“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway
“I’m happy. That’s all you need to know.”
These were the final words I spoke to the first person who ever broke my heart and nearly broke my spirit along with it.
He came into my life unexpectedly, and with a ray of light so radiant it uplifted me and gave me hope in the midst of a dark and challenging year. But after only a few short months, that light burned out as he cast me aside quietly, slowly, for reasons I will always struggle to fathom.
The emotional struggle and plethora of mistakes I made in the aftermath of that separation was profound.
I lost weight, cried more than any one person should cry, maintained a painful and dysfunctional involvement with this person, full of blurred lines and manipulation, found myself being referred to a psychiatrist I could barely afford to see, stopped reading books, stopped taking care of myself, lost myself, gave parts of myself away, and eventually made an honest attempt to pick myself up off the ground and do the work of getting my life back together.
It wasn’t easy. It took months of heartache and grief that ultimately came to a head when this person said something very cruel to me after I tried to express my pain and disappointment to him, thus twisting the knife deeper into our damaged relationship. After that incident, I became fed up in all the ways I needed to be.
I minimized contact. I placed my time and energy elsewhere. I made a point to get out at least once a week and do something that made me feel happy and good about myself.
Things began to look up, and my heart began to heal. I was taking steps in the right direction, but I still had a painful attachment to him that I couldn’t seem to break. Until, on a typical and fortuitous afternoon, I met someone else.
Although I didn’t immediately recognize him, I eventually remembered that we went to high school together. I also remembered that he had a crush on me in tenth grade, although I later learned that it lasted for years more than that and his affection ran much deeper than the average high school crush. So when he saw me again that day, his feelings resurfaced and word got around to me about it.
After our first date, I could already feel the chapter with my ex coming to a close.
I had someone wonderful right in front of me—someone who set the standard for how I wanted and deserved to be treated, someone who saw and believed in my worth from the moment he laid eyes on me a decade prior, someone who taught me to let go and let be.
And although love was the very last thing I was looking for at the time, I was nonetheless given the flash of insight I needed to make emotionally healthier choices.
“I’m happy. That’s all you need to know.”
And I was happy. I was happier than I’d been in months. But what I didn’t reveal was that I was also anxious and full of doubt.
Escaping a toxic and dysfunctional relationship and entering one full of promise and longevity can be challenging. There’s a sense of collateral damage. There’s a sense of unease and defensiveness.
The nature of my new relationship was different and better in every way, but I still found myself thinking, feeling, and acting out in ways I knew were unhealthy, likely making my partner feel as though he needed to fix me.
After the initial newness wore off and the relationship progressed into something stable and exclusive, I put him and perceived shortcomings under a microscope.
When he told me how great and special I was, I thought he was exaggerating. When he was having an off day or didn’t shower me with a steady flow of attention, I turned resentful and passive aggressive. When he expressed his desire to spend a lifetime making me happy, I broke down in tears of fear that he would disappoint me.
Every day I feel almost entirely certain that it will be the day he realizes I’m damaged goods and he’s wasting his time. The slightest trigger will leave me feeling anxious and discouraged, and the slightest misunderstanding will leave me feeling defensive and ready for impact.
No matter how many times he convinces me that he loves me deeply, is doing the best he can, and wants to be with me for as long as possible, I can’t help but poke holes in his words and actions.
Perhaps it’s a defensive mechanism. Perhaps it’s a fear of my own flaws. Perhaps it’s an ugly scar.
My last relationship broke me down and chipped away at my ability to trust. It wrecked my heart and my mind. It instilled thought and behavioral patterns that have proven to be difficult to break.
Because of my past, the relationship I’ve always dreamed of having has fallen under unnecessary stress. And although my partner has yet to complain about it, I know that if I don’t work on reprogramming my mind and adjusting my behavior, our connection will eventually suffer in ways that can be so easily avoided.
If you too are suffering from new relationship anxiety and trust issues planted by a past relationship, you may need these five essential reminders that have helped me on my own journey.
1. Your current partner is not your ex-partner.
It can be tempting to compare the two, whether internally or aloud, but it’s important to remember that your new partner is an entirely different person waiting to play an entirely different role in your life story. Don’t give your past a single reason to sabotage your future or dirty up a perfectly clean slate.
2. Pause before you react.
This is a hard one for me, but before you assume anything or unduly react to any type of perceived conflict, pause and reflect on where your thoughts and feelings are coming from. Could insecurity, fear, or trauma be at play? Is the conflict real or imagined?
Being preoccupied is not the same as ignoring you. Making a lighthearted and harmless comment is not the same as intentionally trying to hurt your feelings. Showing frequent love and affection is not the same as using you for personal gain.
Separate your emotions from your ego, and consider the rationality of your behavior before you react or respond to anything.
3. Expectation is the root of all disappointment.
Keep your expectations in check. When a relationship goes south, we often tend to carry residual expectations and disappoints into the next one. If you experience disappointment over something your partner said or did, ask yourself what you expected them to say or do instead. Then consider whether or not that expectation is fair and justified.
For example, expecting your partner to listen to your concerns and honor your needs is fair. Expecting them to read your mind, wait on you hand and foot, or make you the center of their world is not. Unfair expectations can poison a relationship if you don’t strive to recognize and release them.
4. Fix yourself before trying to fix your partner.
Be mindful of your tendency to project your flaws and insecurities onto your partner.
Projecting is a common mistake in many relationships because pointing the finger at the person closest to you is easier than turning it to yourself and being honest about whether or not your own internal dialogue is the actual source of the problem.
Before you decide to change something about your partner, consider what you might need to work on within yourself.
5. Trust is the glue that holds it all together.
I can’t even tell you how many times my partner has stressed the importance of trust after a misunderstanding or moment of doubt and insecurity on my end. Time and experience has taught me that trust is vital to the success of any relationship, but it’s something I clearly need to work on after years of being hurt and misled.
While trust may not be an easy thing for many couples, it helps to remember that if your partner is someone worth being with, they will never give you a reason not to trust them.