A painful past has a gravity all its own, and it can pull us down if we’re not careful. It sometimes seems old memories and old patterns assert themselves in the present. This is especially true in romantic relationships. Often a painful past gives us a lens to view that world that is distrustful of others, scared of vulnerability, and highly prioritizes control in relationships.
These three tendencies in relationships come from a good place; they all helped us navigate past experiences that may have been traumatic, unsafe, or deeply painful. It’s a way that your brain is trying to keep you safe. If you have been abused in the past, you may find it very difficult to trust new people. If you were betrayed by a partner, your instinct may be to avoid vulnerability and “opening up” in order to avoid being hurt again. If you had chaotic times in your past and did not feel safe and secure within your family, you may seek out ways to feel in control in relationships. Here’s how to tackle these three challenges in romantic relationships.
Trust Issues: Separate the Past from the Present
It’s normal to find it difficult to trust people when you have been hurt, abused, or betrayed in the past. Your brain sees you getting close to your girlfriend or boyfriend and screams out ‘danger!’ because it doesn’t want you to get hurt all over again. You brain is doing what it should be doing; mining your past experiences to predict the future and keep you healthy and well.
However, it can go overboard. Your current partner is a totally different person than whomever hurt you in the past. You need to remind yourself that the past is over, and while your new partner could hurt you, you can look at their present behavior to make the determination if they are safe or not. Try to notice the biggest differences between your current partner and anyone that betrayed your trust. Take care to notice when they do things that are trustworthy, like being dependable or following-through with a promise.
Difficulty being vulnerable: Learn to open up slowly
After a traumatic or painful past, we quickly learn that vulnerability can be used against us. Usually we decide to not be vulnerable again (consciously or unconsciously). This leads to a difficulty opening up to others; this means it’s hard to share parts of ourselves that are private, or things we might feel embarrassed about. Usually all of these things are very normal and human (like making mistakes, having bad habits or carrying around emotional scars). Nevertheless, it’s very hard to be vulnerable with a new relationship if you have had a painful past.
The hard truth is, vulnerability is the pathway to true intimacy and creating a strong foundation for a relationship. The upside is vulnerability begets vulnerability from others; if you’re willing to open up, your partner will be as well, and the two of you will form a deeper and safe bond.
If you find it difficult to be vulnerable, start with small steps. Share something with your partner that isn’t painful, but silly or embarrassing (your first crush perhaps? Or those awful prom pictures that we all have locked away somewhere). This will allow you to build up to more sharing and openness.
Learning to let go of control
After a painful past, most people learn to prioritize control in their lives and in their relationships. This is a way to try to protect ourselves. It’s not a bad thing to be in control of your life, but in relationships if you can’t have a healthy balance and always need to be in control it can lead to unhealthy dynamics and hurt feelings. A healthy relationship has some give-and-take and the two partners can compromise.
If you’re a control freak, don’t be discouraged. Recognize that this may be a valiant attempt to protect yourself from being hurt or taken advantage of. Begin to let go of small things in the relationship and try to be more flexible. If you feel out of control and this is scary, ask your partner for some validation and reassurance that everything will be ok.
Tackling these challenges-learning to trust, to be vulnerable, and to let go of some control-will lead to healthier, happier relationships in spite of a painful past.
This is a guest post from Erin Carpenter, LCSW who practices at Thrive Counseling in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in helping her clients move on from painful pasts to create fulfilling and healthy futures. You can learn more about her here.