of what made the last relationship so bad was the fact that your boyfriend had been aggressively hiding latent troubles from you.

Maybe it would help to walk through, with your current fiance, some of the concrete stuff that is better about your life now. Show yourself that it's all real. Not a fake this time.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:59 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe you are worried your fiancé doesn't know the real you? (I am not saying it would, necessarily, help to spill every detail. Just make sure you own the life you are about to share.)

Honestly, unless this some kind of OCD rumination - and you don't describe it that way - what you are thinking and feeling seems healthy to me. Sometimes we need to reflect and review to make sure we're who we think we are.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:09 AM on December 16, 2011

Many types of trauma therapy involve a structured process of telling the narrative of the trauma! It IS a natural, human, expected part of this process, and it's ok.

Therapy is not a bad suggestion because it's a supportive and empathetic environment. It's likely to also help you to examine your current relationship and the choices you make within it, so that you can identify anything that may be a direct result/reaction of that past relationship, and maybe to feel more settled/confident about the choices you've made that were really healthy and great for you!
posted by so_gracefully at 7:13 AM on December 16, 2011

"The nightmare months were just so miserable that I sort of blocked part of them out of my memory - I have no reason to think there's any particular horrific thing that got blocked with them, but now I can't stop wondering"

rings bells with me - I had a similarly unpleasant relationship at a similar sort of age and into my 20s and with a man who thought it was funny / somehow appropriate to tell me on a number of occasions how he wanted to sexually mutilate me with a large knife. It was a joke, you know... . So yes, he said it and I remember him saying it and how he said it and so on, but I have definitely blanked a lot of the context and other stuff too. You know it's your mind protecting you from the stress of remembering the nasty details, but the generality is there. I think if there were something else that had happened, you would definitely have more of a sense of SOMETHING at the back of your blankness; for example more violent abuse on his part may have left physical scars, or even have registered with others, so you would possibly have a memory of other people asking about the relationship, for example; there may have been some form of corroboration external to your hazy half-memories.

I think we can sometimes tend to revisit unpleasant events periodically, almost as a touchstone for comparison with what's now good about things. Talking is good and talking to your partner is better, if he's as patient as he sounds. Giving yourself permission to talk about it may also help to lessen the pressure you're feeling (and you may find that it lessens the urge, too, if that's still worrying you - just knowing you can talk about this awful thing without reprisal to people who care about you if you want to can be a relief in itself).
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 7:40 AM on December 16, 2011

Great, great words of wisdom above. Please do give yourself permission to talk this out of your system with a friend or clergyperson or therapist or all of the above. And your current boyfriend. Please trust him, yourself and your relationship.

I add two cents: in my own life, I've noticed that there's a bit of a rhythm or cycle to processing events. There doesn't even need to be a real trigger or reminder, sometimes (though you getting Serious in your current relationship sounds like a very probable cause) - shit I think I've fully dealt with will resurface years later and need a bit of rehashing. I've just accepted that the process is not a straight and steady climb, it's more of a spiral staircase.

And I know this sounds odd from and to an internet stranger, but I'm proud of you. I wish you all the best.
posted by likeso at 7:41 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with those who say you are ready to face it now. You are strong enough and in a healthy relationship.

I think you should find a therapist or someone you trust to talk to but failing that I would get me a great big journal and write, write, write all this stuff down. Get it out.

Even if you just shred or burn what you write later, it will help.

(this is a technique I used years ago when I was dealing with some heavy things and it definitely helped.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:18 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would really stress that unless you feel like talking at length with the partner right now, you don't have to. He knows the bare bones details - enough to know why some things might be trigger-y for you. That means not telling more is not a lie. Not telling more at this time might be how you need to carry it and reinforce your strength in having handled this.

I don't know you so I don't know.

Maybe it would be great to eat candy and get tipsy and weep and weep and be comforted. Maybe you need to take a lot of long walks and chew on all this and keep seeing the answer that you are now a person who is out of that situation and has a life in front of you.

Dont think about what might feel good right now. Think about what you, as an individual, will be glad you did afterward, like a month or three months from now.

You don't needed to be saved or helped. You (and the therapist you found and you worked with) got you out of the awful when it happened. Sounds like what you need now is to reconcile what you went through with who you are now and your plans for the future.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:23 AM on December 16, 2011

I don't know if there are any places you can volunteer to help women who are going through things like what you went through. If so, I've found doing that to be hugely helpful. Talking to a therapist can be, but it can also get me stuck in a negative cycle. Sharing my experience, strength and hope with people who are going through what I've been through is a much more positive experience and reminds me I don't have all the answers.
posted by QIbHom at 10:52 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think your brain is going wait! I made a similar decision before and it ended badly. Analyze! The urge to talk to other people is you seeking perspective on your decision to marry/ buy a house with this new man. Some people meditate on their decisions, some talk to therapists and some ask their moms. Imho, this is an Ask Your Mom* kind of deal- you want to go over the old situation and confirm its not happening again with someone who knows both of you but unquestionably has your best interests at heart. Maybe a bit obsessively even. Explore every angle, theorize motivations and discuss failure points. Make sure you really know what happened.

*does not have to be your real mother.
posted by fshgrl at 1:22 PM on December 16, 2011

The general wisdom is that it takes as long to get over a marriage as the marriage lasted. Eight years is a little long in your case, but it might be that you're simply done processing the emotions and now you're ready to talk about them.

A therapist's office should definitely be your first stop here, if for no other reason than it's a place where you can talk and talk and talk without having your friends get tired of you :-)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:00 PM on December 16, 2011

Another vote for your mind being ready to deal with it now. Journaling is fantastic therapy when you can't actually go - I've gotten a lot of use out of 750 words.

Also, you're so not alone. I actually caught myself last night being angry at my current entirely awesome boyfriend over something my fuckwitted ex-husband did ten years ago. Oh, brain. Always keeping things interesting!
posted by Space Kitty at 2:29 PM on December 16, 2011

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