Moving Through Trauma from Past Toxic Relationships
By: Leah Hovey
Maybe you were cheated on, or in an abusive relationship. Maybe there was gaslighting, manipulation or controlling behaviours you had to endure within the relationship. Whatever the case may be, the effects those traumas have on an individual do not always just ‘go away’ once the relationship ends (Johnson, 2019). Toxic relationships can damage individuals involved severely. The scars we get from toxic relationships can affect how we see ourselves, how we react partners, and how we navigate future relationships.
As someone who was in not one, but multiple, toxic relationships, I know it can be challenging to move on from the trauma. I have experienced trauma from my past relationships and burdened my current, healthy relationships. After being cheated on by all of my past partners I have had to really work on myself to fix my trust issues. Even though my current partner has given me no reason to distrust him, the little voice in the back of my mind constantly reminds me that I am not good enough and cheating will happen again.
I have done quite a bit of therapeutic work to move through the trauma so I do not take this out on him. I have to remind myself that just because my past relationships have not been successful, it does not mean my current partner will be like them. I have had to learn to ignore the doubts in my head and focus on who my partner is right now. It hasn’t been easy, but I have come a long way from where I was years ago. But how did I get to this point?
Therapy… and lots of it!
While many individuals may feel as though therapy is not for them, I highly encourage anyone who has suffered from relationship trauma to speak with a professional. Working through my trauma with my therapist helped me learn what aspects of the relationships impacted me. By pin-pointing what specific actions can trigger me helps me within my current relationship, as well as learning to let go of anger.
Remember… your new relationship is not your past relationship!
When an individual goes through trauma, all aspects of their lives are affected, especially when similar situations occur in our daily lives. Opening yourself up to new relationships means going through the beginning stages of a relationship all over again, which can trigger memories from the past. Bridges to Recovery, a mental health institution in L.A. explained how PTSD “can lead to a vicious cycle of the person acting in a negative way in relationships because of PTSD symptoms, which in turn causes loved ones to respond in a negative way, which in turn triggers more of the person’s symptoms” (2020). Sometimes our symptoms include us pushing our partners away, or acting negatively towards them. It can be helpful to put yourself in your new partner’s shoes- it can help you rationalize the situation and work through your uncomfortable feelings. Would I like it if my partner took his anger out on me? What if he treated me negatively because of things his ex did to him? Would the people around me tell me to ignore this behaviour? Understanding that we cannot punish people for others flaws is the first step to moving past the toxicity of a past relationship.
Communicate with your partner!
Relationship trauma can affect a new couple in two ways: it can either strengthen the relationship, or destroy it (Marshall & Kuijer, 2017). Research indicates that a couple can be strengthened by past trauma if communication is open, honest, and healthy. Dr. Jill P. Weber suggests that communicating with your partner about how you were betrayed and what you need in a relationship to feel safe will significantly help moving forward in this new journey (2018). This helps them work WITH you through these moments as opposed to you having to suffer on your own.
Remember… you deserve happiness!
I remember one day feeling very down on myself. I felt sad because all of the self doubts were causing me to question my new relationship. Was there a point in continuing on? Was it fair to my partner to constantly break down over doubts?
As I was thinking all of these things through, I remember blaming my exes for making me this way. I quickly realized how misguided this was. I was letting the past actions of those individuals get the better of me and influence my opinion of myself, causing me to ruin something that was potentially good for me. I deserve to be happy. I did not deserve to be hurt or put in those situations- but I can recover - because I deserve a healthy relationship. This thought process really helped me to reframe my whole outlook on my relationships. Hopefully, it will for you too.
Johnson, A. (2019). Precis: The Effects of Traumatic and Abusive Relationships. Peer Relationships.
Marshall, E. M., & Kuijer, R. G. (2017). Weathering the storm? The impact of trauma on romantic relationships. Current opinion in psychology, 13, 54-59.
PTSD and Relationships. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2020, from https://www.bridgestorecovery.com/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/ptsd-and-relationships/
Weber, J. P., Ph.D. (2018, February 07). When Past Romantic Trauma Damages Your Current Relationship [Web log post]. Retrieved May 07, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/having-sex-wanting-intimacy/201802/when-past-romantic-trauma-damages-your-current-relationship