By the time we turn 7, our brains and nervous systems have already wired what it means to be in relationship with other people. Our attachment style and associations to love, connection, conflict, and intimacy have been established. How willing we are to be vulnerable is greatly influenced by our upbringing, and whether or not we received proper nurturance, care, and affection from our caregivers.
Many survivors of childhood trauma find themselves in relationships that perpetuate the cycle of pain and reinforce a climate of low self-worth. Often, bad behaviors and even abuse are normalized, because no healthy foundation was ever modeled.
We learn to love ourselves precisely because we have experienced being loved by someone. We learn to take care of ourselves because somebody has taken care of us. Our self-worth and self-esteem also develop because of other people. – Stan Tatkin, Wired for Love
Trauma may be shaping our adult experiences if as children:
- We were neglected
- We were abandoned
- One or both of our parents engaged in unhealthy conflict
- One or both of our parents had an addiction of some sort
- One or both of our parents were abusive – physically, verbally, emotionally
- We watched one of our parents lie and cheat repeatedly without any real consequence
- Our boundaries were violated or ignored
- We weren’t heard or respected
- We had a parent with unresolved childhood trauma, anger issues, depression
- A parent was chronically ill or died when we were young
- We were bullied and isolated
We are at a much higher risk of “normalizing” bad behavior in relationships when we didn’t have a healthy model for setting boundaries, saying no and practicing good self-care.
Some signs our trauma is at the helm of our relationship patterns:
- We have low self-worth because of our childhood experiences and stay way too long in relationships that are clearly not right for us.
- We lose faith in our ability to attract a kind, loving and attentive partner.
- We settle for avoidance, dishonesty, and instability.
- We give someone a thousand chances to hurt us the same way.
- We doubt ourselves and think we’re crazy instead of seeing an unhealthy situation clearly.
- We feel like their bad behavior is about us – that somehow it’s our fault. If only we could be better, maybe they would change or love us the way we want.
- We hear a person’s disinterest in commitment as a challenge to make them love us.
- We feel it is our duty to help people heal or change, sacrificing our own health, well-being, safety, and security.
But people don’t change because we want them to. People change when they are ready. It’s not your job to sit in their waiting room. If you’re not sure how to spot “Red Flags” or feel lost in your current relationship dynamics, read the 8 signs that it might be time to let the relationship go.
Remember; no one can tell you what is right for you or whether you should stay or go. Only you can do that. And, if you’re really feeling lost, this list may be able to provide you with some loving guidance.
When people treat us badly, that is a reflection of their low self-worth. When we continue to allow their behavior, that is a reflection of ours. – Sheleana Aiyana
1. They continue to repeat unhealthy behaviors over and over again like lying or cheating.
Actions speak louder than words, and yet when we’re caught in a cycle of trauma and love addiction, we might give far too many chances for the pattern to repeat. While there is potential for couples to repair after infidelity or a break in trust, there are some caveats. One, the person who broke the trust or crossed a boundary must be able to take full ownership of their actions. Two, they must be willing and able to receive you as the person who was hurt in the unfolding, and three, you both must be willing to do the inner work to heal. If they lie or cheat repeatedly, they’re not ready to change, or they’re not able to change due to an addiction or mental illness. Whatever the reason is, all that matters is that your boundaries have been violated and this type of behavior is not ok.
2. You doubt yourself even though you know something’s wrong.
When we’re living in a chaotic or emotionally unstable environment, our sense of self may become foggy. If you find it hard to know what you’re feeling, or you doubt yourself even when your gut tells you something isn’t right – trust that. A relationship that causes you to feel constant anxiety, knots in your stomach, or insecure and uncertain is not a self-loving choice. It’s normal for some anxiety to come up, and it’s even normal for there to be periods of conflict. But couples who are unified are able to acknowledge their feelings and tend to one another’s hearts.
3. They make empty promises to change their behavior.
Empty promises to change hurtful behavior followed by no change at all is emotional manipulation. There’s really no other way to say it, and making up excuses for them or justifying their actions will only continue the cycle of disappointment and hurt feelings. Sometimes people are too deep in their own trauma to make a change, sometimes they are addicts or struggling with mental illness, and sometimes they are all of those things – and that’s sad, but it’s not your job to save them.
4. You hide the truth from your friends or family.
If you’re hiding the reality of your relationship from the people who care about you, that’s the most obvious red flag there is. It means that deep down, you know something isn’t right, and if your loved ones knew what you were putting up with they’d bring the fire. Or at least, they might bring their judgments. And since you’re not being honest with them, there’s likely still some part of you that is hanging on to what hurts. It’s time to let go.
“We all need other people to meet our emotional needs for comfort and closeness. That’s what relationships are all about.” ― Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents
5. They tell you they aren’t in love with you or attracted to you anymore.
It can’t get much more clear then someone telling you they aren’t in love with you or aren’t attracted anymore. Yet somehow, you might be looking for ways to spin what they’re telling you so you can hang on a little bit longer. Perhaps they “love you, but aren’t in love with you”, and that’s probably a feeling most of us have had at some point in our lives, but it’s not the feeling you want to have with your intimate partner. If you’re in this situation, please don’t feel shame or guilt – all this means is that a part of you is deeply craving validation and love, and that is the most human need of all. We all want love and connection, but you won’t find it from someone who is openly telling you they aren’t into you.
6. They gaslight you, call you crazy, or ghost.
What happens when you feel upset because of a boundary violation? Are you both able to have a conversation about what happened? Are they willing to make a repair, apologize, and change their behavior? Or do they spin things until you’re confused, uncertain at what is actually happening and you start to wonder if you made the whole thing up? Do they tell you you’re crazy when you get emotional, or ghost on you whenever things feel too vulnerable? These are not healthy patterns. Unless they’re willing to do the deep work, like go to therapy together and actually own their shit, it’s time to go.
7. They tell you they don’t believe in or want commitment.
Believe them. When they tell you they don’t “believe in or want commitment”, they mean it. This isn’t an invitation to try harder. It’s not a sign that you’ve been doing something wrong, aren’t good enough, or just need to fight for their love – it’s a deal-breaker. It means they don’t want what you want, and you cannot change their mind. If you have to try and force someone to show up for you, they aren’t your person. I know this is really hard to hear, and being rejected can feel like the worst pain in the world, but this is you moving towards better and brighter things. A self-loving future requires you to take a stand for what you truly want, and be willing to let go.
8. You’ve been trying to heal them from an addiction or mental illness, but they aren’t doing the work.
If we played the role of caretaker for a parent or had to grow up too fast, we can get it in our minds that it’s on us to carry the burdens of others. It’s not. When all of your energy is going towards saving, fixing, or care-taking someone who isn’t doing their own work, you’re doing the opposite of helping them. Even though your heart may be in the right place, the only way for a person to truly change is to choose of their own volition. They might have to hit rock bottom before they are ready to start healing. They have their own life path, and you can’t force readiness.
Breaking the cycle of generational trauma is difficult, but it is possible. Next, check out my recommended reading list: 7 Books on Healing from Trauma and Recovering from a Painful Past. “It didn’t start with you by Mark Wolynn” would be a great starting point.