Old wounds have many ways of stealing into relationships. They can disrupt a connection, prevent a connection from reaching take-off, or slowly pull at a relationship until it’s gasping for air. Everyone is capable of having a connection that is loving and life-giving – a relationship that allows each person to be completely seen, stripped back to bare, pretences gone, flaws and vulnerabilities on full show. It’s beautiful, but it’s not easy, because this type connection requires openness and vulnerability. The walls need to fall and the armour needs to soften.
Here’s the dilemma – let go of the armour and risk being hurt, but don’t let go of the armour and the relationship you deserve will struggle to find you.
Armour is the protective wrap we put around ourselves to stop the things that have hurt us before from ever hurting us again. It isn’t a bad thing – we all have it and we all need it – but the tougher and tighter the armour, the harder it is to connect, feel loved, and give love. You might feel the love, deeply and purely, put it just can’t get through the way it needs to.
The deepest wounds often come from childhood. They can affect the way people see the world, themselves and their relationships. They can shape the expectations people have of themselves and others, and what they think they deserve. They can also affect people on a physiological level – the way they hold themselves physically, the way they move, their nervous system, and their brain. But none of this has to be permanent.
Of course, not all wounds come from childhood. Few of us reach adulthood without having had our hearts broken, our ideas about love questioned and our spirits bruised. It’s how we deal with this that will determine the power our history has to keep hurting us. In fact, by providing an opportunity for self-reflection, learning and experimentation, past hurts can be the gateway to stronger relationships – but this does take effort, a willingness to explore and the courage to experiment with a different way of being.
The capacity for that is in all of us. In the same way that with deliberate effort and practice we can expand our physical capabilities, we can also extend well past the self-enforced limits of our emotional edges.
How do I know that an old wound is at play?
When there is chronic fighting in a relationship, it’s likely that old wounds are feeding the battle. The existence and influence of old wounds will often be out of our awareness. We won’t know they’re there, but their effects will be obvious.
Old wounds set to work when something in the present moment triggers old memories that are attached to old hurts. When this happens, we react to the new situation as though it’s an old one.
There are a few ways to tell that an old wound is at play:
- The conflict is constant, and always feels the same.
- Your emotional reaction to something within the relationship is intense and out of proportion to whatever seemed to cause it.
- Your reaction is difficult to shift.
Let’s get practical.
Here are some things that will enrich and enliven any relationship. Try experimenting and see which ones nourish your relationship and deepen your connection.
Love yourself like you would anyone else.
Pay attention to your own needs. Everything you need to find balance and live whole-heartedly is already in you. The clues will come out as feelings, whispers, and thoughts you can’t get rid of. Take notice. It’s your intuition and it knows what you need. Don’t ignore it, push it further down into you or shut it down. If you’re someone who has had plenty of being ignored throughout your life, this is where you get to stand up and give yourself the love you deserve.
Feel your feelings.
If the way you deal with hurt and disappointment is with a stoic pushing down of the feeling, try trusting your capacity to support yourself. The only way to deal with feelings is to feel them. They exist for a good reason and hold information about what you need or the direction you need to take. The more you push them down, the more damage they do – they toughen your armour, harden you and swipe at your capacity to connect. Let the feelings unfold, feel them a bit more than last time, and trust that you’ll be okay – because you will be.
Watch the things you tell yourself in an argument.
Be careful of self-talk that sounds like self-pity, victim talk, defensiveness or anger. Self-talk is the silent, automatic messages that swirl around in your head. It’s powerful and shapes the way you relate to the world. When you listen to the messages, you might be surprised by the tone and the words. The way you talk to yourself will leak into the way you are with the people close to you. Your self-talk might need some redirecting. This will mean being clear and strong with yourself sometimes, and comforting and tender at other times.
Your vulnerabilities are beautiful. Don’t hide them.
There are parts of all of us that are so soft, tender and raw that the temptation is to hide them away for protection. They’re the things you think about at 2am, the feelings you feel that nobody knows about, your insecurities, your fears. They’re the fragile parts of you and it would make sense to hide them if you were in a harsh or unsupportive environment but now you’re in a different one. Let your partner see them – don’t cover them with anger, denial or pretence. This might feel risky and you might feel as though it’s easier and safer to keep your frayed edges protected, wrapped up and tucked away where nobody can see, but trust that whatever happens you can support yourself, vulnerabilities and all. You’re not the same person you were all those years ago. Open up, little by little. It doesn’t have to all be about self-disclosure. It might be in the way you relate, the way you touch, the loving words you offer, the softening of yourself around someone. It’s about being vulnerable, because you can’t have intimacy without it.
Stay with the tough stuff.
What do you do when the conversation gets hard? Do you flare up? Shut down? Walk away? Stay? The temptation might be for fight or flight, and it’s likely that you’ll have a favourite. It’s also likely that neither are a great option. Try slowing things down so you can respond more deliberately and be less barrelled by automatic responses and old memories that happen out of your awareness. Avoiding difficult conversations has a way of driving distance between people. When one of you disengages, the other will soon follow. When this happens, issues will keep their heat and turn the solid foundation of your relationship to mud. If you feel yourself getting flighty, try grounding yourself. Feel your feet on the floor, your back, your legs. Slow your breathing and remember that they are just feelings. They’ll come, and then they’ll go. When the temptation is to disengage, focus on your partner and remember why it’s important that you stay.
