I find relationships difficult.
And if you’re honest with yourself, you will say most people do, including you.
I know that most people are struggling because I hear their frustrations, their disappointments, their complaints. I hear how difficult it is to find the right partner. How difficult it is to be with their current partner. And how difficult it is to leave their partner. Most of us are flailing around trying to figure out how to get our needs met while also looking like on the surface you are in a happy partnership. This isn’t just social media, this happened before.
Most of us have a lot of baggage we’re carrying around and add that to the baggage of your partner, it’s a wonderful mix leading to feeling unseen, unheard and unloved in relationship.
Talking personally I have found all types of relationships difficult; friends, family, partners… it’s taken me many years to finally have the friends I can say definitely have my back and care for me. I had to let the ones go who were not supportive. It’s taken me years to get to a place with my family where I don’t get pulled into the drama that comes from being and thinking differently to them. Then romantic relationships which are the ones which highlight our deepest attachment and trauma wounds have definitely been a rollercoaster.
Years of bullying at school, university and work, mixed with abusive relationships has led me to become a person who was and to some extent still is hyper vigilant and constantly scanning the terrain for the next person to let me down, abandon me or gaslight me.
I was sexually assaulted as a teenager and victim blamed by some of the people who should have protected me, bullied throughout secondary school, bullied through part of university, bullied at work in one company and by my employer in another, rude words written about me on the toilet door at school and blamed for that by the teacher… these are a few examples of what I experienced. Most of the time this behaviour towards me was witnessed by other people who stood by and said nothing.
For this reason it makes sense that I come away from years of mistreatment with feelings of loneliness and not being able to trust people, not trusting that people had my back. My experience was, they didn’t.
So why am I sharing this now and how does it relate to finding relationships difficult?
2023 was a very difficult year for me. I had entered a new relationship and a few months in, as is always the case in relationships, the chemical concoction that attaches you to your new love begins to wear off and your patterns of attachment kick in - for both of us. For some of the year I reached out to an attachment coach for further support as old patterns of behaviour which I thought had gone were resurfacing.
A problem became and what was shining brightly in my relationship with my new partner was that I had begun carrying the aforementioned trauma round almost as a ‘trophy’ - ‘look at me with the hurt and pain. He needs to adapt to me to make me feel safe’. And while there are things my partner could have done differently to create safety in the relationship, at the same time, it is my responsibility ultimately to be able to process and work through what’s mine and not need the other person to change who they are to fit in to make me feel more comfortable.
The difficultly has been getting that balance right. Much of my trauma was triggering in him his own stuff and one friend and colleague at one point said to me ‘I don’t think he has the ability to hold all of your trauma’. There were points at which this was true, and others when he showed up in the most loving of ways.
So in the New Year as I was preparing my 2024 goals with my new coach I decided to take full responsibility. To get really clear on what partnership I wanted and who I needed to be to get it.
You see, I know that I can’t change my partner. I can’t control what they do or how they show up. I can ask them. I can set boundaries. But ultimately it’s up to them to decide if what I am asking is something they want to do. The only person I have control over is myself. It’s called radical-responsibility. So before Christmas I decided to apply it, I’ll be honest, initially in the back of my mind it was with the thought ‘well I’’m going to make the effort to change and if he doesn’t adapt to the new changes then it’s proof that the problem is him’.
Then something clicked. I suddenly realised, all the patterns I had been holding onto, the way I show up in relationship, if I don’t change them in THIS relationship and it fails, I will have to make those changes anyway in my future relationship, if I want the relationship that I desire. So my clarity on the relationship I wanted came from my teacher Layla of the different types of relationships that she has witnessed in her decades long work.
I wrote down the ones that excited me the most. The relationship that I am longing for has the following qualities to it:
Power couple - we are both here to get shit done, here to move mountains, here to accomplish things in life
Personal development partnership - we are mirrors for each other, giving each other feedback and digesting karma together
Eros partnership - sex, lovemaking, erotic expansion and erotic growth
Dharmic partnership - here to support each other’s greater mission in the world
Playmate partnership - have all the fun, all the time, the cosmic jokes, the laughter, the play
What I was realising is that I am not going to get that if I don’t show up in the way I need to. I won’t get it with this partner, and if things aren’t to work out, I won’t get it with someone else. I needed to make changes - for myself.
For much of 2023 I would have great self-awareness and would put it back on my partner that if he showed up in a particular way then I would respond differently and we wouldn’t have these problems. The things is, he was also seeing that if I didn’t have certain behaviours then he wouldn’t have the particular response that was causing me so much pain.
So we were stuck.
In a blame cycle.
I had done so well to get out of blame cycles in my marriage to my ex husband that I of course put the blame on the blame cycle appearing onto my new partner - because I had worked through that in the past so of course it must be him that’s creating this. Maybe initially that may have been the case, but I still allowed myself to get caught up in it and perpetuating it.
