The Dissonance of Relationship

The Dissonance of Relationship

There is nothing more complicated after a childhood of complex trauma than navigating relationships.  Why?  Complex trauma is relational.  We don’t have complex trauma without the failure of the primary relationships in our lives.  And while the dissociation we use to stay alive is miraculous and amazing, it is also the nemesis of our adulthood.  We can’t get our relationships to work because we only know extremes.  Our inner parts which are created by dissociation are the source of our “all or nothing” thinking.  And they make sure our relationships won’t be balanced … until we heal.

I have repeatedly heard from survivors of complex trauma that relationships are their most significant difficulty in life.  They feel like they are swinging on a pendulum where they either chase people around or they lock the entire world out of their house.  This way of relating is exhausting.  It is also completely unfulfilling.  We can’t live our lives chasing love that isn’t available and/or running from anyone who shows interest or might really love us.  And I am not just talking about intimate relationships here.  These patterns exist in almost all relationships.

So what is it that is really happening here?  Our inner parts are battling.  Why?  They have different goals/needs and they will do anything to get them met.  To resolve this battle, we must take steps to resolve the trauma that is driving the behavior.  But that is as complex as the trauma itself.  So I wrote some steps you can take to begin unraveling the relationship dysfunction running your life.

  1. Understand who is coming to the table. Your inner parts may or may not want to be seen.  But I have learned they are visible with enough awareness work.  The two most significant parts in relationships are the love seeker and their twin, the isolating inner rebel runner.  They are constantly working against each other.  The love seeker will chase others and lose their authenticity in the process.  The isolator will run from everyone who appears to be threatening their authenticity.  But there are other players too.  The mean kid will unleash a torrent on anyone who appears to be unsafe.  While the controller will do what they do best: attempt to control others.
  2. Understand what their goals are. Each type of part has a goal.  And they will sacrifice anything to reach it.  Knowing those goals will help you to unravel the dysfunctional behaviors resulting from their attempts to meet those goals.  The love seeker is seeking love.  That’s simple.  And they don’t care what they have to do to get it.  The inner rebel runner is fighting for freedom.  They will not submit to anyone under any circumstances.  The mean kid and controller are ensuring safety.  And if anything feels unsafe, they will rarely care about the feelings of others.
  3. Help your inner parts to meet their goals without extreme behaviors. When you know the goals, you can begin to see how the behaviors are not going to keep them there.  You can help them to make better choices.  You can guide them from your grounded adult self through written conversations and small actions steps.

Here are a few examples of this guidance in action:

  1. Your love seeker is chasing someone who you know is not right for you. This is not easy to stop.  But I am sure you already know that.  You must first understand where your love seeker is coming from.  Write from them.  Let them share their deep desires for connection with this person.  Look for the patterns.  More than likely, you will see patterns from your past.  Your love seeker is often looking to resolve the lack of love from childhood by bringing similar people around and trying to love them better.  Help your love seeker to see this is a losing battle.  Help them to understand that you are there for them and will help them to find people who are actually capable of love.  Help them see that they can be authentic and don’t have to worry about abandonment now that you are an adult.
  2. Your isolator is refusing to interact with someone who has a different opinion from you. There are differences that are not compatible.  But there are many differences that can create very rewarding relationships.  Find out why the isolator wants to run.  Are they concerned they will have to sacrifice their authenticity to appease this person?  Are they afraid the love seeker will take over and tell them whatever they want to hear?  Make a deal with your isolator.  Let them know you will stay authentic to your own beliefs and opinions, but still interact with this person.  Try it out.  Make an attempt to be yourself.  Maybe the isolator will reconsider.
  3. Your mean kid is about to take someone down. The most important first step is to breathe.  The second step is to evaluate the perceived lack of safety by the mean kid.  Is it true?  Or is it a trigger from the past?  Feel free to excuse yourself from the situation in mid-conversation if you need to.  Let your mean kid express in writing if you can.  Let them vent.  This will help to understand the source of the trigger.  If the unsafe feeling is accurate, keep walking and don’t look back.  If it is a trigger from the past, but can be diffused, set a boundary or have a conversation from a grounded place.

