It’s common knowledge that bad experiences in childhood can cause serious problems later in life. Abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, substance abuse and other serious “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) impact everything from brain development, learning and mental health to migraines, cancer and autoimmune disease.
But if you ask me, the worst damage from ACEs shows up in the ways we seek and create romantic relationships — the unavailable people, the people we just met, the addicts, the flakes and the total jerks to whom we end up deeply attached. We date them. We marry them. We have children with them. We fight them, and leave them, or get left by them, and then become desperate to make them come back, or stay away. We live long stretches of our lives lonely and trapped.
I would know. As someone with an ACE score of 8, I fit one of the classic profiles of adults who grew up around alcoholism and addiction. I was the responsible kid, helping with younger children, earning money, getting straight A’s at school, maintaining close ties with my girlfriends. But when boys came into the picture I degenerated very quickly, becoming depressed, irresponsible, overweight and obsessed. I was still a high achiever, which helped me look “OK” despite the roller coaster ride around relationships that continued throughout out much of my adult life. My recovery was spotty and gradual at first, and normal-people solutions like therapy and self-help books didn’t help.
When I figured out what did help, everything changed. And now I teach other people with Childhood PTSD how they can cut the drama and recover too.
Crappy Romance Is Less Mysterious Than You Think
It turned out it the underlying problem (for me, and you can decide for yourself if you are similar to me) had three parts. First, like most people with Childhood PTSD, my brain became easily dysregulated and this made me emotionally reactive at times; I came off as a little too needy or a little too mean. Second, I had some serious gaps where my attachment mechanism was supposed to be, and so being single was really stressful, so I tended to rush in. But then getting out of relationships was almost unbearable, even when I didn’t like the other person. Finally, I had a messy sense of right and wrong, with conflicting ideas about love, sex, courtship, responsibility, expectations, self-care and how a person like me should comport herself.
I don’t know why, but the ACEs literature doesn’t say much about dating, sex and marriage. Expert opinions tend to be focused on things they can help you fix. And God knows it’s just about impossible to help another person who is stuck in a negative relationship pattern. Yet the partnering part of us gets SO damaged by early trauma, and healing has the potential to completely change the course of our lives.
How Change Begins
Of the many miracles in my life, the one that changed my life the most happened on the day I stopped having crap relationships. At the time, I had no idea why the same old hurtful, humiliating problems kept happening. In fact they were getting worse, and I couldn’t make it stop, even when other things in my life were going well.
Admitting that my old ideas and behaviors were not working (at all) was the very first thing I did that opened the door to transformation. If you’ve ever had to admit this kind of horrible failure, you know how the first several seconds or so are like dying. But very quickly a new feeling fills you up — a sense of surrender, of peace.. and then (thank God!) possibility and even hope. Everything at this point depends on your willingness to get real and take action and then keep taking action.
Take it from me; negative patterns are very sticky. They’re hard to get rid of, and even when they’re gone, they try like hell to come back.
When signs of improvement began to be visible in my life, friends started to ask me how I did it. I took their calls and taught them my techniques and soon was sharing my principles with their friends, who’d call because they heard I could help break their trauma patterns. In 2016 I started this blog to share my techniques with more people, and in June released an online course, Healing Childhood PTSD. I teach people how to identify the emotional dysregulation that stems from Childhood PTSD, and then to re-regulate so that behavior change becomes possible. In February 2019, I released Dating and Relationships for People with Childhood PTSD, which builds on the first course.
In a regulated state, it becomes possible to de-program yourself. That’s a strong word, I know — but deprogramming is exactly what has to happen when we’ve gotten stuck in an unconscious, repetitive and destructive cycle of behaviors.
Behaviors are (at least partly) driven by beliefs, and when we have Childhood PTSD, a lot of our beliefs came from trauma experiences. Trauma beliefs are cultural, they’re family-learned, and they’re reinforced by our friends (who likely also have unhealed Childhood PTSD). We usually know what we’re doing wrong, and we can try to make ourselves “act normal,” but this kind of symptom-fix is usually only temporary.
Real change demands that we identify those trauma-driven beliefs and begin to replace them. Normal people seem to just know this stuff, but those of us programmed by trauma usually need stronger, clearer guidelines that may feel (at first) counter-cultural, unnatural, even radical. But that is how to deprogram and then reprogram yourself. And it works.
