I’ve often shared how a relationship breakup put me on the personal growth path in my 60’s. While moving on from a broken relationship was challenging by itself, trying to understand why I ignored red flags and held on so long to an unhealthy dynamic proved to be the hardest part. It also became the most profound pivot of my life.
Today as I was listening to a Being Well podcast, I found myself feeling so “heard and understood” by Dr. Rhonda Freeman. Learning how the brain is impacted in our relationships explained a lot of the mystery that kept both me and my partner in unhealthy cycles. Repetitive patterns and the release of brain chemicals that “reward” us play significant roles.
Turns out that Dr. Rhonda Freeman also went through a similar relationship and breakup as me. She had the same experience afterward with friends and an unhelpful counselor that I did. She also had a strong desire to learn from the lessons which resulted in her turning to personal growth resources to find her healing. Dr. Freeman discovered that this foundation in her very own field of expertise — neuropsychology. While her main focus had been dementia, she now applied the science and tools to healing from a dysfunctional relationship.
While I did not have that field of expertise, I did have a keen fascination in neuroscience as well as a budding interest in mindfulness — and that led me to discovering Dr. Rick Hanson. The profound pivot for me was turning my attention inward and committing to some major changes. For most of my life, I’d always been about helping others, so this was a complete 180 for me. It was Dr. Hanson’s book, Hardwired for Happiness that jumpstarted the process.
Listening to the podcast today revealed the complex impact of an emotionally dysfunctional relationship on the brain. Suddenly a lot of pieces started to fall into place for me as I gained clarity about red flags and why my healing from that relationship took several years. I found Dr. Freeman’s honesty about her own relationship experience to be comforting and reassuring. She too had missed the red flags. She too had kept doubling down on efforts to salvage a fraying relationship. There is such a strong influential pull in romantic relationships fueled by our innate need for belonging and connection, that we can often override and overlook what should seem obvious.
Even Dr. Hanson confessed that he was once “talked into” following a cult-like group at one point in his life and in spite of his background, he too was completely affected and bamboozled by the influential power of the group. He pointed out that because we humans are by nature empathic and compassionate, we are also vulnerable to being influenced and drawn into relationships with others that are not so healthy. Sadly, emotionally dysfunctional relationships are all too common these days.
It’s not that unusual to have blind spots to the red flags. We may just dismiss them or explain them away. It can happen to anyone. We get flooded and overwhelmed by strong influences. Dr. Hanson cautions us to have a deep appreciation for the power of social conformity, acceptance and openness to being manipulated by others.
Once the conversation established how we find ourselves getting pulled into unhealthy relationships, it then turned to what is needed in the aftermath. How do we heal? What lessons do we learn and how do we develop our awareness and attunement to red flags and our own unconscious patterns?
Dr. Rhonda Freeman explained the double whammy of recovering from dysfunctional relationships. Not only do we have to heal from the pain of an emotionally dysfunctional relationship, we also have to address the shame that accompanies it. Shame we put on ourselves for allowing ourselves to be pulled into such a dynamic and shame from others. Very often well-meaning but misguided friends will also shame us. “How could you get into this relationship? Why did you accept that behavior? How did you miss those red flags and long-standing behavioral patterns? “
As I listened to Dr. Freeman’s stories about her friends who took a “tough love” stance and told her to “get over it” and “just move on”, it resonated deeply with me. The tough love approach can do more harm than good and often only causes additional heartache. Now I understood why I felt so awful back then and even avoided friends who doled out their tough love advice or thought I should dive headfirst into a new relationship.
As Dr. Hanson pointed out, you need a trusted friend to fill the emotional void that is inevitable after a breakup. This is a key element to healing — because it is the emotional void that can cause rumination, longing and extended suffering. It is much more supportive to have a trusted friend who will hold space for you and be willing to listen without judgment. You need a reliable friend who can curl up on the couch with you and watch a movie, make you laugh, offer grace to you as you take time and space to reflect, to recover.
While this was not covered in the podcast, it was only through a lot of deep introspective work that I realized some aspects of my former relationship had triggered memories and emotions buried deep in me from my childhood experiences with my mother. Oddly enough, this started to come out in my journaling. I would have missed many opportunities to go deeper with my personal growth work had I not stuck with it. The breakup actually served to be quite cathartic for me.
Once I was more aware of those old emotional layers, I committed to healing them as well. It is why I now have a daily practice for my mental health and well being. In fact, there have been many aspects about my former relationship that became gateways to learn more about how the brain functions, childhood trauma, depression, emotional intelligence, addictions, neuroscience and the enneagram.
