Sometimes, relationship problems fly under the radar, but other times we deliberately look the other way. Here, we’re breaking down why we do this and explore what happens when we face tension head-on
As well as traumatic things that happen to you – like physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, or the betrayal of your trust via an affair – trauma in relationships also includes what isn’t happening, and examples include a lack of attunement, emotional unavailability in the other person, and no safe container for your emotions and experiences. Sometimes they go unnoticed, sometimes they are ignored.
You might be familiar with tolerating, even denying, some degree of trauma so that your relationship can continue as it is. For example, it may have become characterised more by criticism, complaint, and resentment than the love you want, but you shield yourself from what’s really going on, or just ‘get on with it’. Which begs the question…
Why do we do this?
An answer might be found in each of three important parts of you:
When you attach to someone, this part can get triggered at the thought of the relationship ending. Because your fear ensures your survival, it can make a potential ending feel like a life or death situation. If your body believes your survival is at risk by moving on to an uncertain future, it’s easy to understand why you’ll tolerate distress to avoid it. That said, the longer you stay, the more fearful you become, the more your trust and self-esteem drain away, and the tighter you grip the relationship. You’re caught in a vicious circle.
This includes your innate drives to acquire more possessions, status, money, sex, and to ‘win’. These are powerful motivators, and some of the main reasons humans have been in existence for so long. Reward can make status, wealth, a great sex life, and a need not to ‘lose’, ‘fail’ or look ‘less than’ others, compelling reasons to stay – despite you rarely actually feeling good.
3. Connection and love
Love is presumably where you’d hope to spend most of your time in a relationship, but, an ending – whether of the relationship or your trauma denial – might lead to you experiencing grief; love with nowhere to go. Grief is one of the most painful feelings and it’s understandable that we, therefore, try to avoid feeling it. You’ll of course be driven to accept, forgive, and empathise with and be selfless when you love someone. These are all great, loving qualities.
Taken too far though, they’ll overlook and accept problems and put empathy for the other person above empathy for yourself. Knowing your loved one has such potential for growth also leads to living in hope that they might eventually see and hear you one day, even without any real evidence it’s happening.
With such a range of compelling parts in play, you can understand why you might endure, or deny, relationship trauma. A compassionate view of yourself is key here, because any frustration, or shame, you feel towards yourself for doing it simply leads to more fear and therefore more rigidity, making you cling even tighter.
Try to couple this empathetic understanding with an awareness that continuously tolerating emotional distress to maintain the status quo requires the sacrifice of your wellbeing.
So, if you’re now at the point where sacrificing your wellbeing is too great a price to pay? Understandably, you might look to the other person. After all, if they changed it would solve everything. The trouble is, although everyone’s able to change, some are unfortunately unwilling to keep doing the work needed to achieve it.
Pay less attention to the other person and focus more on yourself. Look at managing your fears to realise there’s no one in this world you can’t live without, that you’re deserving of real love and respect in life, and that there are potential partners out there who will agree.
To address the ‘reward’ motivation, become more aware of the values you’re basing your everyday decisions on. You’ll have been told what should be important to you growing up. Of course, prioritise status and wealth above love and contentment if you want to, but know it’s not possible to achieve sustained happiness if you give over your gold in exchange for glitter in this way.
The key part to put your thought, feeling, body and behavioural energy into now though, is connection and love: connection with self, with nurturing and supporting others, and with the environment around you. For your thoughts, think about the qualities of love and ensure that’s how you’re treating yourself. You wouldn’t stay in a relationship where you weren’t getting the love you deserved if you always treated yourself lovingly, and were attuned and emotionally available to yourself.
For feelings, get to know what love feels like in your body. If you’re going to make a change to feel better, you need to be experiencing feelings like love, excitement, joy, and aliveness elsewhere in life. Change will be unlikely if you don’t deeply, bodily, know and feel what you’re missing if the relationship remains as it is. Make sure your imagination, your body and behaviours, are all attending to creating, cultivating, and connecting in any way you can.
Connection and self-love are going to be a real struggle for anyone who’s been traumatised, so be patient and kind to yourself while you keep trying and trusting. The more you connect, the more ‘calm and alive’ you’ll feel, and the more you’ll be able to hold boundaries and communicate your needs in a relationship. It will happen. Maybe it’ll mean the end of a relationship, maybe it’ll mean it changes for the better. Either way, you’ll be less likely to sit, caught in a place that no longer serves you, next to someone who may be better left untrusted.
If you'd like to find out more about relationships, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.