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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW