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If you’ve been alive and dating for very long, chances are you’ve had a relationship go awry. You’ve been hurt.
Whether the two of you just weren’t a good match, one or both of you struggled with personal issues that affected your relationship, one or both couldn’t commit fully to the relationship, there was conflict and yelling or withdrawal and shut-downs: relationships can be painful.
When we’ve been emotionally hurt, it can feel devastating. The stress of a breakup or divorce can be excruciating, which is why we may say our “heart is broken.” It can sometimes feel like that’s literally true.
Sometimes, when this happens, we may tell ourselves “I just can’t do this again.” We may decide to protect ourselves by hiding who we really are. We decide that truly being vulnerable hurts too much, so we stop trying to date, or we close down in the relationship we’re in and live parallel—but disconnected—lives with our partner, or we date but don’t let our guard down. Even worse, we may unknowingly try to hurt the other person before they hurt us, leading to suffering for both of us.
In my own life—and in my therapy practice—I’ve seen how painful it can be when we’re in relationships full of struggle. Where even though both partners love one another, they can’t seem to show one another their true selves for fear of being hurt.
If you’re struggling to open up again after relationship pain, it’s okay to take as much time as you need to heal. There is no right way to recover from this sort of trauma. And it’s normal to think you may never date again.
But often, after we heal from the worst of the emotional damage from relationship trauma, we find ourselves wanting to connect in a loving way again, whether it’s with the partner we’ve had all along or with someone new.
But how can you do that without opening yourself up to more hurt?
The truth is that vulnerability can open us to pain, and that’s just part of the human experience. But there are ways to become more emotionally mindful in our relationships, which can then enable us to truly connect with our partner in an authentic and constructive way. By connecting deeply, by listening and being listened to, we can develop stronger bonds with our partner, and we can understand what’s going on in the relationship more clearly. We can break the cycle of defensiveness, conflict, withdrawal, and confusion that so often leads to relationships suffering.
To help myself and my clients nurture better relationships, I developed a four-step process designed to cultivate what I call Emotional Mindfulness: the skill of attending to, being present with, and making good use of our feelings.
As you begin connecting again after relationship pain, use these tools to understand what you’re feeling, what may lie underneath those feelings, and how to communicate your experience mindfully to your partner. And encourage your partner to learn these skills as well.
Step One: Recognize and Name.
The first step is to learn to identify where you’re getting triggered—when you’re reacting not to what your partner said or did, but to old emotions that may be holdovers from an old relationship or even from your childhood. Practice observing when you feel anxious or get defensive and name it as such. Identify what sets you off.
Step Two: Stop, Drop, and Stay.
When we’re triggered, we feel like there’s no choice between the moment we feel strong feelings (such as fear) and our response (like shutting down). But to understand what’s going on, we need to learn to abide with our emotional experience.
Rather than react the way you normally do when you get triggered, stop. Pay attention to how the emotion feels in your body. Describe it. Listen to what may be hidden beneath your reactivity. Feel your way through the experience without having to react right away.
Step 3: Pause and Reflect.
Then, take some time to reflect on what your feelings are telling you. If you’re feeling angry, is there more to it? Are you actually feeling hurt, disappointed, or afraid of losing connection with your partner? Get a sense of what your feelings are saying and what you want or need to make things better.
Step Four: Mindfully Relate your Feelings.
Once you’ve gotten to the core of your experience, try to find a way to reveal some of it to your partner. If you can, let them know what’s going on and how they can be helpful to you in the moment. It may feel scary, but vulnerability actually helps to create connection.
Relationships provide us with countless opportunities for growth and healing. Each challenge we face, each impasse we encounter, holds the promise of something better. Each time we’re triggered, it’s an opportunity to break free from the past and realize our true potential. To update our wiring and strengthen our connections.
Even though relationships can be painful, we can learn from this pain and can get better at communicating, understanding painful emotions, and connecting in a loving way.