One usually hears about post-traumatic stress, as in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in relation to military veterans or those who have sustained abuse and other significant fearful events including rape and other crimes, domestic violence, or following an accident. It’s serious business, and can be life altering to those who suffer from it.
A former client of mine is a war veteran who sustained both physical and emotional wounds from an explosion in battle. Over twenty years since the event, and he is plagued by anxiety, bad dreams, and fear. He never sits with his back exposed to a door or open area and often avoids opening his door to visitors or going out in public because it is extremely stressful for him. What a terrible way to live!
While this former soldier’s experience is on the extreme end of what is categorized as PTSD, I have noted that bad former relationships have a way of triggering negative emotions, flashback memories, and can often lead to losing touch with reality because of the fears triggered by the past.
Even if your former marriage wasn’t particularly volatile or marred by physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, I suspect many of us are scarred by events from former relationships that find a way to cast shadows over the present. If not true PTSD, perhaps it could be qualified as post-relationship stress.
You may experience something very small and subtle such as finding yourself ready to call a new partner by your ex’s name because he does something reminiscent of your ex, or at least something that annoys you on some level.
I have caught myself, on more than one occasion, getting ready to use my ex’s name because my husband does something that makes me upset. Thankfully my marriage and my husband don’t resemble my former marriage in almost any way I can think of, so any irritation I have experienced has been extremely mild compared to the continuous conflict I used to live with.
It’s as if my brain has learned to associate all things negative with my ex; so, his name automatically jumps to the front of my mouth when something bad happens! I actually take this as a good sign that my ex equals all things bad and my brain doesn’t make a solid connection to my husband equating to those traits.
It’s a strange phenomenon, but I know I’m not completely alone in this!
A co-worker of mine recently told me that before she married her current husband of many years, she used to date another man who was a very reckless driver. They broke up and she and her husband started to date. Her husband is typically an excellent driver; but one time, quite a while after they were together, he took a curve too fast and had to slam on the brakes. She stated that she has no idea what came over her, but she immediately yelled out her ex’s name! She, too, had been programmed to associate bad experiences with her ex!
These examples are very mild, but they hint at the more severe and serious ways the past can continue to haunt us.
One woman shared with me that she received a text from her boyfriend stating “you have some explaining to do when I get home!” He included a laughing emoticon next to his message because he was starting a joke with her; but, all she saw was the cryptic message, and immediately went into panic. Her mind started racing, she racked her brain trying to figure out what she had done wrong, and she even cried because she feared that this wonderful man that she loved was leaving her.
In the seven years they were together, he had never raised his voice to her, laid a hand on her, or even been unkind. It was irrational for her to become so emotional and afraid; but, she was unable to think logically. His accusatory statement (even though it was a joke) transported her back to a dark time in her life when she was constantly belittled, questioned, criticized, physically and verbally abused, and lived as though walking on egg shells.
In her terror, she completely missed his next few texts where he shared with her that an internet search of their address listed it as a massage parlor, not a sleazy one; but, he still hoped to have a good laugh with her about what she did during the day, and maybe even score one of the special massages listed on the website (that was obviously published by a former resident).
He ended up feeling terrible about his joke when he saw the effect on her, and both realized how fragile she was and how easily she could be rocked off of the solid foundation of love and trust they had built, even years after she was last treated this way.
If you experience a momentary ex flashback in the form of a triggered memory or using the wrong name in the heat of an unusual situation; that’s not particularly cause for concern. In my case, I usually chuckle to myself that the reigning jackwad in my life is still my ex. I have removed most of the triggers from my life by removing him and objects from my life that reminded me of bad times in our marriage (e.g. you may recall an earlier piece I wrote about the journey to healing represented by a couch in my life).
If, however, the sound of a raised voice still makes you cower, and you still break out into a sweat and cry for fear of rejection or harm from another, I would encourage you to seek help. Normal people do not mistreat others. Normal, good people that you now have the chance to meet will treat you with respect and not plant fears and dysfunction deep into your psyche that have to be carefully excavated by professionals or tender-hearted loved ones.
Under no circumstances should you accept another holding you captive with fear or making you feel inferior. An insensitive Neanderthal who forgets every anniversary and has no clue how to put the seat down on the toilet is one thing, a partner who controls, alienates, second guesses, criticizes, threatens, intimidates, or causes harm is quite another beast. There’s no reason why you should ever have to recover from what someone did to you in the past.
Take care of yourself, and know that you deserve better than this! These actions described are not love. Love yourself enough to get away from a person who treats you that way, and get help!