Advice from the Trenches: Learning to Trust

Dear C,

I was in an abusive relationship for about a decade. With the help of a therapist and some wonderful friends, I found my way out.

Since becoming single, I have not been able to have a normal relationship. I don’t trust anyone, have trouble approaching women and have huge problems with commitment. As soon as someone gets too close to me, I feel the need to distance myself. I spend a good deal of time alone and often depression gets the better of me. My most recent relationships have all been short-lived, casual and lacking substance. This is probably my fault, but I don’t know how to change it.

Will I get over the trauma of abuse and be able to have a normal relationship? What steps can I take to feel better about myself and my life? How do I trust again?

Lost

Dear Lost;

These days, more often than not, a “normal” relationship ends in divorce or dissolution. So, congratulations! You have achieved normal. I think a better question might be, “How do I find a relationship that really works?”

A relationship is something that develops over time. During the initial stages, you don’t know each other well enough to have figured out if you can work together in solving problems, holding down the fort or managing personal conflicts. All you know is whether you are attracted. If you continue your current trend of “short-lived, casual and lacking substance,” you will never get to the point where you know if things could work.

I do understand why you are stalled. In order to get close enough to have a relationship, there is a certain amount of vulnerability that is necessary. No one ever built a lasting relationship while keeping up a impenetrable defensive front. But, as you have learned, it can be dangerous to be vulnerable when you trust the wrong person. Roll over and show your belly, and they are likely to stab you in the heart.

So, let’s talk about trust. First rule: Trust isn’t simply a matter of who you are with. It’s much more a matter of who YOU are. Don’t ever forget that you, of your own free will, chose that person who was the other half of your abusive relationship. We all tend to choose reflexively. Your reflexes seem, thus far, to have brought you little but bad choices and woe. It’s not other people you can’t trust; it’s your own judgement. We all tend to blame the obvious bully and sympathize with the victim when there is abuse. But that is only half right. Over the course of 10 years, you gave permission to the treatment you received, over and over again.

Here’s a little secret about abusive people — they never JUST abuse. They also flatter, cajole, manipulate and test you to see what you will take. If you are accustomed to abusive behavior patterns (usually because your own parents showed it as “normal” behavior) you will let those initial tests slip right by you. If you are accustomed to seeing people treat each other with kindness and love, those tests will set off an inner alarm similar to the sirens of an impending nuclear war.

And here’s a secret about victims of abuse — they can become very abusive themselves without realizing it. When you feel like a victim, you often give yourself permission to treat anyone badly, or dismissively, if you even suspect they might hurt you. You can justify your behavior in your own head and have no awareness of what it feels like to that other person. Over 50% of bullies were first bullied themselves. Doing a flip from victim to bully is like flipping a coin. It can happen with a flick of the wrist, a gesture barely noticed.

I know you’ve been in therapy, but I’m guessing it was a bandage you slapped over a bleeding wound. From the sound of your current experiences, that wound never healed. I’m going to tell you something that might change your life. There are a lot of people out there who are capable of compassion and reciprocity, but you will never meet them if you continue to see yourself as a victim and others as probable abusers, which you are doing right now. Your apprehension and hostility will set off their warning bells. Get some more therapy. It’s apparent to me, if not to you, that the first try made barely a dent in your suffering psyche. Those wounds started long before any of your adult relationships. Understanding your own roots will get you much further than the dating cycle you are riding right now.

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