New relationship after traumatizing one -- How To Do It?
November 5, 2016 1:41 PM   Subscribe

When you enter a new relationship with a secure person after one that has traumatized you, how do you separate the anxiety triggered by trauma from legitimate ones about the new relationship?

I still feel traumatized by my last relationship in that I have turned into someone extremely anxious, neurotic, and reactive when it comes to romantic relationships. I never had issues with self-image or self-esteem but now that I am in a new relationship with an extremely secure, loving man, I find myself constantly triggered and any small disagreement can end up with me spending an entire night reading metafilter and feeling like we are going to break up.

The new relationship is also very new, although serious in that we committed to it despite long distance... and I often can't tell if I am anxious because I am traumatized or have legitimate doubts about the new boyfriend.

My new boyfriend is amazing, extremely sexually compatible with me, and just... the best person I know. He is so supportive and a model of healthy attachment, and he inspires me with his love. I feel like I love him underneath the new relationship energy. I just intuitively know he is Good and I think I know that only because of this last horrible break up, and I would never have used these adjectives to describe my ex even when I was the happiest with him. With my ex, I still remember thinking "I would never want to break up with him because we couldn't stay friends--he isn't exactly there for his friends." (At the time, I brushed thoughts like that aside because he was so superficially attentive to me and felt like such a vast difference from my father; it was devastating that in the end, it really wasn't).

Despite the good in my new relationship, I am plagued by anxiety because we are long distance (five hours time difference), have seen each other in person for only a quarter of our technical relationship time, and deal with cross-cultural, cross-class differences that I've never had to deal with before.

But I often feel like I can't think straight about him because my PTSD symptoms from my ex are inseparable from who I am right now. I basically cry whenever my new boyfriend does something that is Common Sense because it is so g-d refreshing and still revelatory for me that a boyfriend could be emotionally mature like that. For example, he will say "you shouldn't feel sorry for your feelings--you can't help having them!" and I will spend the next 30min-to-half-day seething/re-traumatized that I wasted so much time with my ex who would NEVER say something like that. At the same time, I get extremely emotional because I feel so GRATEFUL to my new boyfriend. Other examples include him calling me "beautiful" (my ex never did that, and I normalized it); not avoiding hard conversations or freezing on me (I still expect my new bf to break up with me whenever I express negativity because I feel like my ex trained me to think like that); and simply being accepting. I feel like my ex was a stealth narcissist and would always be down on me about not doing little things right, like cooking eggs with the right method. Almost 1.5 years later, i STILL get anxious/shaken up about making eggs wrong for a romantic partner for fear that he will judge me or break up with me. It is completely irrational but my ex was very particular about things and I feel like I have absorbed it as part of my trauma or way of "fixing things/blaming myself." I used to never be self-conscious but now apologize for being messy or forgetting to shave my armpits or just not being together, even though I am an extremely "together" person by most measures. For example, my new boyfriend can't give a hoot how my apartment looks but I still have flashbacks to how my ex said, as one reason for the sudden breakup, that I didn't have "real furniture" and that I needed to grow up. I didn't have real furniture because I was waiting for him to move in, which was a long-running mutual plan (we were near-distance for a while), and didn't think spending money on "real" furniture made sense when we would have double everything. There were so many shocking, unempathetic things like that said during and after the break up that I still can't fully sort through the cognitive dissonance.

I also have more general problems like feeling like I can never depend on another person again and that sudden breakups can happen anytime. As much good intuition as I have about my new bf, I really don't trust myself at all and don't have my parents to draw from.

My question: If you have come out of an abusive relationship, how did you separate the trauma from legitimate doubts about a new relationship?

Secondary question: How did you get over being triggered all the time? I feel like I will never stop trying to "fix" what I did "wrong" in the last relationship, even though I know logically that the only thing that happened to me was that I got in way too deep with an asshole, that I did nothing to deserve the devastation/loss of trust in humanity of such a breakup and my disturbed feelings towards it all are on point, and all the signs were there from the beginning.

I have read all the usual MeFi books like Attached and Gift of Fear, and have read extensively on Narcissism/trauma. I also have a history of family violence/narcissism -- all patterns that I see very clearly now after a long period of painful self-education. MeFi has also been integral in helping me learn about healthy behaviors and models! TY!!