These action steps will get you closer to your goals of balanced relationships.  It is scary to make these kinds of changes and they will require processing fears and other emotions from your trauma, but the results are incredibly worth it.  But you can’t make these changes overnight.  Give yourself compassionate permission to take your time and make small steps in this direction.  And when you don’t succeed, give yourself more compassion.  You will get better as you go.  Nothing about this work is easy.  And relationship work is the hardest of all.

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12 Comments

  1. Agreed, relationships are hard. Although I’m on the road to recovery, through my own therapy, and counselling training I can’t quite get to a safe place with relationships, but I’m using my hyper vigilance to start recognising differences between friend and manipulator.

    Reply
    • I sometimes refer to relationship as the Mount Everest of recovery.

      Reply
  2. So helpful … Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Thank you Guylaine.

      Reply
  3. This is so helpful. At the moment I’m really confused in my relationship with my partner as I am unhappy. I know that we need to work on it but part of me wants to push him away. I’m up and down some days I feel ok and other days I completely ignore him, shut off and don’t want anything to do with him. I’m wondering if this is dissociation? Because he feels like a stranger to me and not safe but he hadn’t done anything it’s all my inner thoughts about my childhood traumas and triggers. He knows nothing of my thoughts and feelings because I’ve kept everything to myself because I find it hard to ask for help or talk about my feeling.

    Reply
    • Hi Jenny, It does sounds like dissociation in those moments. That is probably an inner defender or inner rebel taking over in those moments. It can be very helpful to figure out what is causing those parts to feel unsafe or controlled in some way.

      Reply
  4. I think a lot of this is relations to yourself; through yourself, by yourself, with yourself, for yourself.

    Reply
    • Definitely. All relationships are a mirror into how we relate to self.

      Reply
  5. Thank you for the post. I’m currently deciding whether to move on from a 20plus year relationship that began while I lived pretty much all the time in trauma time. Now that I’m finally with a good therapist and slowly coming back into my body, I’m realizing I pretty much have to allow other parts to be in charge in order to feel okay in this current relationship. The decision to go has been such a hard one to make because the relationship was one of the very few threads that kept me alive at times. But I’m realizing my partner hasn’t grown, and so as I heal, the relationship no longer fits. While my partner is generally kind, compassionate, understanding and generous, they also have issues with addiction they do not see, they can be very passive aggressive and they are not willing or able to grow and shift in a way that meets my needs as I grow and heal. Where once just being with someone who wouldn’t physically hurt me was enough, now I want someone who actively participates in the exchange of love and intimacy in ways that fit each persons love languages. As I’m healing I crave more non-sexual but intimate touch and my partner is unwilling to communicate around that and/or work on doing more of that. I know there have been a lot of changes as I’ve done my healing work and that’s hard for a partner, but I’ve worked soooo hard to keep the lines of communication open yet feel like the phone’s been hung up on the other end. I’m terrified and excited all at once about the prospect of life on my own. I hope I can get a psychiatric service dog to help with the alone issues, as I am still pretty terrified of living alone. But being able to REALLY focus in on myself and my needs feels very freeing in so many ways. It’s been a long time to come to the decision though, trying to sort out what’s being driven by parts and what’s based on now time…

    I’m so grateful to have found your site! I find something helpful in every post I’ve read!

    Reply
    • I am so glad you have found your way to this recovery journey. I have heard this story so many times: one partner recovers and grows out of the relationship. It is too common. But coming to know yourself is so important and I am glad you are willing to take the leap to do that.

      Reply
  6. Relationships are so difficult. In a relatively new friendship my hyper-vigilent part screams at me “This person is out to trap you, manipulate you, make you feel small, and be forever in debt. Don’t let them in” However my love-seeker tells me that I need this person, someone who is willing to talk with me, support me emotionally, and ground me sometimes. Something just doesn’t feel right though. ‘If the unsafe feeling is accurate, keep walking and don’t look back’ But at the moment I struggle to know if it is accurate or not!

    Reply
    • Yes. Many times, the unsafe feeling comes from trauma, but so does the love seeking. The answer is discernment, which usually lies somewhere in the middle of both. It’s a hard place to find for us.

      Reply

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