His eyes were as dark as night. That should’ve been my sign to run the other direction–the windows to his soul shut tight, forbidding the light to shine in or out–but instead, I ran straight toward this long-time bachelor with my arms (and legs) wide open and my eyes wide shut.
This wasn’t my first bad relationship, but it was the one that shook me so ferociously, I didn’t know if I would survive without it.
I wasn’t even divorced when I started having the most titillating sex of my life (up to that point) with Peter. I was separated and living alone with divorce papers filed, an ending that would surely be my happily ever after. It’s not that Sam was a bad guy. I mean, he was solid, and he didn’t require much of me emotionally, I could be withdrawn and distant and that was okay with him. Add to it, that his parents were the Cleavers compared to the lying, cheating, violent people I called mom and dad. Our divorce was more about how emotionally vacant we’d both been and what a blackhole our sex life had always been.
We were friends who shared toothpaste…who went to bed in pajamas. I tried to make it better. I even bought books on how to stir up the passion, how to be better in bed. I read them diligently, plotting my next move in the bedroom. When none of it worked, it was like someone flipped the switch on our marriage. I no longer wanted any of it–him, the emotional distance that had made me feel safe, or our contrived life.
I craved something more…sexual and adventurous…something with more giddy up…something more…emotionally disastrous.
(Let me just set this down right here–be super careful what you wish for because you just might get it.)
Peter was the absolute sexiest thing I’d ever laid eyes on. Thick, curly hair as dark as his eyes. A swagger so intense it would make you orgasm if you didn’t shield your gaze.
I was set up for failure right out of the gate.
We spent the first few weeks doing nothing but having sex. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but only a bit of one. I couldn’t believe it. It was like the Universe was giving me all the sex I hadn’t had my entire adult life. As if it were saying, “Here’s your crash course, go for it!
And I’ll just say this…it was good.
And we went on like that for a couple of months. We’d throw in eating some fancy dinners and drinking wine naked in the rain but those were blips that dotted the sexual landscape of our passionate relationship.
One day, after an afternoon delight, Peter said he loved me. And in that moment, something in me flinched. Some part of me knew that he might, in a way that he thought he could, but he was a long-time bachelor with a bevy of ex-girlfriends, each prettier than the last.
But I was different, he said, “special.” Someone he could really be with, marry, maybe even have a baby with. And, did I want to go to his parent’s house on Sunday for spaghetti?
A baby and spaghetti? I was sunk.
While twirling my pasta that Sunday, I looked at Peter lovingly and relished in the fact that I was the one who changed him. I was the one who’d rescued this gorgeous man from all the loveless relationships he’d suffered through. And I was having amazing sex? This was more than I ever thought possible for a woman who’d witnessed more beatings, experienced more abandonment, and did without love more than anyone she’d ever known. But none of that mattered anymore. I was with Peter, and I’d sacrifice all of me to make sure that this love, this relationship, lasted forever.
After about four Sunday spaghetti dinners, I was hooked on Peter’s family as much as I was on him. But something in Peter was different. His eyes grew even darker, his scent changed. We’d have sex on Friday nights with the TV on and in the morning, he’d ask me to leave–he needed his space to read and be alone. The first time or two, I obliged quietly but then went back to my house terrified to be alone. I hadn’t been alone in a long time and the fears and memories that came up for me in those isolated times was too much for my fragile self to handle.
But even more than that, Peter called up my deepest, oldest story–abandonment.
Not knowing how to soothe myself, I paced the house waiting for him to call. When he didn’t, I called him. Again and again until he answered. I even showed up on his doorstep after he’d been away on a trip. This led to a passion fueled night of sex only to have him ask me to leave in the morning.
We broke up (and then had sex about five more times) and then we broke up again, this time for good. In the months that followed, I was raw. Every inch of me ached. Even the air floating on my skin was too much to bear. When my friends called to check on me, I told them it was all Peter’s fault. I mean, what a jerk! He never intended on marrying me, and probably not anyone for that matter.
But at night, when I was completely alone, I shivered with a knowing that it was me. No matter how pretty, or smart, or funny, or sexy I was, I was unworthy of the only man I’d ever loved. I wasn’t enough for him.
I worried I wasn’t enough for myself.
After work, I’d slink back home, turn on the TV, and drink a bottle of wine. There wasn’t enough alcohol in the world to numb my pain, so I decided I’d have to fix myself…somehow.
I spent the next six months alone. I saw people at work and went out with friends here and there, but I did not date. I wanted to learn how to be comfortable being alone or better yet, understand why I couldn’t bear to be alone.
I also saw a therapist and read a lot of books. I learned to meditate, journaled, and went to yoga. Before long, I started to see that it wasn’t Peter, and it wasn’t me. There was something that drew us together subconsciously that craved the push and pull of loving and then gutting each other completely.