(I also know that maybe I entered this relationship too fast and did not mean to get into one. I had stopped dating but we met and because of the long distance nature, had to sh*t or get off the pot. I have thought about breaking up due to my anxieties but I never do because deep down, I feel like it would be something I will regret not to mention hurtful to my BF. My new BF and I talk openly about these issues and he is happy being patient with me.)
posted by minoraltercation to Human Relations (9 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Tertiary question: How can I help my anxiety? It is interfering with my work. I feel like I got used to spending large amounts of time thinking about the breakup and getting over it... but I can't spend the rest of my life and precious time ruminating/obsessing. I am STILL obsessed with the question of "How" (How did I not see; How can a person be so successful yet selfish and immature; How come I feel like my ex has no real conscience). If you saw the documentary Weiner, a lot of the ways Weiner expressed himself and his lack of remorse reminds me of my ex. I continue to be so disturbed and it is becoming a major problem the way I imagine an addiction might interfere with a full life.
posted by minoraltercation at 1:51 PM on November 5, 2016

How long ago did this breakup happen? Stuff like this takes time to process, more than anything else, I think (or at least that was my experience). I went through a similar-ish situation where I stayed in a relationship far, far too long with a partner who really did not work with me and caused myself a lot of anguish. It took about three years, and some false starts which were not great for the new people I was trying to date during that time. I definitely took a long time to get over it (and the fact that the bad relationship was tied up with a really awful time in my professional life probably didn't help).

I'm not saying "wait three years to date again." I'm not saying "your relationships will fail."

I am saying "have patience with yourself because you have gone through some hard shit, but this too shall pass."

I wish I had better advice than that, but that's what worked for me.
posted by Alterscape at 2:29 PM on November 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

Seconding that it just takes time and care. It's great that your partner is able to talk with you about these things, and that will certainly help. Learning to trust someone to be good to you can be surprisingly hard, but noticing that they are consistently good to you will also help. And by noticing, I mean both just passively experiencing it and paying specific attention--maybe even saying out loud to yourself "[partner] is so great for doing [nice thing.]"

For me, it also helped to pay attention to my own behavior and note things I was doing that didn't make sense in a supportive relationship--for example, I would text my former partner to tell her that I was going for a walk and might not feel my phone vibrate, even if it would only be 20 or 30 minutes, because she was likely to freak out and get mad if she couldn't reach me. I caught myself doing that early on in my current relationship, and spent a while consciously reminding myself that it wasn't necessary, because most reasonable people can wait 20 minutes. So I told them about this, and they were aghast that anyone had ever expected this of me. Which was a nice thing, which I also noted.
posted by dizziest at 3:27 PM on November 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Give your brain something else to do. New hobby, new book, learn a language, get into a new TV show, take up sewing, develop an interest in your local trees. Anything.

One of the most damaging things about terrible relationships like your previous one is how much they shrink you down. You end up devoting all the emotional energy you've got to your partner - trying to anticipate what they'll do, trying to understand why they do it, placating, persuading, yelling at, bracing yourself against whatever they're going to launch at you next. And once you're out of that relationship, your brain still wants to runs in the grooves that have been carved out for it. So: give it something else to do. Remind it that you are more than your awful relationship, that there are all sorts of strands of your identity that aren't about that. Remind yourself that you are capable of making good judgements, and you'll find it easier to trust your own judgements about future relationships.

Also time helps, and counselling. But right now, just give your brain something else to work on.
posted by Catseye at 3:42 PM on November 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you can be pretty open with your partner. If they're not freaked out by your anxiety, doesn't take it as anything personal, if the two of you can just live with that, without some kind of plan or timeline for "changing" you, then you're in very good shape. Let it be, and cherish that he let's you be.
posted by spbmp at 4:31 PM on November 5, 2016

I'm going through what sounds like the less intense version of where you're at right now, except I'm poly on top of it, and so the narcissistic relationship ended at the same time my other partner and I were just starting to see where things might go. It's really hard not to transfer your fears from one person on to someone else. I feel that too. I think Catseye is right-- my brain was spending so much time trying to figure out how to make a relationship that was pretty damaging to me work, dammit, that I got used to spending all my mental energy on that. And now even though I don't need to do that with my new partner, the grooves are there and my brain wants to run in those old tracks, which is not healthy or good for either of us. So yes, giving your brain something else to chew on might help, or at least it certainly helps me.

The other thing that really helped me was a friend's perspective. She told me something like, "You have to choose, right now, whether or not to trust this person. It has nothing to do with them, it's all on you," and thinking about it like that totally changed my perspective. Right now, I'm comfortable and okay with my partner because I've chosen to trust them. I've made that decision because I want to be the kind of person who trusts someone else, someone new, not because my partner meets some floating endlessly moving goal of "trustworthy" that I'll totally have confirmation of once I have this bit of information about them... oh wait, not that bit... this next bit... okay, next time for sure...

Reframing trust as a choice in the kind of person I want to be rather than the kind of person I want them to be was amazingly healing. It gives me room to fail and not blame myself. It leaves room for that person to be the worst, nastiest piece of work in the world (in which case, my ass will be gone as soon as I realize that's what they are). But if that happens, I haven't failed: how could I, when I was exactly the kind, generous, trusting, caring person I wanted to be?

I hope maybe that helps a little.
posted by WidgetAlley at 5:35 PM on November 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

I also know that maybe I entered this relationship too fast and did not mean to get into one.

Well, you said it first so it's probably true. You may be moving too quickly. Not to poop on your pancakes, but it's likely that you are projecting a lot onto this new guy who may certainly be a very nice person, but he may not quite be the knight in shining armor you're suggesting. It's not uncommon to project heavenly qualities onto a person who treats you well after being with someone who didn't; it's really pretty normal -- it's just not healthy.

I'd suggest you slow your roll a bit, which isn't easy. Your new guy is just a guy so be careful that you're attributing stuff to him that may not quite be accurate, because it's going to sting like hell when you see he has the same clay feet as everyone else.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:46 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

My question: If you have come out of an abusive relationship, how did you separate the trauma from legitimate doubts about a new relationship? Secondary question: How did you get over being triggered all the time?

The answers to both of your questions will change depending on who you ask, because we all have different threads of experience that make up the fabric of our lives. In my case, I was single and in therapy for a long time to work everything out without the confusion of two relationships coexisting in my head. I read a lot of Pema Chodron, Harriet Lerner and Mary Oliver. I worked out my relationship to the trauma and the triggers, because those are a kind of relationship. Once I had that mostly sorted out, I met my partner by chance, and by chance he has a similar history, so he understood. I'm not saying this is the "right" way - it's just the way it happened in my life, and everyone is different.

It's not like you work everything out completely, either - things I thought I worked out spiral back with a different flavor, and it's like, "Oh, hello [trigger], thanks for teaching me, okay I've learned my lesson - you can leave now." I'm lucky that my SO is so understanding, but one thing I've had to keep in mind is that my relationship is something to protect, and that's up to me. It's up to me to be aware that the relationship isn't collateral damage from the previous bad experiences.

Your questions are complicated and are exactly what one would see a therapist for. If there were quick answers, there would be no therapists because they'd all be out of work. I know "see a therapist" is kind of a stock answer on Ask and I don't mean to be flip at all. I'm suggesting therapy because therapy allows you to really explore your relationship to the trauma and the triggers. They need time and attention in order to resolve for you in your life. People can offer responses, but the answer is different for everyone. My response to these based on my experience is different because my trauma is not your trauma, and my triggers aren't your triggers.

Having said that, what strikes me about your questions is how astute they are. You already know that trauma from your past is creating a filter in your present, and distorting it. That's where you start. You're intelligent, motivated and self reflective. You'll get through this. Remember that what is illuminated by the light of awareness cannot live in the darkness. Your awareness of what triggers you will help keep you from running on auto-pilot when the trigger hits. A therapist can help you identify triggers, deal with them in the moment, and help you with strategies for calming the anxiety. It's difficult, but eventually you hit a point where it's a dull ache that you expect and can deal with calmly, instead of a stabbing pain that takes you by surprise.

I think the advice above to be gentle with yourself is right on. None of this will be solved all at once or overnight. Best wishes. MeMailme if you like.
posted by onecircleaday at 9:08 AM on November 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

A therapist or other trained mental health professional might be a really helpful resource for you right now.
posted by lazuli at 8:37 PM on November 6, 2016

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