(4-minute read) Traumatic experiences, especially those from childhood, often lead to difficulties that appear in our romantic relationships. Those with a history of trauma often feel more comfortable keeping friends and colleagues at a distance but anxious in more intimate relationships because this strategy no longer works. And it isn’t just events from childhood. Toxic relationships in adulthood can lead to trust issues in a relationship and cause other difficulties with physical and emotional intimacy.
If you’ve suffered some form of trauma, you may be responding to intimacy by putting up a wall, or by ensuring you remain in control at all times. Alternatively, you may find yourself getting too close too soon, or giving up control in your relationships. Research has found that the most common complaint of people enduring trauma isn’t PTSD, but relationship difficulties. These usually have to do with trust or the power dynamic in relationships.
Trust and Power in Relationships
Signs of trust issues include showing too much or too little trust, whereas power dynamics involve feeling controlled or controlling of others.
The process of healing your relationship starts with recognizing whether difficulties demonstrating trust or power are playing out in your intimate relationships. This article will describe many of the behaviors displayed when struggling with trust or control in a relationship.
Trust Issues in a Relationship
If you are struggling with trust, you might find yourself acting in one of three ways. You might be overly trusting, overly distrustful, or avoid scenarios that require trust.
Healthy intimate relationships generally go through euphoric, playful, and at times, bewildering stages of getting to know one another. We share activities, make plans together, and handle disagreements. As things get serious, we disclose increasingly intimate details about ourselves and slowly adjust to being in an intimate partnership. We’re required to trust another person and have confidence in our judgments. These are difficult calls under the best of circumstances, and precarious ones in the aftermath of betrayal.
Avoiding Trust – Why Am I Afraid of Intimacy?
Intimate relationships require a degree of trust. Allowing yourself to get close to another person often requires a degree of vulnerability. While you are likely to have many positive feelings, some may resemble what you felt before you were betrayed in the past. Our bodies detect threats by searching for patterns. If vulnerability once preceded pain, future states of vulnerability might trigger an alarm to warn you of impending danger. Despite being in a safe environment, you might feel dread or panic from the past, but attribute it to the present.
To avoid any anxiety, you may simply avoid intimacy the moment it threatens to appear. You may avoid disclosing things about yourself, keep secrets, stick to superficial conversations, put up a wall, or leave the relationship altogether. The strategy here is to ensure you never feel betrayed by never needing to trust someone.
Overly Trusting – Do I trust too much?
We make up a lot in our heads about other people. Sometimes, we get caught up in the moment and find ourselves convinced a person is wonderful. They may well be. But trust is a gradual process and takes time to build. Sometimes, we decide prematurely to show more trust than the relationship warrants. We may share deeply personal stuff too soon, become too intimate, or see the other person as more perfect than they really are. In some cases, we may ignore signs that someone is unsafe. If you happen to be in a relationship with an abusive person, you could find yourself hurt or exploited.
Overly Distrusting – Am I suspicious of people?
In contrast to the above two examples, you might want to get close but feel pushed back by suspicion and distrust. Deep down, you might believe that no-one can truly be trusted and rely only on yourself. You might suspect an ulterior motive from every act of kindness, worry that what you disclose would be used against you, or that your partner would reject you if they knew your past. You may hold back in a relationship leading to feelings of guilt and self-doubt.
Mistrust may even extend to yourself. You might question your motives and the appropriateness of your feelings. Self-doubt can develop when frequently experiencing invalidation. Invalidation routinely occurs in abusive relationships. It is the experience of a contradiction between what happened (mistreatment) and how others describe the same event (“nothing inappropriate happened”).
Power Dynamic in Relationships
When the power dynamic in relationships are a problem, you might find yourself acting in one of the following three ways. You might give away too much control, become controlling of others, or avoid situations that require you to negotiate power.
Giving Away Control – Being Submissive in a Relationship
You and your partner are equals. However, you may often feel like the underdog. You may find it hard to be assertive, even when the situation calls for it. Or worry that you are showing aggression when you set boundaries or make reasonable demands. You might habitually defer important decisions to your partner and avoid all confrontation so as not to feel anxious, scared, or angry. Or accept behaviors you disagree with, and in extreme cases, feel coerced into doing things you don’t want to do. You might wrongly diagnose yourself as codependent and conclude nothing can change.
Controlling Others – Control Issues in a Relationship
Another way of coping with the power dynamic in relationships is to ensure you are the one in control at all times. It can be subtle, such as when making decisions without consulting your partner. Or not so subtle, such as when engaging in threats or manipulation to get your way. You might think that all relationships are competitive and that others will take advantage of you if they are in control. You may even select partners you perceive as subservient to maintain a position of authority. Exerting control often affords a sense of power, but can leave you feeling frightened by, forever apologizing for, or disgusted by your actions. It may contribute significantly to the end of a relationship.
Avoiding Power Dynamics
Managing the division of power can be stressful, and so it’s sometimes easier to simply withdraw. You may avoid conversations that impact you both. You may neither acknowledge nor show appreciation for sacrifices made. In time, you can find yourself feeling disengaged emotionally or physically. You might have a history of exiting perfectly good relationships when they start to get serious.
Therapy for Trust Issues
If you identify with the coping strategies described above, it might be helpful to talk to someone. Understanding how previous trauma may be impacting your current relationship is an essential first step in learning how to overcome trust issues. Resolving difficulties around trust and power can help you develop a more authentic and rewarding bond with your partner.
It is important to remember that the way you feel towards trust and power developed for a good reason. You likely had the trust you placed in someone betrayed. Someone might have abused their power over you. It makes absolute sense to feel anxious when trusting another or giving up control. The good news is that since we learned our protective (but no longer helpful) ways of relating to people, we can learn new and more genuine ways of relating. Therapy is a place to safely explore our underlying beliefs, challenge ourselves, and finally practice authentic ways of connecting with those close to us.