Widen the space between what happens, and how you respond.
We all get into habitual ways of responding in relationships. They happen instantly and without conscious thought. Slow down the process. Breathe so you can give yourself time and widen the space between what happens or what is said, and your response. Then, when you’re ready, speak clearly, openly, and without blame or judgement. That doesn’t mean you can’t point out the problems, but do it from a position of strength, grace and love, not righteousness. Consider what you can do – or stop doing – to make it easier for the other person to give you what you need. The more open and emotionally generous you can be, the more the other person will have permission to do the same.
Use the forgive button. A lot.
All relationships will come into conflict now and then. When you’re with someone who loves you, there will be a ton of power that comes from being hurt. Use it wisely. We all get it wrong sometimes and we all do stupid things that hurt the people we love. When you’re the one who has been hurt, acknowledge it, discuss it, feel hurt or angry, but don’t use your hurt or anger as a way to keep the power or control in the relationship. Use it to feed a conversation and to find a better way to do things, but don’t use your hurt or anger to lift you to the saddle of your high horse. It can be pretty cold and lonely up there. That doesn’t mean you have to accept every bit of nonsense going around – you don’t. What it means is that not holding out on a resolution or fight dirty because of a sense of entitlement or ‘rightness’. The silent treatment, getting personal or nasty, or fiercely claiming victim status might feel good at the time, but it will sink your relationship in the long run. Righteous people can be hard work – you don’t want to be one of those.
Let go of ‘perfection’. It’s weighing you down.
We humans can be pretty great to be around, but we’re far from perfect. The problem with perfection is that it overlooks the sobering fact that you can’t be perfect at everything. When you’re striving for perfection in one area, another area will suffer. It’s just the way it is. When you put the expectations of perfection onto your relationship or your partner, it’s going to cause trouble. If you’re reading this and you’re thinking something like, ‘I don’t get it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting things to be perfect,’ or ‘I’m not righteous, it’s just that I’m pretty much always right, but that’s not my fault,’ explore how your need to be perfect or right might be affecting your relationship, then loosen the hold and open up to enjoying your forgiving, fun, honest, imperfect relationship.
Say what is true.
Speak with an open heart. This doesn’t mean attacking, blaming, judging or criticizing in the name of honesty. Attack is attack and criticism is criticism, however you dress them up. The phrase, ‘just being honest’ is too often used as a poor disguise for ‘just being mean’. Speaking with an open heart means talking about how you feel. It’s letting yourself be seen in a way that makes it easy for others to respond and give you what you need. This will mean going deeper into what you’re feeling and finding the truth behind it. If you’re angry, what’s the feeling underneath it? What are the words? Anger never exists on its own and there’s always something – sadness, insecurity, fear, guilt, jealousy. If you feel the need to shut down or close up, what’s behind that? What are you scared will happen if you stay open? Avoiding an issue doesn’t make it any less true. It just gives it the power to hurt you from the dark.
Don’t leave the loving up to someone else.
When you don’t love yourself enough, your guard will either be too far up or not up far enough. Anyone will do or nobody will do – and that’s a lonely way to live. Don’t be the bully that judges, shames or criticises you. Chances are you’ve had enough of that already. The monster is well fed – don’t feed it any more.
Be fully wherever you are.
Listen with your heart and your full body. People will open up and be more ready to connect when they feel heard and seen. Too often in conversation, we’re not fully there. Instead, we’re distracted by other things or by thinking about how we’ll respond. Feel what’s being said rather than listening to it. When your partner is talking notice how you hold your body. Are you open? Attentive? Available? What about your face? Is it hard? Warm? Tender? Are you thinking about your response or are you listening to what’s being said?
Your wounds don’t have to wound you anymore.
Your wounds don’t have to wound you anymore. They’re the proof of your resilience, your strength and your courage and now they can work hard for you. First though, you’ll have to shine the light on them. Don’t keep them in the dark, otherwise you won’t see them coming when they crash into you. When you have an emotional reaction to your partner, what does this remind you of? What is your earliest memory of these feelings? You might need to sit with them for a while to let them speak to you. What about your partner? Who does he or she remind you of? Then – how are they different? Focusing on the differences will help you to stop seeing your partner or your relationship through an old filter.
And finally …
It’s important to remember that when trying anything new, it will feel awkward for a while and the temptation will be to run back to what’s familiar. Be aware of this and move back into your safety zone if you want to, but remember the reasons you wanted to move out of it and let it be a temporary refuge, not a permanent address.
It’s easy to accept that the way you feel and the things you believe are normal – they may be, but that doesn’t mean they’re working for you. There is always the possibility for a new kind of normal. One that is richer, more open, more loving and more connected. The shift might not be a quick one, but with courage and the readiness to experiment with the world and your relationships, it’s always possible to find a new way to be – one that feels more whole-hearted and vital.
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