It was a Thursday night. My partner was heading out the next day on a business trip and we wouldn’t see each other for a good two weeks, so we were having our last date night for a while. After dinner, he drove us to a Redbox to rent a movie to close out the night.
He took the turn into the Walgreen’s parking lot too sharply and smacked into the curb. The car made a grinding noise as he pulled into the first parking spot, and we got out to assess the damage. His front right tire was definitely flat. When he pulled it off, it’d actually been punctured.
He got to working while I stood watching, sometimes helping out by turning the crank on the jack, holding the flashlight of my phone to help him see in the dark, or keeping track of the lug nuts.
It was a little over 30 degrees with persistent drizzly rain. It was cold, but I found myself quaking. Not shivering, but quaking. I breathed quickly and shallowly. When he sat back on his heels, rubbing his arms because he’d just worked them out that day and they were burning and said, “Wow. This is so frustrating,” I held my breath for him to finish that sentence with something else.
I was poised for him to yell at me. I was waiting for him to throw something, kick the tire or the car, and mutter obscenities. I was waiting to look at the drivers of other cars driving by with a little closed-lip smile that would say something like, “oh, he’s just acting like a big baby, isn’t he!”
I was waiting to swallow it and take it, whatever it would be, because, if I yelled back, it’d just make it worse. If I just took it, it’d fizzle out on its own, like a fire that’d eventually burn through all its tinder. I was waiting for our nice date night, the last one for a couple of weeks, to be ruined. Any attempts I would have made to salvage it, like offering to help or making jokes or being encouraging, would have gone nowhere. Regardless of what I did or didn’t do, the night would have been spent with us not speaking to one another because, even hours later, he might snap at me. And always, somehow, I was responsible.
When the tire was finally fixed, my partner and I went and rented a movie, giggling and flirting in front of the Redbox machine.
Back in his truck and driving back to his house, I thanked my partner for not yelling at me.
“Yelling at you? Why on earth would I have yelled at you?”
“Because…I don’t know…because you were so frustrated or it was harder than you thought or it was cold?”
“How were those things YOUR fault? I’M the one who popped the tire. Why would I have taken that out on you?”
“That’s what my ex-husband would have done,” I told him simply.
He turned and looked at me. “Really??!? Why?”
“Because he…just would,” I said.
And later, after we were cuddled up watching the movie, I felt so relieved and grateful that I hadn’t been mistreated, that here we were, still having a nice date night.
“Thank you so much for not telling at me,” I said again.
“Of course!” he said. “You know that’s not normal, right?”
“Yes…” I said, trailing off.
I was in a relationship with my ex-husband for ten years (and I write about that relationship extensively here). The thing about being in an emotionally abusive relationship for so many years is that was my normal. Couple that with the fact that I’d been raised by an abusive mother, my “normal” meter was very very skewed.
I’m learning as I go, both by myself and with this partner, what actually is normal and possible in a new relationship, but my reaction, the feelings that came over my body, show that I still have more healing to do.
Relationship expert Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT, CRS, CMFSW calls this “post-traumatic relationship syndrome” or PTRS. This is a “newly proposed mental health syndrome that occurs subsequent to the experience of trauma in an intimate relationship. It includes the intrusive and arousal symptoms of [PTSD], but lacks the avoidance symptoms… due to a very different mode of coping with the traumatized state from that which is characteristic of individuals with PTSD.”
PTRS can exhibit itself in the following ways:
Feeling afraid of making another commitment and/or falling impulsively into another unhealthy relationship.
Feeling distrusting in new relationships, both of yourself and your choices and of your new partner.
Feeling worthless, unconfident, and/or anxious.
Having intrusive, reoccurring thoughts along with flashbacks and nightmares.
“Many people with [trauma] have flashbacks from times where the relationship was painful and distressing, [or] nightmares associated with themes of the relationship,” clinical psychologist Dr. Paul DePompo says.
“You become on hyper-alert for the things you endured and feeling they can happen again at any moment, you can get bouts of intense anger or sadness, you can get waves of doubting yourself and taking too much of the responsibility for what happened.”
I did a lot of healing following my divorce, but these particular issues have only been activated within a new relationship. I probably would have had no idea these were still an issue if I hadn’t been experiencing these same scenarios with a new person.
There are some positive steps I and anyone else struggling with coming out of a previously traumatic relationship can do to heal:
- Seeking help from a mental health professional and knowing it will take time.
These issues for me didn’t happen in just one night and neither will they go away overnight. I will have to actively work to heal the wounds I still have with the help of a professional and in practicing new skills with my current partner.
2. Affirming that you aren’t the same.
I am not the same insecure and scared 23-year-old woman that chose my ex-husband. I’m now 34. It’s been over a year since I filed for divorce. I’ve done a lot of growing in that span of time, and I can trust that those have been positive changes because of how joyful I am about my life today. I am making the life I always wanted, and that would have never been possible before.
3. Affirming that other people are not the same as your abusive ex.
To that end, since water always seeks its own level, I can affirm that, because I am not the same person, that my current partner is not the same as my ex-husband. If I’m healthier, I’m going to select a healthier partner, which I (gratefully) did.
4. Staying positive.
Relationships are challenging, regardless of how healthy we come into them.
It’s extremely courageous to love, to be open and vulnerable with someone who always has the ability to cut us to our core.
It’s important to remain positive as things will continue to come up and continue to love despite how hard it can be.
For me today, it’s important to focus on the positive experiences I have with my current partner, of recognizing, “Hey, my partner didn’t freak out on me(!!) because the tire went flat!” And letting myself continue to build trust based on that foundation.
Our past impacts our present every day, but it’s how we react to those reoccurrences that matter. Will we work on healing or will we just keep reenacting the same patterns over and over again? I want to be whole today, to wholly love, and be wholly loved. I hope you do too.