You did it. You ended your unhealthy relationship.
You grieved. You celebrated.
You spent time healing and growing in new directions.
You started a new, healthier relationship.
Suddenly, familiar feelings reminiscent of your past relationship begin bubbling to the surface, permeating your experience like an unwelcome guest.
Trauma is complex. It can lay dormant in our bodies for an unspecified amount of time, deceiving us about our beliefs surrounding our healing processes. One day – without warning, a sound, smell, or phrase unearths something uncomfortable that leaves us feeling vulnerable, confused, and afraid. This type of occurrence that leaves our bodies or brains feeling threatened or emotionally distressed can be referred to as a trigger.
When entering a new relationship (of any kind) after an unhealthy or abusive one, survivors are often triggered by the trauma of our past experiences. Because trauma lives in our bodies, our brain can signal these past triggers to us as threats to keep us safe. Even when we are in a healthy relationship. Even when there is no real threat to us.
Sometimes we cannot even recognize that we are responding to triggers in a way that is sabotaging a new relationship because our behaviors have been so engrained in us, making it hard to stop. Remember: self-sabotage is usually a defense mechanism.
Although it can seem daunting to exit the loop of self-sabotage, when we identify what is causing our behaviors, we can begin to address them productively through conversations with our partners, support systems, and mental health professionals in ways that honor our experiences and healing.
Below are some signs of self-sabotage in relationships, along with actionable strategies to address these behaviors.
- Being Overly Critical
After an unhealthy or abusive relationship, the likelihood of being on guard is greater than if we had not experienced one. This is a completely normal response. It is our body and brain’s unique way of attempting to keep us safe. For example, if we have dealt with reoccurring experiences of betrayal in a past relationship, we might feel as though we need constant validation in a new relationship. We might develop expectations for our partner to behave in extremely specific ways to avoid our triggers from occurring altogether. This is unfair – our triggers and our actions are not someone else’s responsibility to manage. If we are nitpicking, critiquing, or blaming our partner for our triggers, they might start to lose motivation in the relationship if they feel as though they are unable to make us happy.
A critical part of combatting doubt is maintaining awareness that no relationship is perfect. Questioning in a relationship, especially in the beginning stages, and especially after an unhealthy relationship is normal and healthy. However, when we allow our fear about relationships drive these questions, it can result in something called “Relationship Imposter Phenomenon”. This fundamental lack of trust happening in the start of a relationship prevents us from building a strong foundation that may result in a combination of one or more unhealthy signs, such as guilting, isolation, and/or possessiveness. We can build trust by setting reasonable boundaries with our partners in ways that value independence, respect, and honesty. If you are interested in learning about more ways to confront Relationship Imposter Phenomenon in relationships, here are some more actionable strategies.
A huge sign of self-sabotage can be avoiding conflict or communication altogether. This avoidance might stem from a fear of the consequences that conflict bred in the past. Without communication and healthy conflict, it becomes exceedingly difficult for a relationship to succeed. The reasons we withdrawal do not typically derive from the need to end a relationship, but rather, because we feel like we do not deserve our partner or a happy relationship. It can be a subconscious way for us to push our partner away, so we are not devastated if the relationship ends. Sometimes healthy conflict looks like taking a moment to process what happened. A partner who values your needs will understand this. Communicate what healthy conflict looks like for you even if it means taking some time instead of withdrawing entirely.
- Holding Grudges
Forgiveness is an essential part of every relationship. Holding grudges can be yet another unconscious protection strategy. After an unhealthy relationship, the last thing we want to feel is let down or betrayed by our own instincts. A way to control this outcome is grudge holding. When we forgive, we are required to be vulnerable through a process of letting go. Though it might feel like the safest thing to do, grudge holding can keep the relationship in an environment where growth is not possible. If we are committed to the growth of the relationship, it is important for us to find ways to release that energy and cultivate space for kindness, taking responsibility, and respect.
As we become aware of our self-sabotage patterns, we can start to disrupt these cycles by replacing them with healthier alternatives. We begin this work through reflection about our feelings and histories. Your trauma is not your fault. Period. Take your healing at a comfortable pace, because the most important and enduring relationship for any of us will be the relationship we have with ourselves. We can start to heal that relationship by extending grace and compassion inward as we move toward the life and love we deserve to give and receive.
Bridget Boylan is an Engagement Manager in One Love’s New York Tri-State Region.
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