Pay attention if what follows the idealization that accompanied that initial elation stage is your partner devaluing you. It may be subtle; but, if it happens, you will feel it. It’s not your imagination. You’re not being too sensitive. Your partner won’t admit to devaluing you. It could be so passive and combined with so many mixed messages that, besides feeling hurt, mostly what you’ll feel is confused. That’s when the justifications and rationalizations from cognitive dissonance and trying to recapture that elusive initial elation could keep you stuck while, quietly and, perhaps, unconsciously, you hope that being devalued won’t happen again. But, chances are, unless you and your partner both have the ego strength, insight and motivation to work together to prevent it from happening and/or learn how to identify it, communicate about it and recover from it — i.e., forgiveness is key; without forgiveness, all relationships will be short-term — then, sadly, it probably will happen again.
Despite possibly an outward appearance of self-confidence, that devaluing behavior is coming from someone who believes, “If you love me, then there must be something wrong with you.” On some level, because of their unhealed, wounded psyches, they secretly feel or believe that they are somehow fundamentally unlovable. If so, over time, their devaluing will increase in frequency and/or intensity.
An exquisitely sensitive, fragile, frightened and wounded heart finds real intimacy intolerable and terrifying. They’ll test you. They’ll push you away. If you attempt to get closer or act on your own towards making those plans for your future together more real or, worse, if you make demands on your partner to do so, then their distancing and devaluing of you will quickly and seriously escalate. Sadly, that’s the only way a trauma-bonded partner knows how to achieve emotional safety.
Theirs is a lonely and exhausting life. It also can tend to be expensive. Hitting bottom happens, sometimes more than once. Their denial and compartmentalization might prevent them from seeing that bottom coming. It’s not easy being them. It’s not easy being with them, either.
Conflict Is Not Abuse
Eventually, unresolvable conflicts usually result in a discard — i.e., the relationship ends. Conflicts are inevitable in all relationships. But, in trauma-bonded relationships, conflicts don’t get resolved. Instead, the couple get stuck on a merry-go-round of denial, having the same arguments over and over again.
Conflicts also get confused with abuse. Conflict is not abuse.
Recognizing mutuality of cause allows for positive, constructive progress to happen without blaming or scapegoating. Scapegoating, after all, is a false accusation that one person is solely responsible for mistakes that are actually contributed to by multiple people.
“Differentiating between Power Struggle and Power Over,” Hodes explained, “is the difference between Conflict and Abuse.” Abuse is “power over.” Conflict is “power struggle.“
While obviously significant abuse does take place in life, where one person is being controlled by another person or by a family or group in ways that the target or victim has not contributed to and can’t change, the word “abuse” has become overused:
• People may feel angry, frustrated or upset. But this does not mean they have been abused. They could, instead, be in conflict. Instead of identifying as a victim, they realize that they are experiencing conflict. The fact that one person is suffering does not inherently mean that the other person is to blame. The expectation that we will never feel badly or anxious or confused is unrealistic and unreasonable. It doesn’t automatically mean that someone else is engaging in abuse. These emotions are simply part of the human experience.
• People may not know how to make things better. They may lack insight regarding their own participation or skills to do better. Many people don’t know how to deal with feeling badly about themselves. They may not understand their own actions. And, although this may be devastating, tormenting, and painful, this is not being abused. Using restorative justice principles, we know that punishment resolves nothing. Someone who feels conflicted does not have the right to punish another person simply because they feel bad.
• People may be members of families who attack outsiders instead of being self-reflective. It may be part of the family trance or family culture to blame and scapegoat others. They may live within families that are so fragile that they don’t tolerate admitting mistakes. The group pressure to collectively deflect responsibility does not mean that the person(s) being blamed is/are abusive. In fact, that says nothing at all about that person. Even though it is done in the name of family or friendship “loyalty,” it is still unproductive. It’s shame-based and, as such, it keeps people stuck living in the problem rather than learning how to live in the solution.
• Being in a negative moment or pattern with another person can be destabilizing, hurtful, and stressful, especially in a shame-based family system that requires someone to be “perfect”. It may not have been safe to admit to having made mistakes in the past. That’s a hallmark of growing up in an abusive family. Mistakes, however, are not, by definition, abuse. If someone has power over another, then it could be abuse. But if not, then it’s conflict. And being in conflict is filled with both responsibilities and opportunities for personal growth.
