I’ll never try to keep you,
but I’ll try to be
the kind of place
that makes you
always want to stay.
~J. Warren Welch
I want love,
sex that drives me crazy
and conversation that
drives me sane.
for Your heart
When we live with complex trauma, entering into new relationships, be they platonic or romantic, can be activating. We can want to dive into the depths too fast, reveal our past too quickly. We may be impatient to allow things to unfold as they will. We could want guarantees, promises, to know exactly what is happening. We want a sense of control, not to be controlling, rather to calm the chaos that is living within us.
Our systems may not have the ability to tolerate the unknown and liminal space that is required for new relationships to unfold in a ways that are beneficial for all, not rushed or pressured, slow and steady. The slow and steady growth of a relationship may activate our anxiety, as things aren’t moving “fast enough” or we don’t actually know where they are heading.
This makes sense given our histories. Unknowns almost always led to harm in some way. We learned from a very early age how to recognize patterns so we could navigate abusive and neglectful situations. When we are early in a relationship, patterns are being established and not yet known – this activates our stress and trauma responses.
We also may want to jump in and have our selves be “seen” and “known,” which may lead us to revealing parts of our selves or our history too early in a relationship before real trust has been established. (This is what we call trauma bonding.) We want to feel connected so desperately that we do whatever we know to try and “make” that happen.
One of the issues with this is we actually can’t “make” connections happen. We cannot force intimacy. True intimacy, emotional intimacy, is something that needs to be cultivated and nourished; it is something that grows and deepens over time with trust.
In order for emotional intimacy to grow we actually need to have good boundaries. We need to know and defend our limits. We need to be able to speak up when we are hurting, not in a blaming or accusatory way, rather in a way that is vulnerable. We need to be able to be comfortable enough with the idea of rejection and endings.
This is all counter intuitive when unprocessed complex trauma is running rampant in our systems and being. Our boundaries tend to be either overly soft or overly rigid (and sometimes depending on circumstances both). We are afraid of communicating to another when we are hurting, and then when we do we place blame and accusations instead of showing the tender, soft, hurting side. We are so terrified of abandonment that we do whatever we need to smooth things over and not have confrontation… which builds up over time until we finally explode or implode.
Emotional intimacy is challenging for most of us. It means being vulnerable. It means not having an agenda or endgame. It means releasing expectations and assumptions. It means putting a stop a to making demands. It means allowing space and time for things to unfold naturally and not forcing things in the directions we think we want. All of this goes against what the trauma living in us wants us to do.
This goes against what our neural pathways, our brains, know and understand.
Which means, in order to get to this place of emotional intimacy, we literally need to grow new neural pathways. We can do this in a number of ways. Embodiment or body-centered mindfulness can be part of the path. Taking baby steps in learning and doing different, practicing over and over. Learning to regulate our nervous system. Reclaiming our body as our own. Finding ways to expand the pause between being activated and reacting to a situation. Practicing all these things over and over and over again.
And even with all this foundation, we still need to actually communicate our wants and needs. To share parts of ourselves, in the right time and space, that feel tender, vulnerable. To take a breath when we are activated and to look at it and decide if old wounds are being poked at or if new ones are actually being created (or perhaps a bit of both).
All the embodiment practices in the world won’t replace actually speaking and sharing our wants, needs, boundaries, desires, or hurts.
The more we are able to speak, to communicate without trying to manipulate, limiting our expectations of responses, letting go of our assumptions about what the other person will or won’t do or say, the more we bolster those new neural pathways. The more we do this, the easier it becomes.
Though I’m not sure it every becomes easy.
Unlearning our old ways of being in relationship, and learning new ones, takes time, practice, and compassion. There is no quick fix or easy way to do this. It asks us to be self-aware, accountable, and vulnerable. It asks us to let go of harmful stories of what relationship “should” look like. It asks us to come home into our bodies, into the present moment. It asks us to process our childhood trauma.
It asks us to do things that were likely never modeled for us, to do things we’ve never done before and that feel foreign, strange, even wrong (even though in our logic brain knows it is right). It asks us to go against what is known and comfortable and move into the unknown and discomfort. It asks us to be accountable for our words and actions, without shame.
Through this process we need to remember we will mess up. We will get it wrong at times. We will fall back on our old harmful patterns and cycles. This is where our self-compassion can come in, where we need it to come in.
Learning to relate in new and different ways takes effort. It takes bravery. It takes a willingness to be wrong.
It takes love. Real love. Without expectations or assumptions or demands. Without promises or contracts. Without cages or prisons or obligations.
Love for others. Love for our world. Love for our life. Love for our Self.
This essay was originally written for my weekly-ish newsletter on July 26, 2020. It has been revised for publication here. To receive my most recent essays and learn about ways to work with me, you can subscribe here.
We will be exploring these ideas, and how to change the ways we are in our relationships with others and with ourselves in my new six month group Trauma Informed Embodiment™ for Relationship. You can learn more about it here.