While my partner may not have had narcissistic issues, I believe that emotional disregulation and old behavioral patterns contributed to relationship dysfunction that feels remarkably similar to what was discussed in this Being Well podcast. He often described himself as a delicate flower — and I now understand that this was how he felt about the fragility of his ego. I often felt like I was walking on eggshells around him, never knowing what passing comment would trigger him. This led to more guarded conversation than light-hearted banter.
Our approaches to life’s challenges were quite opposite –I’d head for a walk in nature to clear my head and he’d curl up in bed, in the dark, for hours and often emerge heavier and sadder. I’ve come to understand that his enneagram characteristics predisposed him to hang out with deep dark emotions, often ruminating about the past. It was his comfort zone – a soothing mechanism that did not serve him well.
I’d been traumatized as a 4 year old when my mother locked me in a dark attic as punishment for running home from pre-school after an incident with a bully. So the last place you will find me is in a darkened room if the sun is shining. Since I did not understand his innate preference for sitting at length with his heavy emotions in the dark and he did not understand my need for sunlight and energy, we were both blind as to why our responses to adversities were so different. He felt unsupported because I could not stay in the dark where I unconsciously felt scared and very uncomfortable.
At the onset of our relationship, I mistook his deep pool of emotions for vulnerability and a capacity for empathy. I have subsequently learned from enneagram educators who share his type that this is a common misconception and a frequent cause of relationship issues. HIs self-focused actions often caused me and others hurt and confusion. It was his lack of remorse and understanding about his impact on others that baffled me the most. Surely if he himself could feel emotions so deeply, he must be able to understand another’s feelings. There was a disconnect about what he needed and what he was able to reciprocate. I chose the word “able” intentionally here. I know he was “capable” but I believe that unconscious behavioral patterns created his blind spot.
I’d seen the poor coping skills early on in our relationship, but chalked it up to the aftermath of a troubled marriage that ended in divorce. Especially because it often seemed to be most apparent whenever he and his ex had a disagreement about matters relating to their children. He was a doting dad who cared deeply for his children. But over time, I witnessed his struggle with emotional regulation and poor coping skills cropping up in many areas. It seemed that he really struggled to make any distinction between what should have been a 1 or 2 on the radar screen. Everything got a response as though it were a 10. This was an exhaustive pattern for both of us. I urged him to work on it so that we would have some reserve for the bigger milestones and adversities that life would surely bring us. This conversation sent us back to couples counseling.
Recently I have learned through Dr. Bruce Perry how the bar for our emotional stress regulation gets set in childhood. While I do not know my former partner’s full family history, I have some clues that might explain why he innately struggled so much with emotional regulation. While I did implore his family members to learn more, no one seemed to really have any answers, just the observation that ” he’s always been that way. ”
The very thing that brought us together — golf — was the final blow in our relationship. Instead of us having fun and enjoying our mutual passion for the game, each round was filled with his drama, poor sportsmanship and blaming others over bad shots.
That was when I took stock of the bigger picture and recognized that the behavioral patterns I experienced were not confined to our relationship. They were prevalent in his men’s golf groups, some friendships, with a prior girlfriend and at the very end, even with a cherished family member. It was in that moment that I asked him if this is how he really wanted to live his life. A few months after we broke up, he moved a new partner in with him.
Here is why I think that it is imperative to share as much information as possible about the tools and research that support mental health, self-awareness and personal growth. During our relationship of 6 years, we saw 5 couples counselors. We never made any significant and sustainable progress. Looking back, with the knowledge I now have, I can see where there were some big clues disclosed by each of us in our sessions, but no counselor ever picked up on them or suggested that we do some solo counseling. My partner was also treated for depression but again it was limited to dispensing medication. Even his long time friend and family doctor would just shake his head and say the he was the most complex guy he ever knew. The stress overload he carried surely contributed to a string of serious health issues.
We have to find better ways to support people who have healing to do from childhood trauma, who need help to rewire their neural pathways so they can be free from rumination, chronic low-grade depression, high levels of anxiety and PTSD. Unresolved trauma or loss can be so overpowering that it affects the quality of our lives. Dr. Bruce Perry explains that unprocessed trauma and poor emotional regulation will stay with us all through adulthood and will result in a cascade of relational problems and serious health issues. I’ve witnessed this reality in my own family and this relationship.
It is the very reason that I have shifted my focus to broader outreach and awareness of mental health for both children and adults. I will continue to share resources, research and tools to support each of us in healing. As I recently heard on a podcast with Dr. Dan Siegel — “it is not our fault that trauma happened, but it is our responsibility to recognize how it impacts us and others.”
Being Well Podcast – Recovering from a Relationship with a Narcissist
Being Well Podcast – Depression and the Brain
YouTube Interview with Dr. Dan Siegel – The Power of Showing Up