I lash out at my boyfriend

I can't handle it when he acts needy. I was abused at age 6. Is there a connection?

Published March 13, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I've followed your advice columns for quite some time now and have been compelled to write for quite some time.

I am a woman in my early 20s, just getting my start in the creative field of my dreams in a large city 800 miles away from home. I've fought my way to the top of my class in every instance, and the past year has been filled with amazing opportunities and work that I never imagined would come my way. I have a long-distance boyfriend and several wonderful friends in this city. The eight months or so that I've been working have been some of the greatest, and worst, months of my life.

The transition from school to work was very rough, and I spent much of my summer holed up in my bedroom and attempting to shut out the world. Not being around other people daily as in college was, and is, quite hard and my relationship with my boyfriend suffered as I spiraled emotionally. Shortly after, I began seeing a therapist and for the first time in my life brought up the sexual abuse that I suffered at the hands of my older brother when I was around 6 years old. The abuse continued for many years, even after my parents walked into a compromising situation in the first few months of the abuse. They have never spoken about it since.

A few years ago, my brother was sent to prison for inappropriate relations with a minor and I was begged by him and my parents to help in covering up text messages by switching phones. At first, he claimed innocence, and then admitted his guilt months later. I locked myself in my room with some alcohol to numb the pain and, quite frankly, guilt and have only held cursory conversations with him since. I was forced to visit him in prison by my parents who requested I "smile" and "seem happy" for his sake. I feel betrayed by them for requiring me to associate with my abuser, and by my brother more than anyone. Part of me feels that my silence meant that he wouldn't hurt anyone else; I suffered for normalcy.

I've been only starting to process my trauma with my therapist and uncovered some really startling revelations about myself. For instance, I rarely accept help and am proud of the fact that my successes come from my own work; no one had to help me get to where I am today. On the flip side of that, I find myself disgusted and angered by those who come to me for help or advice, or show any intimacy toward me due to my being denied help from my parents at such a crucial time. This greatly affects my relationship with my boyfriend, who is wonderful and patient yet quite emotional and "needy," as I often complain. I find myself lashing out at him for the smallest request and despise when he shows me romantic love. I would much rather have a relationship built on sex than on romance and am never really romantic myself. Much of my life has been dominated by a sexual affection, leading me to be promiscuous and unfaithful to others before this relationship. The desire still plagues me to ignore others' feelings and sleep around, but I do truly care about this boy. It's just easier for me to relate to other people through sex than through emotions or intimacy and I fear that when my current relationship becomes more stable and less passionate, I won't be able to handle his everyday emotions and needs.

I often feel like regardless of this relationship, my emotional state is so shattered and walled-in that I will never be able to fully connect with someone and accept their intimacy as well as share my own. I fear showing emotion in public, and often lightly mock the people I am with, another trait I acquired from my parents. My boyfriend is hanging on but also fed up with my mood swings and irritable outbursts. I know that my therapist says that things will get better; that these emotions are just closeted feelings associated with the abuse that leak out in random times, causing these outbursts of emotion from a seemingly minor offense. But I feel like I will always be this way, that acknowledging it doesn't necessarily change it and I don't know how to approach that change. I'm scared I'll wear a warning label for the rest of my life when it comes to relationships, romantic and otherwise.

At what point are these characteristics simply part of a personality? Can I really change my coping mechanisms that I've built up over years and years? How on earth do I even begin to approach my lack of intimacy and begin to feel like I'm healing? I appreciate your advice.

Trying to Heal

Dear Trying to Heal,

Yes, absolutely you can change your coping mechanisms. You are in the process of doing that right now in therapy. It may seem slow but that is its nature. Therapy is slow. That doesn't mean it's ineffective. It is simply slow. What else is slow? The seasons are slow. Aging is slow; the acquisition of wisdom is slow; the sun's progress across the sky is slow. Emotional healing is slow.

But it happens.

Some people say everything happens for a reason. I know what they mean but I don't think you were sexually abused by your brother at age 6 "for a reason." I don't think your suffering and misfortune are somehow deserved or right or useful or, heaven forbid, visited upon you by some deity as a teaching. You were wronged. You were harmed. There's nothing good about that.

It is important to be precise. There is a difference between "happens for a reason," "is deserved," and "can be learned from."

This event in your past can be learned from. Moreover, it must be learned from if you are going to recover from its effects. "Learning from it" doesn't mean to learn a lesson, as if you could avoid repeating it. You can't go back to age 6 and do things differently. It may be that certain of your present-day behaviors are unconscious attempts to stop what happened to you from happening again -- to avoid being seduced or made vulnerable, to avoid being taken advantage of. But that is not the kind of learning I mean.

I mean we must learn to carry what has happened in the past; we must learn to bear it. To bear the past means learning its contours, its geography, what countries of your soul it enters and leaves, how it operates within you, what it feels like when it is approaching, what sounds you can hear when this awful, ragged remnant is skulking around a corner or approaching in broad daylight, how you tense up when you see it almost before you realize you are tensing up.

That's what learning from the past in a personal sense means: learning how it operates in the present. It is a form of healing. Your therapist can help in this.

"Desensitizing" is one thing that happens. As we look at these memories and look at each part of them, they change in character from overwhelming to phenomena we can observe with some detachment and control.

I tend to picture my memories of and reactions to past events like bits of string that go through a crack in the wall where there are unseen tangles; I want to pull on the string but not too hard; I want to feel carefully. Maybe if I pull on the string too hard the string breaks and then I have no idea what it is connected to behind the wall. I may lose access to this memory that is horrific but also precious, priceless, key to understanding who I am. Sometimes I want to tear the wall down but then all the poisons and rodents behind the wall may suddenly spring. So I will sit and contemplate the string, the hint, and see what qualities are in it that may give knowledge about what it is connected to. Maybe I can learn something about the history of this little piece of string. Is it dirty? From what? What made it dirty? What got on it to give it that gray, greasy look? What is it about it that is repellent? Is it old or new? It has aged differently from the piece that is not visible because it is out here in the light, not behind the wall. Yet it is the same substance.

Sometimes I will think behind the wall the string is attached to something attractive. Perhaps it is not all horror back there. Perhaps some of these strings are attached to dreams.

As we walk around the house we take note of the string that is attached to something behind the wall and we step around it or we sit and contemplate it. We don't just clean it up or cut it off. We want to preserve whatever is behind the wall because that is part of us. And then maybe we dream and in our dream we remember what is behind the wall.

This is a somewhat involved and personal way of my saying to you that I am glad you are working with a therapist on this and that I predict your life will change as you learn how this past event influenced your behavior. As you learn to notice the feelings that arise as a result of this early event, you will find you have choices. You will learn new and more nuanced behaviors. When your boyfriend seems needy you will be able to understand what he is actually doing and why it is affecting you and you will be able to talk with him in a kind way. This will help you get along better.

You will be OK. You are young still. Everything seems like it takes a long time. Not to be trite, but in matters of emotional healing, it takes as long as it takes, but you will notice a change.

You will be OK.

By Cary Tennis

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