The problem for me with the radical responsibility was the fear of being gaslit. This had happened to me on numerous occasions with friends, ex boyfriends, a family member and an employer. I had been told that my side of things was wrong and that I was to blame. I found it difficult to trust my sense of reality. Just to give you an example of what gaslighting looks like, in my 20s I knocked on the front door of my boyfriend’s shared house and his friend answered the door. I could tell by the way he answered that something wasn’t right. He said something about my boyfriend not being available but I went upstairs anyway. I opened the door and saw him in bed with another woman. My boyfriend immediately got up and got angry at me. ‘How dare you embarrass (woman’s name) like that. What are you doing?’ And he continued to attack me and blame me for upsetting this woman while I stood there and felt embarrassed and shame about the fact that I had caused this upset to this woman. He had convinced me in that moment that I was the bad person. It wasn’t just that situation though, it was a series of this type of behaviour which meant that in that specific moment I ‘believed’ him.
So the thing is, when you put it together - of course it makes sense that my nervous system has become hyper vigilant. Looking for ways that someone might be taking advantage or not being honest. And the problem is for me, when I try to calm that part of myself and show the ways that my current friends and partner are NOT like that, this part of me is worried that I may be being gaslit again.
The thing is, what was coming into my awareness is that this wound that I continue to carry with me, continues to show up in my relationship and create problems. It creates issues of trust.
What I started noticing in myself and what I see in the couples and individuals that I work with, and when I listen to people talking generally about their relationship is the focus is on the ‘other’. We get so caught up in what the other person is doing, what they aren’t doing and what they should be doing. We are concerned with how they aren’t meeting our needs, how they don’t treat us in the way we want and they don’t look at or listen to our side of the story.
I know from my previous marriage that I can’t change the other person. However, here I was again in battle, fighting for my side to be listened to and understood. And in the meantime, I had forgotten to acknowledge my part. I was not showing up in the best way either. How can I expect my partner to be the best version of himself when I wasn’t showing up as the best version of myself? I had fallen into the trap of a power struggle:
Wanting to be right
Wanting to get back at him for things he had done or said
Deflecting his experience
Projecting my past, my fears and worries onto him
Pushing him away
The interesting thing is when we behave in this way we feel shame for it. When we don’t fully feel into the shame, be with it and accept it as part of the process which then means we can acknowledge our mistakes, repair the disconnect and move on, what we do instead is we try to avoid the shame. We step even further into the power struggle as a means to defend ourselves from feeling the shame. And so, that’s where the cycle continues. That’s how we get trapped in conflict and fighting our corner.
I had learnt in my marriage which had got stuck in the Mother & Son dynamic that to ‘get my husband to do more around the house’ wasn’t about me asking more and criticising him more for ‘doing it wrong’ or for ‘forgetting’, it was giving him more space, having clear conversations where I gave him the choice to engage in how he felt he wanted to and could. My ex-husband and I still live together now with our children so it is this foundation that we created in our marriage which now means we can converse with so much more respect for each other over the small tasks and bigger decisions. Do we still get frustrated and sometimes speak unkindly to each other? Of course! We’re human but our ability to repair after conflict is extremely smooth.
What happens in new relationships and new dynamics is we can easily forget all of this as a new partner brings new things out of you. Your partner is acting as a sort of mirror to the places in yourself which you have wounds or trauma that are unresolved. So the skill becomes in slowing down, tuning into the sensation in the body, noticing what emotion is attached to that right now and then notice what story we have about the other person. When we investigate deeper what we are really saying is that we have some need that is unmet or some fear, some core wound which is being exposed. So a more loving response is more along the lines of, how can I share with my partner how I am feeling right now?
And is there something that I can ask from them to support me which is within their boundaries, such as physical affection, more time, help…
So where am I at right now?
I have written a list of my most common behaviours down and written what it is that I need to do for myself or ask of my partner in those situations so that I am clear on the action I need to take.
I have also started reconnecting more frequently to my inner-child, the part of me that fears the most the abandonment of others and who houses the most mistrust - and when she panics, I slow down and soothe her.
With this information now, my question to you is what are you doing to have the relationship you desire?
I know you were trying your best before, now you have this new information, where in your relationship can you be doing better?
Where are you not showing up as the best version of yourself?
Where could you show up differently?
How can you listen more to your partner and see their perspective?
How can you hold your inner-child?
Where can you learn to communicate better?
Drop me an email and let me know firstname.lastname@example.org
Carla Crivaro is a trauma-informed and certified Sex, Love & Relationship Coach, she works with men and women internationally to reach their goals in delicious sex, profound love and authentic relationships. Carla helps men and women understand themselves and each other, sexually and relationally, in and out of the bedroom. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Other articles and podcasts which are supportive around this topic are: