Handling left over trauma in a new relationship
September 27, 2021 12:19 PM   Subscribe

I am two years out of an emotionally abusive marriage and about one year into a much healthier partnership. I still sometimes react (more so emotionally, less so outwardly) as if my partner is my ex husband. Give me tips on how to get through these reactions, and tell about how you healed from relationship trauma and how long it took?

Sorry, this is long.

I am two years out of a truly shitty decade-long marriage where it only becomes more clear how shitty it was the farther out that I get. I was gaslit, ignored, condescended to, lied to, and generally emotionally abused. I was never physically abused, but was occasionally scared that I would be. Before that my childhood was... not great. Not straight up abusive, but I was queer in a family intent on making sure that we, as kids, fit in so we could get ahead in life, with parents who, despite meaning well, were authoritarian and emotionally distant because of their own traumas. I have been in therapy continually since a year before my divorce, so about three years now. I have made so much progress and am so much happier than I was before. I started an SSRI for anxiety this spring, and that has also been incredibly helpful, and has improved my quality of life significantly.

However: relationships can still be so hard sometimes. I have a wonderful partner who is trying the best she can, and who is understanding as I try to work through things related to my past marriage and childhood. But simple things continue to trigger me into feeling like I'm back in my past marriage even though I'm not, and even though my current partner is not my ex, and is being entirely reasonable.

Take for example this week: my partner is travelling for work for the first time since we started dating. When my ex travelled, he would be gone for a week at work conferences, would text incredibly sporadically, and go out drinking every night. He would come home hungover, having gotten four hours of sleep all week, and would be out of commission for the rest of that weekend. I got a feeling of dread in my stomach when my partner first brought up the idea of travelling for work, but after talking it through with her, and her reassuring me that she wouldn't just vanish for a week like my ex had when he was travelling, I felt much better about the idea. Now that she's actually travelling, though, having started out this morning, that feeling of dread starts to creep into my stomach again. And she has been mostly quiet, only sending me a single picture of where she's working, despite the fact that I've reached out to her a couple times. I know that she's just busy, and will probably fill me in on what's been going on when she's done with her work day, but I can't help worrying that she won't. That I'm not going to hear from her all week, just like with my ex.

Needing constant reassurance when a partner is travelling (and when we often go without texting for longer than that!) doesn't feel... reasonable. And I don't know what to do about it. I know that I am being triggered by this, and I am trying to distract myself with work, but. This feels awful. And it is requiring a lot of work and self-soothing to keep myself from melting down. Which again, feels unreasonable and outsized given the current situation. She's just busy, and she's often busy like this when she's not travelling and at work, and I'm fine with that. I feel like I am back in my marriage again and I'm so sick of feeling like this and reacting like this. Sick of overreacting like this, because this is only the most recent event I've reacted to like this in a long list. So many things seem to send me into this spiral, and I'm two years out of this marriage. I've handled some better than others, and I want to get better about handling them in general. And also hear about other people's experiences with handling and healing from this kind of... trauma, I guess.

I have an appointment with my therapist tomorrow and will absolutely talk with her about this then, but until then, can you tell me your tips for handling this kind of oversized response without melting down making unreasonable requests of my current partner? She's been incredibly understanding, as I've said before, and generally agrees to what I ask of her, but this is her first longish term relationship and I don't want to ask too much of her, especially when she's travelling, which I know is stressful to her because of COVID.
posted by bridgebury to Human Relations (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's really important to understand that you can melt down and have your own emotional event without making any requests of your partner at all. You can feel whatever you feel but your feelings don't compell you to make demands of someone else to help you mitigate or manage those feelings, or make doing so appropriate.

You're doing a good job recognizing your feelings and that's to be commended. Remind yourself that you are safe, and that in this moment, everything is okay.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:31 PM on September 27, 2021 [23 favorites]

i have definitely experienced what you are experiencing. i had lived experiences with partner 1. when that ended and i joined partner 2, it was VERY hard for me to not superimpose my previous relationship on the new one. xyz happened in relationship 1, so of course it would happen in relationship 2. it took a lot of me reminding myself that 2 wasn't 1 and wouldn't behave in a certain way just because 1 did. and, this anxiety got better after i had more time/lived experience with partner 2. i was in relationship 1 for 11 years, and honestly it took me about 5 years to be past that anxiety.

since this is your partner's first work trip, it totally makes sense you're experiencing anxiety based on the behavior of your previous partner. and good on you for realizing that that is the case! your partner is likely quite busy. but if you chat tonight it might be helpful to let them know of your past lived experience and let them know that you KNOW they are busy, but it would really help you to get a text or two throughout the day, while they're in line for the bathroom or whatever. (i have done similar, and it worked out well. delivery is of course important.)
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:46 PM on September 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: To a certain extent this is going to happen... maybe forever? So it's definitely a good idea to lay down some coping strategies now. Kudos on that! You're recognizing what's happening and, at least on a conscious level, reacting to it as what it is (leftover trauma) instead of what it feels like (a recurrence of abusive patterns). That's all really good.

I realize "maybe forever" is probably not what you wanted to hear! And of course everyone is different, and also I haven't lived forever yet so what do I know. But I can say that unfortunately it's possible for shit to get triggered in ways you didn't expect 20 years or more down the line. Brains love to do this embarrassing shit!

I have found it's SUPER helpful to name it out loud to my partner—like, I know you're not X person, but my whole nervous system is reacting like you are, due to all these bad structures I built up out of necessity, and here are the things that you can do that might help. You also want to be able to show that you're working to deal with it, of course, not just dumping it in their lap, but you clearly are! It is FINE to say "I have a lot of anxiety around this specifically, and that's not your fault and I know it's not your fault, but I can't tell you how much better I would feel if you could commit to texting me once a day when you get back to your hotel room." I know she hasn't even gotten to her room yet today and you're already worried, so obviously there would still be work for you and your therapist to do during the hours when she's busy and can't communicate, but for me specifically even formulating the request helps because it puts things out in the open. I kind of hate admitting that old people and patterns have as much influence on my current emotions as they do, so I often don't do this and just struggle, which is how I know it feels much better to just get it out on the table!

And that said, having acknowledged that I hate it and find it embarrassing... try not to beat yourself up too much about it. Honestly, feeling bad for having feelings is part of the trauma response. It's tiresome but normal to react in the ways you've been trained to react, even if they're miscalibrated, until you get a chance to learn a new way. We're all just dogs sniffing under the bush where we found a piece of chicken one time. Being conscious of what's happening and enlisting your therapist are probably the best actions you can take, but beyond that, give some gentleness to your foolish dog brain.
posted by babelfish at 1:23 PM on September 27, 2021 [21 favorites]

We're all just dogs sniffing under the bush where we found a piece of chicken one time.

I love this and it’s so true. I have found that this is just how post-divorce relationships are and you have to kind of take a step back from your own baggage and also your partner’s and hopefully your partner does too, and you both realize that you have to simultaneously get a grip on your own needs, ask for reasonable accommodations for the part you need help with, and be willing to accommodate your new partner’s crap. It’s okay. It’s human. No shame, but at the same time try to handle your own shit as much as possible. It’s hard! But it’s also kind of nice, you know, just giving each other room to be a little broken.
posted by HotToddy at 1:43 PM on September 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

First of all, please don't beat yourself up for not being full recovered from a terrible ten-marriage in a year or two! I think you have stress and anxiety talking in your ear right now, saying some pretty terrible things. I think you might be having an attachment crisis, scared that you are losing your partner, which has activated your stress response system and releasing all these stress hormones in you (like fight or flight). This is a real emotional crisis for you.