“All human relationships have power dynamics and that is neither good nor bad. Power is not the problem,” Hodes said. “It’s how it is wielded.” There is a “difference between volatility and abuse,” she added. “But not enough understanding of that difference.”
(Schulman, Sarah. Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair, Vancouver, Canada: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016)
The capacity to feel abused hopefully far exceeds either person’s capacities to actually behave abusively. Such violations actually may have happened in truly, horribly destructive ways during pivotal developmental times in childhood. Rather than being attended to in responsible ways, that abuse was enabled, ignored, minimized, never talked about, swept under the rug. Intimacy is especially scary when you’ve been neglected and abused by the very people who were responsible for taking care of and protecting you.
When you’re both independent, consenting adults — people who have agency — even though there may be significant power differences (e.g., physical strength, financial power) between you, someone cannot abuse you without your permission. When you were a kid, you didn’t have the power to set and maintain boundaries or to remove yourself from the situation. Now, as an adult, you do have the power to set and maintain boundaries, to initiate conversations to resolve conflicts, problems and/or miscommunications or, if necessary, to remove yourself from the situation, including ending the relationship if that’s necessary.
When you were a kid… That’s the difference. You’re no longer a kid. That’s a fact. But, emotionally, it might not feel like a fact. Agency doesn’t magically appear when we turn 18 or 21 years old. A solid sense of agency may never appear in someone who refuses to accept responsibility for themselves and, instead, chooses to identify as a victim.
The sad reality is this: Nothing can undo what happened to you in the past. Nothing can make up for that. Not even your love for another person, no matter how good your love and/or their love is/was. “That was then, this is now,” is as good as it gets.
Of course, the process of getting there is not that simple. But, that is the bottom line for what trauma recovery boils down to. After the usually long, arduous, painful process of unpacking and sorting through it all, abuse survivors (and that includes those who experienced neglect as well) have a pivotal, life-changing decision to make — either continue to hold onto their trauma wounds and identities as victims or survivors or to let it go. Holding onto it can have become such a habit that letting go of it will have to be done repeatedly, over and over again. Letting go requires both practice and patience. As they say in the 12-step programs, “Drop the rock.” When someone decides to let go of the power that they have allowed their emotional wounds to have over them and their lives, that’s when they truly begin to have agency. Acquiring the insight that they are the only ones who can make that decision — to decide whether or not their emotional wounds can continue to have that kind of power in/over their lives — is a huge step forward in the recovery process. That’s when the promises of the 12-step programs begin to manifest —
“We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity. We will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. The feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” The Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous)
Feelings aren’t facts. But, when the boundary between feelings and facts has been blurred and a person’s ego is still so fragile that they have been narcissistically wounded, projections and scapegoating will lead to an unfair, inaccurate and painful conclusion that one’s partner has irrevocably destroyed what, in reality, was just an illusion of trust and another illusion — the healthy, strong, emotionally-safe and intimate relationship that you thought you had.
The reality is that each person in a relationship is responsible for setting and maintaining their own boundaries. Each person in a relationship is responsible for their own feelings. Some people’s capacity to feel victimized far exceeds other people’s capacity to actually victimize them. It’s not your fault if your partner failed to honor their own boundaries. There never was anything you could have done about that. It is your fault if you failed to honor your own boundaries. The only power you have is to decide for yourself that you are not a victim and to behave with civility and respect towards yourself and others.
If you need to apologize and make amends, then do so. But, do so primarily for you and your own peace of mind. You making amends does not depend on how the recipient responds if, indeed, they respond at all. Don’t bother to argue or defend yourself. That’s a waste of time and energy. When someone decides that you’ve victimized them, then what you’re saying doesn’t fit their narrative. It may be easier for them to evade responsibility for themselves by making everything your fault. Some people would rather do that than assume what’s their responsibility by looking inward, acknowledging to themselves they’ve made some mistakes and, then, based on that insight, making changes in their behavior.
There also may be a disconnect. It may be that they can’t remember or acknowledge what actually happened. It may be that, to them, there is no gray — only black and white. The bridges for repair may have burned long ago, actually long before the two of you ever met. If so, there’s no way for you to reach them to recover your relationship.
Sit still with yourself. And, if you feel a need to admit mistakes, character defects and/or wrong doing and to make amends, don’t forget to include the most important relationship in your life — yourself — in that list.