The emotional disarray of being with Peter became my drug of choice. Just like I craved our hot sex, something in me also wanted every chaotic hit of drama the two of us could create. I vowed to myself to be better, to understand my darkness and my frailty. I had to rid myself of my addiction to emotionally unavailable people and even more so to the delicious pain of it all.
How childhood trauma sets the tone for our relationships.
My parents didn’t show me what love was. They modeled violence, passion, and walking out when things got tough. While my dad wasn’t physically present, my mom wasn’t emotionally there either. For the most part, they weren’t physically affectionate either, except with each other, sexually.
So much of our brain development happens in childhood. We used to think the opposite. We used to believe that if you were young and something traumatic happened, you were resilient and not affected as much as someone older. Recent studies have shown the opposite–the younger we are, the more significant and lasting impact the trauma will have.
As early as the first nine months of life, our young minds are constantly seeking to make sense of what’s happening around us. Dr. Bruce Perry explains the process of child brain development beautifully in his book, What Happened to You. Our brains develop from the bottom up, so to speak, with what many call the “reptilian” part of our brain developing first. In that space (also known as the subconscious) things happen without us thinking about them. For example, we breathe, our hearts beat, we digest food. This is also where our autonomic nervous system kicks into fight or flight if we feel threatened.
This is survival mode.
Fight or flight…
Any trauma we experience during these childhood phases of brain developments can have lasting effects. If our home is in continual chaos, we are conditioned to feel unsafe and afraid, which throws our nervous systems into constant fight or flight. This means that it is not only possible, but probable, that as an adult, you are still living in survival mode. Your fight or flight switch is on, and you feel unsure and unsafe in some regard, especially in relationships. This may cause you to panic, think the worst, act clingy, pick fights, or constantly question your partner’s intentions.
Freezing or disassociating…
In addition, many of us who were too young to fight or flee when the trauma occurred engaged in another coping mechanism called freeze, where, in order to survive, we disengaged from reality. We zoned out mentally and emotionally to cope with the chaos around us. This, too, can carry on into adulthood and right into our relationships. This is called disassociation and is exactly what I did in my first marriage to Sam. When we disassociate, we check out emotionally. We don’t invest in our relationships. We might have fewer memories surrounding holidays and big events because mentally we weren’t really there.
Addiction to chaos…
It is also common for childhood trauma survivors to subconsciously adopt the dysfunctional patterns of our family of origin as “normal” and later re-enact them in their relationships. Most of the time that means the more pain and chaos the better. This is what I did with Peter. I was attracted to the highs and the lows of our relationship. I wanted the euphoria of the high so badly that I went back again and again, regardless of the pain, just to have it. He had something that fed my desire more than sex––he reinforced the false stories I’d written about myself and my unworthiness. And the idea that I was more than that abandoned, unloved little girl scared me more than anything Peter could ever do.
It’s our brain, not our heart, that keeps us in dysfunctional relationships.
You know the other thing that the reptilian part of our brain does? It writes the stories that keep us “safe.” Yeppers! Right when we get stuck in the subconscious gear of fight or flight, our brain writes our story about how we’re less-than and not worthy of real love. Remember this part of our minds is in survival mode and what better way to ensure we survive (especially after being traumatized by what is supposed to be love) than to keep us as far away from it as possible? In turn, we’re argumentative, we withdraw, we nag, we’re passive aggressive. All the things that keep us from being emotionally intimate with another human being.
So while we might be “safe,” we’re also lonely and miserable and we constantly repeat our dysfunctional patterns.
How do we change the pattern? How do we rise above?
Once I understood that my fears were the byproduct of the false stories of abandonment and unworthiness I’d created in my childhood, I saw a road to true healing.
Now it’s your turn.
Grab a journal. Light a candle. Get cozy. This is where you dig in and ask yourself why you feel unworthy of a loving, healthy relationship.
How was love modeled to you as a child?
Did your parents argue or fight often? Did you witness physical violence?
Were you abused?
Who are you choosing in relationships? What patterns do you see?
Do you panic, think the worst, act clingy, pick fights, or constantly question your partner’s intentions?
Do you withdraw emotionally and mentally from your partner, zoning out for periods of time?
Do you lose your temper? Are you overly critical? Do you unintentionally re-enact any witnessed chaos from your childhood?
Awareness is always the first step in healing. I hope you’re starting to see that perhaps it is your childhood trauma that shapes the way you see relationships. That it was your brain, kicking into survival mode, that wrote your stories of unworthiness.
I also hope you know that none of it was your fault and that you have the power to change these patterns and to rise above your stories.
This is a lot to uncover but be patient and loving with yourself on this journey. I know from my own experience that true healing takes as long as it takes. But I also know that I am worth it, and so are you.