Welcome to the first “Dear Naomi” column for Sweatpants & Sanity. Thank you to everyone who wrote in. I will reply to everyone, but for this edition I have chosen three to share with the community here as I think they reflect issues that any person may be struggling with.
All three ultimately come down to anxiety—something that is a rising problem in modern society. However, as you can see, the reasons behind them are very different.
Even I, as a therapist, battle anxiety, but with a bit of shared experience and knowledge we can find ways through it together.
Wishing you all a brighter day,
After a physically abusive relationship and my son’s father disappearing from our lives, I was over the moon when a “nice guy” came into my life. We had a fun marriage and two beautiful daughters.
Slowly, I realized he didn’t respect me or my career. There were lies about sharing the same dreams in life: children, where to live, how family would be at our center. Then there were little digs at my low income, telling me I was too old to wear certain things, calling to say ‘thank you’ to my friends for hanging out with me.
When I asked him to move out he laughed at me and refused. I felt betrayed by my trust and love of him for ten years. We have been separated for a year and are filing for divorce.
Now I want to date a sweet friend I have known for a few years. How do I create a relationship that maintains us as equals but supportive of each other? I can’t continue to put myself second, but I am overwhelmed by the want-to-be-supportive partner.
Thanks for writing in, A.
First, my heart goes out to you for having two such terrible experiences with men who have treated you so badly. No one deserves this, and the first thing I want to say is this is not your fault that you feel this way. It is understandable you would feel concern about ending up in that situation again. However, also a huge well done for saying you want to try.
So let’s see how we can help you.
You have endured being shamed and abused so you are going to be vigilantly searching for signs that this relationship may end up the same way. You may find yourself putting blocks in place as a way to protect yourself, such as not opening up, not allowing yourself to get too attached, pulling away when he pulls closer. He is going to have to earn your trust, and if he is the right one for you, then he will understand this and be patient and will work with you.
If he tries to push you too fast or makes you feel uneasy, then communicate. Let him know how you feel. Often partners do not discuss this as they feel guilty, but that feeling of going too fast isn’t going to go away and you will simply end up hurting yourself. Again, if he is the right one he will understand—if he doesn’t, then you know what to do. You are worth more than that.
However, you are right, you do need to work on you, too. Partly, time and reassurance will heal the wounds left by others. Undoubtedly you will push and test his commitment, but the more times he stays regardless, the more you will learn to believe him.
One thing that may help you is to try to be vigilant about your over-thinking. We all do it. We are designed to look for negatives as it has historically ensured our survival. There was no point in seeing a rustle in the bushes when we were out hunting and just ‘hoping’ it was the wind and not a predator… better to avoid it and choose another path. However, when we feel the same worry about something we want to pursue, then it’s time to take steps to protect ourselves and safely carry on down that path.
One of our biggest problems as human beings is the wonderful ability to use our imaginations. We can imagine disasters that never happen and recall past bad experiences vividly, and often incorrectly. Did you know that our brains do not know the difference between imagination and reality? They kick out all the same stress responses when we think about something stressful as when we are actually going through it.
So in your case, when you are dating the new guy, you will probably find yourself thinking in the shower, driving the car, in bed at night, about all the ways it could go wrong—all the things that ‘might’ happen. The trouble is, because your brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality, each time you do this it will make you feel anxious and depressed. It will also create a pathway in your brain that associates this guy with threat. The reality is he is probably a lovely guy but in your head you have broken the relationship up about 50 times in the worst ways possible—so your brain thinks that has really happened and will do its best to shut you down and keep you away from that harm by making you feel scared, sad etc.—whatever works to make you keep from letting him in.
You can help stop these thoughts in their tracks by using mindfulness. When you feel yourself spiraling in this way, tell yourself inwardly or out loud “stop” and then take a deep breath and say to yourself “relax”. You can then use something to reground yourself. This could be drawing your attention to the water in the shower. Think about how it feels, what’s the temperature like, how does it feel on your head versus your arms, notice how it relaxes you— just really think about every aspect of it. If you are in the kitchen or lounge, try eating a square of chocolate but don’t chew. Just focus on how it tastes, what texture is it in your mouth, etc. What does it remind you of, how does it make you feel. If none of these appeal to you, you can also find yourself a mindful object, such as a pebble from your favorite beach or garden. Keep it in your purse or pocket and when you feel your mind going down that negative track, hold the pebble and close your eyes, feel the pebble, how smooth it is—maybe there are ridges, try counting them, you get the idea.
Now, I must stress, you have been through some frankly sh*tty relationships. That alarm system isn’t to be ignored, it’s simply not to always be trusted. You need to learn to have perspective—rationalize and be logical about your reactions to him. Ask yourself, am I telling myself the truth here…or is this my tricky brain trying to protect me? Talking about this with someone else is really useful for this, as others can give you a real sense of perspective, especially those who know you well. Honestly, if you have been through bad experiences, I would say counseling would be a great way to be able to discuss your reactions and feelings in these early days and help you recognize what is real and what is not.
Ultimately, you know yourself better than anyone. You simply have to learn to trust yourself again and trust your judgments again. You got out of the other relationships so your good judgment is there. People can be very deceptive, especially abusers. It is not your fault you ended up there and it was extremely brave and great of you to find the strength to get out and put yourself and your children first.
You deserve to be happy and you deserve the chance to let yourself be loved. Just take it slowly and do not beat yourself up for being cautious—simply remember to communicate with him. If he is a keeper, he will hold your hand through this.
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