So as not to bore you with details of two infidelity-related lies I uncovered in two separate, absolutely insignificant relationships that both began and ended in the short span of a year, I’ll say this: 2016 was my “year of realizing stuff.” Some shit went down, I found out, made oaths with myself about the selection of future partners and emerged — just like the Royal They promised — a wiser woman.
I also became less trusting.
This was new to me. I used to be the benefit-of-the-doubt friend, the “just chill out” friend, the one who said to her worried-about-cheating friends, “You’re over-thinking that unanswered call. He/she’s probably busy.” My intention was never to discredit their feelings; I was just so confident back then that actions of the ones we loved, or at least liked a lot, always matched their words.
Once I experienced the opposite, I entered a new, more paranoid headspace, and as I settled into an even newer long-distance relationship a few months later, I found anxiety lurking where it used to sit quietly.
During an off week, a text that went unanswered for an unusually long time (and then even longer still) sent me into a legitimate tailspin. I experienced symptoms of panic that I can only equate to being dangled over a pit of lava on a rope made of licorice, held by a toddler who just learned the joy of dropping things on purpose. My breath shortened to staccato gasps. My palms pooled with sweat. My brain packed up all of its rational belongings and took sabbatical, politely holding the door on its way out as a family of wild, unfounded and completely unrealistic thoughts entered my mind’s vacant space. First I worried he might be dead. Then it dawned on me: He cheated and doesn’t know how to tell me.
I have no idea how I functioned, really, during the two and a half hour span it took until I received the text that broke my trance. And of course the response was innocent. My rational self knew it would be. This relationship is the healthiest I’ve ever been in; this person the most trustworthy human to ever exist. But as the blood and sanity returned to my body, I realized just how badly I’d been scarred from what I’d long called the boring details of two prior, absolutely insignificant relationships.
On a Wednesday, I told my therapist about this. It was one of the few times I’d ever brought dating into the room, so I think she was excited we were finally talking about something fun. I had a plan to address this scenario to stop it from ever happening again and wanted to run it by her.
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” I said. “I’m going to tell to him, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I think I have toxic residue left over from past relationships. It would make me feel so much calmer if you could always make sure to check in before long periods of silence, even if it’s something quick, just to let me know you’re alive.’”
“It is not his responsibility to manage your anxiety,” my therapist responded. I was floored.
A large part of me thought that’s what a relationship was: taking care of one another’s feelings. You hold my weight of the world, I’ll hold yours. Just as it’s easier to lift someone else’s backpack than your own, I thought this part seemed manageable. But there is a difference, as I’m sure you know, between taking care — or at least being aware — of another’s feelings, and taking responsibility for your own. My therapist said that so long as there wasn’t a pattern of past transgressions, so long as there wasn’t even a transgression, it was my job to work through my own crap. I had to learn to self-soothe so that when phones get left at home by accident (thus causing texts to go unanswered), I do not jump to conclusions that the first, second and third apocalypse have arrived.
Trauma influences thought patterns
Dr. Lisa Firestone, Director of Research and Education at the Glendon Association in Santa Barbara, California, explained that dating trauma, “and it is trauma,*” she assured me, creates negative scripts, negative inner voices in our heads. Reinforcement of trauma only deepens the channels these inner voices run through, which then makes us susceptible to revert to familiar negative thinking patterns when triggered by something that may be innocuous to someone else. “Trauma is anything that negatively changes how we see the world. Trauma caused by past relationships can make us believe we’re unlovable or unchosen or not smart. It can make us feel crazy, scared and suspicious,” even when there’s no validity to our fears.
*There are Little T traumas, and Big T traumas. She filed my particular kind based on the same anecdote I just told you as Little T.
Dr. Firestone is not my doctor, but she agreed with my therapist: “You cannot ask your partner to solve it [trauma] for you.” However, a long-term relationship with “a good partner,” as she put it (a solid person with whom you feel comfortable being totally honest) can help heal trauma. It can be a “corrective emotional experience.”
“This doesn’t mean there will never be any ruptures,” she said of old wounds, nor will there be a complete lack of new ones, but over time, a trusting, loving relationship provides the tools and foundations to repair your “attachment system.”
How to cope during a spiral
In the meantime, especially where trust-related trauma is concerned, Dr. Firestone encourages a sort of fake-it-‘til-you-make-it-approach. She suggests that anyone who struggles with distrust (with a partner who’s done nothing to warrant distrust) try to “act like a trusting person.” First, recognize the anxiety as it begins to bubble up. Then, talk yourself down: Thanks for trying to warn me, brain, but this scenario you’ve created isn’t what’s going on here. Acknowledge that you may have no idea what to believe, sure, but also that assuming your partner has done something wrong isn’t fair.
“Look at the situation critically,” says Dr. Firestone. “What are the stories you tell yourself about these issues? Now tell them in second person. When we tell these things to ourselves, about ourselves, as ourselves, we start to believe them. [He probably wants to break up with me. I’m awful.] When we tell these things to ourselves, about ourselves, as someone else, we get defensive.” [He probably wants to break up with you. You’re awful. — To which we’d reply, ‘Hey! No I’m not!’]
Another thing we can do when we begin to think this way is challenge our negative thoughts. They’re the same ones we’ll bring with us into new relationships, and project onto new partner. Once we’ve done that, the next step is to figure out a more realistic, compassionate way to look at the scenario unfolding. What would would we say to a friend?
“It’s being a friend to yourself,” says Dr. Firestone.
Once we’ve challenged these thoughts, we must go against them with our behavior. “If the instinct is to check your phone and call or text, don’t. Leave it alone. It will be uncomfortable at times. It will be hard. The important thing is to challenge your negative thinking. When you act on critical inner voice, you feed it, it gets stronger. But you want to resist. Starve it. Even if that means going against your anxiety and knowing you’ll be okay. You can stand the anxiety of trusting someone.”
Acknowledging it and moving on
And then she served the real truth: “Even if he does cheat on you, you’d be okay. You’re fine on your own. It’s not the end of the world. If it happens, you can make decisions about whether you stay or go.”
None of this means we shouldn’t talk about our fears and anxieties with our partner, Dr. Firestone said toward the end of the conversation. I’d been so caught up in taking notes that I forgot the rub in what my therapist said: that I cannot ask someone else to manage my anxiety in this area.
Dr. Firestone prescribes a proactive approach: Say, “Here’s my past, here’s a thing that happens as a result, and I’m working on it — just so you know. If I act a little anxious sometimes, here’s why. It’s not because you did anything wrong.” If an incident happens, and you “freak out,” explain to your partner, “That wasn’t about you. It was about the thing that happened to me before. I’m sorry to put that on you, and I’m working through it.”
It has been five months since that unanswered text — the one that shook me down hard not because of the anxiety itself, but because I forgot that, despite all my cool callouses from those so-called insignificant relationships, the skin underneath was still tender.
It’s been four months of practicing all that Dr. Firestone said, and it has indeed been a practice. But I’m just now realizing how long it’s been since I’ve had anything even close to that awful, familiar kind of panic. She was right that a good partnership with a great person can help to heal old traumas. She was also right — as was my own therapist — that the management of my emotions should fall on my shoulders. Either my backpack has gotten lighter, I’ve gotten stronger, or both.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.