How Your Past Traumatic Experiences Can Undermine Your Present Romantic Relationships

The importance of the past, but not the immediate past.

Given the fact that young people are marrying at a later age than they did in previous generations, they have more opportunities to get into romantic relationships that are not satisfactory. In fact, if someone meets, falls in love and marries at the age of thirty, that person may well have fallen in love and entered into serious, but ultimately failed, relationships on three or four previous occasions. All these romantic relationships drew to an end. Many of them were, looked at from that final perspective, disappointing; but some may have seemed extremely unsettling, even traumatic.

I do not wish to include in this group calamities that occur rarely: being raped or assaulted or defrauded or led into a life of drugs or prostitution. These things and other kinds of similarly awful abuse do happen, and they can cause the kind of emotional disorders that are often referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. They are as devastating as a battleground injury. I mean, instead, to refer to the common situations where one person was led to believe that a loving relationship would continue on and lead to a permanent commitment but did not.

Sometimes a partner was unfaithful. Someone may have lied repeatedly. Another may have promised love but was only interested in sex. I think nice people do not behave in such ways; but not everyone is nice. And probably nice people are not always nice. Certainly, they are not always reliable. People fall out of love. Sometimes they fall in love with others without really wanting that to happen. Many loving, romantic relationships fall apart when the people get to know each other better. Many times they end with one person seeming to abandon the other, although since one person responds to the other who is still responding to the first, it is often difficult for me to figure out just who is abandoning whom.

These are the routine disappointments of love.

Although they are routine, they are often offered as an explanation for why someone who is exiting such a romantic relationship is hesitant to enter into a new one. That person may seem touchy, or suspicious, or antagonistic—or just plain unpleasant—to whomever they happen to meet next. It is as if this new person is paying the price for whatever the last suitor may have done. Since these disappointments in romantic relationships are so common, probably universal, they are not an adequate explanation for why some people seem to react so strongly to them and others do not. I think the real reasons are embedded in their past, sometimes their distant past. These more recent disappointments are especially upsetting to some because they resonate with similar disappointments they felt when growing up.

Examples of Past Painful Experiences

Starting with the idea that the unhappy person in a broken relationship (they can both feel unhappy) is feeling rejected or in some other way treated badly, the explanation may lie in childhood and refer most likely to the family dynamics that characterized that time of life. For example:

  1. A young woman feels her boyfriend broke up with her because his parents did not like her; and he refused to stand up for her. When she was an adolescent, she felt her parents similarly disapproved of her and criticized her unfairly. She spontaneously connected the two experiences. She felt she had no chance to win over this second set of parents. This was the second unsuccessful love affair she had had that year, but it was her own parents she thought of when she felt hopeless.
  2. A young divorced woman was very jealous of her current boyfriend, so jealous that he eventually stopped seeing her. She had not been affected by her husband having been unfaithful—he was not—but she was terribly shaken as a teenager when she discovered her father was having an affair.
  3. A middle-aged woman was bitter over a series of unhappy love affairs. She was angry at the next man she met as soon as walked through the door. But she had felt disappointed in practically everyone in her life, including family and friends. She could give acerbic and detailed accounts of why all men were childish and all women selfish. To explain her behavior in terms of the very last unsuccessful affair she had would be to miss the point.
  4. A middle-aged man claimed he had been “dumped” by a woman for reasons that he did not know explicitly, but he thought it was because he was not good-looking enough and not smart enough. He had not cared for her very much, but he cared very much about the fact, as he saw it, of being inferior. He could relate stories about different times and events in his life that supported that idea.

I have singled out these four stories to tell, because the reactions of the men and women involved seemed even in their minds to be more closely related to events in the past than what had happened in their most recent romantic relationships. Nevertheless, when asked why they were so testy and defensive in a more recent affair, they said it was because they had had “bad experiences in their last relationship.” It seemed to be a simple explanation. Easy to understand.

The Real Reasons People Appear Bitter

The truth is that most men and women who come across as bitter and easily hurt are responding to  more subtle events from their past. They start off each relationship being pessimistic. They are cynical and they expect little from anyone. (People tell them they expect too much.) The truth is they have low self-esteem. Because of the way they were treated when they grew up, they have learned to expect little. They are likely then to experience every broken relationship as confirmation of the inevitability of more rejections yet to come. It is that more global perspective that makes it hard for them to smile and be friendly and to be willing to give the next person who comes along a chance.

There are others, however, who have grown up feeling that they are respected by their families and that they belong. Later in life they are less likely to take disappointment and rejection to heart. Someone who grows up loved and admired by parents and other family are to some extent immune to these more recent events and less likely to become disenchanted and bitter. They survive disappointments and rejections  with equanimity when they happen, as such things do happen to everyone sooner or later. (c) Fredric Neuman

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© Copyright 2014 Fredric Neuman, M.D., All rights Reserved.
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Fred Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center. After serving as Associate Director for 21 years, Dr. Neuman assumed the directorship in 1994. Educated at Princeton University and the NYU College of Medicine, Dr. Neuman specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is the author of the following books: Caring: Home Treatment for the Emotionally Disturbed, Fighting Fear: An Eight Week Guide to Treating Your Own Phobias, Worried Sick?: The Exaggerated Fear of Physical Illness, and Worried Sick? The Workbook. Dr. Neuman is also the author of numerous magazine and newspaper articles on the efficacy of Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Neuman is a member of the American Psychiatric Society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Science. Dr. Neuman is also the author of the following novels: "The Seclusion Room," Viking Press. "Maneuvers" Dial Press "Come One, Come All," "The Wicked Son," "Detroit Tom and His Gang" "Superpowers." All these books are available from Amazon.