First, I think you need to try to use up some of those stress hormones in your body, because you are having a physical reaction ( like you are in physical danger from a lion attacking or whatever) to an emotional upset. Moving your muscles and your body is going to help a lot. So, some things you can do: go up and down the stairs; do some jumping jacks; take a very brisk walk; go for a bike ride; do push ups; vacuum or clean with great gusto. If you are stuck sitting in a chair, then squeeze and relax your firsts (my therapist says, "Squeeze and breathe"). Contract and relax your muscles. This might sound like woo, but I think it will help your body start processing all of these hormones surging through you right now.

Next, I think it's great that you recognize your reactions right now might be more about your past experience and trauma rather than your partner's behavior. I also think it's time to figure out what other resources you have. Actually, you are doing that: you came here! So, now, what are other things you can do? How do you keep busy during times of stress or anxiety? Do you have a friend you can call? A family member who wants to chat about their favorite TV show? A neighbor who needs help in the yard? I think that you probably learned some healthy distractions and coping mechanisms during your marriage and divorce, and it's time to use them. You can either call a friend to talk about this, or distract yourself -- either might go a long way to work right now! Make plans for this evening to be busy. Don't drink alcohol, if that's something you usually do. Also, put your phone someplace where you can't check it easily.

If you can't make plans with someone else, I still want you to do something physical to get those stress hormones moving out of your system. Then, I think it would be good to journal. It's okay to cry and stress and scream. Writing things down (preferably by hand) can be an incredibly good way to process all these overwhelming and very big emotions. And yeah, leave your phone in the other room, so you're not staring at it endlessly.

Good luck. And please know this: you are growing right now. You are having a really stressful experience that you know, intellectually, is not nearly as threatening as it feels emotionally. When you get through it, you will know better how to manage it if it happens again.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:01 PM on September 27, 2021 [9 favorites]

I feel a lot of this, and with much less reason. That is, a relationship of three months + a year of covid had me turning my phone notifications off because of how my heart would jump each time it dinged. And I found myself absolutely blasting myself with stimulation to compensate. So that's just me saying, you're ok.

My only piece of maybe good input: jumping rope is amazingly efficient at modifying my brain cycles. It's also sweaty making and difficult, but the change in emotions per minute engaged is amazing for me. There was also a recent AskMe about anxiety excercises that introduced me to ice-water face dunking (mammalian diving reaction) that was a godsend.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 2:24 PM on September 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

You're doing a good job recognizing your feelings and that's to be commended. Remind yourself that you are safe, and that in this moment, everything is okay.

Yep, agreed. You are doing well! And it's hard!

I think what can be helpful in this kind of thing is realizing that your anxious brain is looking for ways to MAKE THE PAIN STOP when what you may need to do here is wait, and then when you and your partner are together again, see if you can set something up so that you won't find her travel so triggering but she won't also have to be the soother all the time. So thinking about what you can do while you are waiting that won't make things worse. Lose yourself in television or hobbies or get some exercise or whatever self-care stuff is comforting to you.

So like I am an anxious mess a lot of the time but my partner is nicely reliable and simultaneously supportive while also not trying to be my therapist or be the person who I can dump all my FEELINGS on (though some of them, certainly). What works for me/us is that we have a routine. I really like routines, they make me feel safe and stable. He's not really that into them for his sake but he knows they are important to me so things like "Hey text me when you wake up" are part of our routine. And then my part of it (I wake up earlier, we do not live together) is not to greet his texts with OH HI GREAT YOU'RE UP I THINK I HAVE COVID BECAUSE MY THROAT ITCHES and dump all my pent up anxieties on him.

Which is to say, I manage my own anxiety, but he helps by understanding what can be hard for me (being out of touch for a long time) and we work out something together. So like with your partner's travel, maybe when she gets home from this trip you set up a routine that she texts you before she goes to bed or you guys zoom for 15 minutes or something. Something small and manageable even for someone on a trip.

And really, I know it feels THE WORST, but sometimes you just need to get used to sit with this feeling, interrogate it and maybe learn from it a little, and think about what might help you feel better next time, because this time is just going to be what it is right now. And you will be okay.
posted by jessamyn at 3:40 PM on September 27, 2021 [7 favorites]

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