Here are ten common, trauma-driven beliefs, followed by an explanation of how they ruin your relationship life. Switch genders as needed, to see if they apply to you.
- “I attract unavailable men.” It’s not a problem, actually, whom we attract. I attract mosquitoes, right? But I don’t sleep with them. The problem is when we are attracted to unavailable people, whether it’s because they’re married, addicted, immature, not into your gender, or just plain not into you. If it happens once it’s a terrible disappointment. If it happens all the time, it’s blocking you from any real kind of love. We’re often attracted to people who are — whether we see it or not — about the same as ourselves. It’s we who may not be available for the intensity, risk and responsibility of being in real, mutual relationship — especially what with all the dysregulated emotions. Taking the blame off other people for our actions is the first step of deprogramming.
- “Sex is how you find out of you’re compatible.” In the post-sexual revolution world, this is completely accepted by most people I know as the way it is. But for people with Childhood PTSD, sex is more often how we bond with people who are not compatible. Then we waste years trying to retroactively turn them into the person we hoped they were in the first place. Recovery sometimes demands that we live by a different, more careful set of rules that help us avoid the same old mistakes, even when our best thinking is offline.
- “I am always exactly where I’m supposed to be.” I do get the basic idea, that even hard times can help us grow. But it can also be a rationalization used by people in abusive, rejecting or intolerable relationships to explain why they can’t or won’t leave, and to perpetuate a fantasy of being loved on an unseen level. Other variations include “but we had this incredible past life together” or “God told me to just love him through this” or “we’re here to learn a lesson from each other.” It’s very difficult for most people to face the truth of their lives, especially when they’re in a rut. Having a trusted mentor in this area can help us avoid our old mental traps.
- “He was hurt before, and I think that’s why he’s afraid of commitment.” Whatever a person’s history, if they are unable or unwilling to commit, there it is. Understanding (or guessing at) the source of their feelings still won’t get you loved. Moving on is sometimes the most direct route to finding love.
- “She had a lot of childhood trauma, and that’s why she self-medicates.” Here’s the truth: All alcoholism or addiction is self-medication (except in nearly implausible cases where drugs were forced or given to a helpless person for a long time). Whatever you call it, serious drinking/using make a person unreliable, limited in terms of intimacy, and not a good dating prospect. When it’s a close family member or spouse that’s got substance problems, there are more compelling reasons to stay in their lives, but either way, you may want to consider going to Al-Anon.
- “I realized my ex is an abusive narcissist, and I want to send him this book I found on Amazon about abusive narcissists.” I know, I know, it’s so hard to stop “fixing” people a a means to gain control over an out-of-control situation. But if you are diagnosing an ex as a sick and terrible person and you think you you should spend money on him and make contact in order to help him, your trauma brain is doing the thinking. Being honest with a mentor has the power to break the spell and set you free to keep living your life without the jerk.
- “We’re just friends.” There are in fact “ex” or future-romantic relationships where this is true. But there are many where a) one person is pining away for the other and is too scared to declare their feelings because it would be icky to the other person; or b) one or both of you are using the other to fill up time until real love shows up, pretending that the new significant other(s) will love these “friends” too. Which they almost certainly won’t. It’s all a crappy dynamic that delays your healing and puts up an “I’m not available” force field around you. People who would make good partners can intuitively sense the force field and they stay away. The only ones who get through are the unavailable ones. And the jerks.
- “I need closure.” This makes sense to the trauma-driven mind, but in real life, it means “I want an excuse to reconnect.” You know what I will say.
- “She is toxic.” There is toxic stress and toxic emotion, but the concept of a toxic person is not real. It seems that way when you resent someone, and lack the inner balance to deal with them without getting emotionally dysregulated. It is more realistic to acknowledge that you have a toxic reaction because you’re not strong enough (yet) to stay calm around a particular person, or to stay away from them altogether. The best strategy is to work on that.
- “There are no good men (women, marriages, etc.).” I used to think this, that all the good men were taken and I’d better just stay stuck in a crappy relationship. Now I’m sorry I wasted so many years on this kind of trauma-driven thinking, pushing good relationships away, filling up my life with bad relationships, wondering why on earth this kept happening.
Now I know, and it’s helped me grow happy, enter into a solid marriage, and enjoy a fulfilling life.
Anna (the Fairy)
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