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How to Heal from the Trauma of Previous Relationships

Our past impacts our present every day, but it’s how we react to those reoccurrences that matters.

It was a Thursday night. My partner was heading out the next day on a business trip, and we wouldn’t see each other for a good two weeks. After dinner, he drove us to a Redbox to rent a movie to close out the night.

He took the turn into the Walgreen’s parking lot too sharply and smacked into the curb. The car made a grinding noise as he pulled into the first parking spot, and we got out to assess the damage. His front right tire was definitely flat. When he got it off, it’d actually been punctured.

He got to working while I stood watching, sometimes helping out by turning the crank on the jack, holding the flashlight of my phone to help him see in the dark, or keeping track of the lug nuts.

It was a little over 30 degrees with persistent drizzly rain. It was cold, but I found myself quaking. Not shivering, but quaking. I breathed quickly and shallowly.

He sat back on his heels, rubbed his arms because he’d just worked them out that day, and said, “Wow. This is so frustrating.”

I held my breath for him to finish that sentence with something else.

I was poised for him to yell at me.

I was waiting for him to throw something, kick the tire or the car, and mutter obscenities. I was waiting to look at the drivers of other cars driving by with a little closed-lip smile that would say something like, “Oh, he’s just acting like a big baby, isn’t he!”

I was waiting to swallow it and take it, whatever it would be.

Yet the “it,” confusingly, never came.

When the tire was finally fixed, my partner and I went and rented a movie.

Driving back to his house, I said, “Thanks for not yelling at me.”

“Yelling at you?” he sputtered. “Why on earth would I have yelled at you?”

“Because…I don’t know…because you were so frustrated or it was harder than you thought or it was cold?”

“How were those things YOUR fault? I’M the one who popped the tire. Why would I have taken that out on you?”

I paused and then said, “That’s what my ex-husband would have done.”

That’s what I was bracing for while we both stood out in the cold. For another man to do what he’d always done to me for nearly 10 years: to scream, throw things, blame me. My current partner turned and looked at me. “Really??!? Why?

“Because he…just would,” I said.

Later, after we were cuddled up watching the movie, I felt so relieved and grateful that I hadn’t been mistreated, that here we were, still having a nice date night, that I said yet again, “Thank you so much for not yelling at me.”

“Of course!” he said. “You know that’s not normal, right?”

“Yes…” I said, trailing off.

The thing about being in an emotionally abusive relationship for so many years is that was my normal. Couple that with the fact that I’d been raised by an abusive mother, my “normal” meter was very very skewed.

It took me a lot of time to work through my feelings on that previous relationship, to even begin to heal from it.

Relationship expert Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT, CRS, CMFSW calls this “post-traumatic relationship syndrome” or PTRS.

This is a “newly proposed mental health syndrome that occurs subsequent to the experience of trauma in an intimate relationship. It includes the intrusive and arousal symptoms of [PTSD], but lacks the avoidance symptoms… due to a very different mode of coping with the traumatized state from that which is characteristic of individuals with PTSD.”

PTRS can exhibit itself in the following ways:

  • Feeling afraid of making another commitment and/or falling impulsively into another unhealthy relationship.

  • Feeling distrusting in new relationships, both of yourself and your choices and of your new partner.

  • Feeling worthless, unconfident, and/or anxious.

  • Having intrusive, reoccurring thoughts along with flashbacks and nightmares.

“Many people with [trauma] have flashbacks from times where the relationship was painful and distressing, [or] nightmares associated with themes of the relationship,” clinical psychologist Dr. Paul DePompo says.

“You become on hyper-alert for the things you endured and feeling they can happen again at any moment, you can get bouts of intense anger or sadness, you can get waves of doubting yourself and taking too much of the responsibility for what happened.”

Some healing can’t happen until you’re in a new relationsip. That’s why these issues came up in the beginning with the partner who became my current husband.

There are some positive steps I and anyone else struggling with coming out of a previously traumatic relationship can do to heal:

1. Seeking help from a mental health professional and knowing it will take time.

These issues for me didn’t happen in just one night, and neither did they go away overnight. I had to actively work to heal the wounds I had with the help of a professional and in practicing new skills with my partner. Contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness for low-cost or free resources to help you.

2. Affirming that you aren’t the same.

I am not the same insecure and scared 23-year-old woman who chose my ex-husband. I was 34 when this recall happened. Since then, I’ve done a lot of growing and healing that I can be joyful about today.

3. Affirming that other people are not the same as your abusive ex.

Because I am and was no longer the same person that chose my ex-husband, I could start to trust that my current partner was not the same as him either. If I’m healthier, I’m going to select a healthier partner, which I (gratefully) did.

4. Staying positive.

Relationships are challenging, regardless of how healthy we come into them. It’s extremely courageous to love, to be open and vulnerable with someone who also has the ability to cut us to our core.

It’s important to remain positive as things can continue to come up. Remember to continue to love despite how hard it can be.

For a time, it was important for me to focus on the positive experiences I had with my current partner, to recognize, “Hey, my partner didn’t freak out on me(!!) because the tire went flat!” That helped me build trust based on that foundation.

Our past impacts our present every day, but it’s how we react to those reoccurrences that matter. Will we work on healing, or will we just keep reenacting the same patterns over and over again? I have worked hard to be whole, to wholly love, and to be wholly loved. I hope the same for you.

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