When we’re hurt at a young age, it affects us for life.
As Virtual Lab School put it, “The younger we are, the less likely it is that we have any emotional understanding or ability to deal with it. These earlier life experiences can shape who we are and who we decide to get into relationships with.”
There is no one size fits all approach to human relationships, but there are many benefits to examining one’s self through the lens of attachment theory.
Maybe your coping mechanism was to fight back. Or maybe when you couldn’t physically leave, you figured out how to mentally vacate yourself, to detach from life, and by extension, from your relationships and responsibilities.
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Whatever your coping mechanisms, they have likely affected the way you communicated in later relationships — influencing how you showed up for both yourself and others.
When the past invades the present
So what happens when two people with different or even opposite coping mechanisms come together? Often, this happens when an anxiously attached person and an avoidantly attached person date.
Let’s say my trauma is abandonment without explanation. Let’s say theirs is violation of boundaries. We may both react to one another in the present moment as if these events are happening, even if they aren’t.
I was dating a woman once and whenever we’d have conflict, she’d shut down and freeze me out. My own triggers would ignite. The pain of being shut out, ignored, treated as “too much” or not enough – or both combined – would overtake me.
There I was, back in kindergarten with the girl I’d considered my best friend telling me she just didn’t feel quite the same way. There I was, back in middle school with my sixth friend grade group abruptly excising me from their daily lunch circle, but not explaining why.
An immense wave of vulnerability rushed through me, quickly followed by anger. Why would she want me to feel like this? I remember thinking. How can she not realize her behavior is having this impact? How can she not feel bad about it?
According to therapist Casey Tanner, who goes by the handle @Queersextherapy on Instagram, unprocessed childhood abandonment can have lasting effects on an anxious partner.
“Because we might not have had the chance to grieve or recover from childhood abandonment, we may feel the sharp ping of abandonment even when we are not, in reality, being abandoned again,” Tanner says. “I see this often in relationships wherein one partner uses taking space as a way to re-regulate or process. An anxious partner, who has much reason to believe they’ll be abandoned, interprets this space as neglect.
This woman had shared with me her past traumas and details of her dating and relationship history. In context, I could imagine her thinking in those moments: How can she not accept my boundaries? How can she not realize how much this overwhelms and stresses me out? I’m leaving her alone. I’m not saying anything mean. I’m not criticizing her. So why is she guilting me?
In other words, Why does she feel entitled to my time/energy/emotional bandwidth? She doesn’t respect me, so I’m not safe with her.
Neither of us were wrong. Both our perspectives existed for understandable reasons.
Whether or not they were entangled with stories rooted in the past, the present feelings were still real and deserved to be validated. It is in fact through validating feelings like these that their origins can be more easily uncovered.
Holding equal space for both perspectives in those moments may have even helped both of us to heal some of our past hurts. We heal through relationships, especially when it was in relationships with others that our original wounding took place.
Self-questioning vs. Self-invalidating
That said, it’s important not to trust our feelings so blindly and wholeheartedly that we convince ourselves they signify that the other person did something wrong or uncaring. We can’t fail to dialogue with the past stories responsible for the creation of our mindset.
It’s important that we self-question to some degree (which is not the same as self-invalidating).
Safety can be a tenuous state for both members of a couple, depending on each person’s history. If we don’t become aware of how our traumas are showing up and fogging our lens, they will compromise that safety. They may even slowly degrade the connection over time.
Tanner writes: “Taking space — when done thoughtfully — isn’t abandonment. If it feels like abandonment, that’s a flag for some much-needed self-compassion for your younger self. If you struggle with a partner’s need for space, talk about what behaviors make that space more or less tolerable.”
When overcome by such strong feelings, I was replaying highly charged moments from my past. The feelings were absolutely real — but none of those events were happening anymore. I know that’s what I must pay attention to if I hope to continue healing — both my own heart and my relationships with others.
As relationships expert Lane Moore put it when writing about similar feelings: “They aren’t necessarily based on facts, or even based on who I am in the present. They might just be, and usually are, remnants of past hurts that come up every now and again, unhealed parts of me asking to be soothed. And I soothe them by reminding myself of what is real. And what is real is that those feelings will pass.”
This awareness is important because the more we’re pulled under by our past experiences, the likelier we are to see the person in front of us through the lens of someone from our past — rather than for who they actually are. Therefore the likelier we may be to treat them in an unfair and unkind way.
Working through those assumptions and projections, we become better able to see what’s actually happening. The more closely we can inhabit and live in the current reality, the more deeply we can connect.
When in conflict, that woman and I had completely different realities. Both of us seemed so convinced that we were seeing things as they were.
A secret I’ve learned: There’s no such thing as “things as they are.” Reality is a constant blending of multiple disparate truths and perspectives.
It has dawned on me that we were both valid, and also limited, in our respective viewpoints. Most of the time that’s what conflict is.
This feels really real. I could also be wrong. Even though it really, really feels like Tom left those crumbs on the counter because he doesn’t care about me, I leave some space between that belief and another explanation.
Hopefully we can use this way of thinking to revitalize our connections, whatever state they may be in.