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Why Complex PTSD Made Me Choose the Wrong Partner Over and Over Again

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

There’s this thing that happens when you live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) for many years, especially undiagnosed C-PTSD. You tend to repeat unhealthy relational patterns ad nauseam.

• What is PTSD?

I don’t know how many times I have chosen the wrong partner, but it was a lot of times.

Sometimes, I deliberately choose partners who are wrong for me. If I don’t have a chance of lasting love with them, I don’t need to worry about being hurt by them in a deep and cutting way. Or, at least, that is what I tell myself when I am starting to engage with these less-than-suitable partners. I still end up being hurt, and usually because these people are emotionally unavailable or don’t meet my needs, and I eventually want them to because, while I pretended to want something casual, I really wanted a long-term relationship with a great partner.

Sometimes I use men to soothe what hurts. No — often, I use men to soothe what hurts. They don’t generally mind being used in this manner, and usually, they are also using me in some form and for some similar reason, but it isn’t the healthiest of connections. And, as I wisely stated the other day, “No penis is going to fill the space in my heart… just the space in my vagina.”

Sometimes, I fall for narcissistic men. No — usually, I fall for narcissistic men. I know why I do this, I think. It has definitely taken a really long time to figure this one out. It is the most complicated of the connections. I genuinely want a good partner in these instances, but I somehow end up with terrible partners who sucked me in with some ruse. I thought they were good people, but they were not good people. They were selfish and they abused and humiliated and harmed me. They didn’t care about me, but I kept trying to convince them to, and I kept trying to convince myself that they did — and convince everyone around me as well. Eventually, things got so terrible that there was no denying I was being treated like trash, and then I had to recover, mourn and start the process of building up the esteem that had been broken down by these men. It’s a horrible process and I hate it, but I would go through it time and again.

Here’s what really gets me about this repeating of bad relationships: I’m a brilliant, strong, capable, educated, beautiful woman! I could have and should have my pick of great partners who are secure, stable and not looking to stab a woman in the heart, proverbially or literally, at any point. And yet I ended up with these tragedies of relationships repeating over and over like the weekly Shakespearean outlet stage or something. There was no logic to me being paired with a man who treated me terribly. I had everything going for me. I “deserved” better, and yet I kept choosing worse.

C-PTSD is characterized by relational challenges. There is often a lack of maturity in the interactions and impulse control of the person with this disorder, but I don’t think those were the central issues for me.

I think the central issue was shame.

Shame does much to the human brain that one wouldn’t immediately consider. And the pathways affected can bring about all sorts of behaviors that are not good. The violence of abusive partners like those I had in my history has been shown to be a result of childhood shame. Shame often comes out as anger and, for many, experiencing shame makes them timid or fearful, and therefore overly dependent or unable to differentiate.

I’m not entirely certain how to describe what shame did to me, other than to say it combined with a rigid, moral code in such a way it made me convinced of my own unworthiness. I didn’t need to sew a scarlet letter upon my clothing because since I was a very small child, it had been tattooed upon my heart.

Not everyone can see that tattoo. Narcissists can somehow spot it, and they capitalize upon it because women with my particular tattoo are the only ones who hate themselves more than the men who wear the shame of their history so close to their heart. It sounds ridiculous but it is true. I know it is true because I lived it over and over. But I also know something else is true. Letting go of that shame, and finding my value and basking in the glow of my freedom and my beauty and my strength removes that tattoo. Letting go of shame stops the cycle. When you stop feeling like you don’t deserve love, you start to find it.

Over the last year, several of my friends had changes in their situations, and they left the area or our relationships changed in ways that meant I didn’t see or hear from them as often. So, I needed to develop new relationships. I didn’t do that very well, because I was still struggling with the shame tattoo. I chose to connect with a convenient non-long-term person. I started finding connections at local dive bars, instead of institutes of higher learning. There is nothing inherently wrong with the places or the people within, but there was something wrong with the way I was relating to myself, which meant I wasn’t relating to the right people in the right ways in those places. And as I realized my mistake and found my strength and let go of my shame, people didn’t like that change. They liked the old way of relating. They liked shame-based Christy. They didn’t like empowered, love-filled, joy-seeking Christy. And in the past few months, all hell broke loose. I’ve fallen to pieces, been triggered by things that haven’t bothered me since childhood, and been ejected from more places than I generally care to be. Others have triggered those things, been upset by what I’ve done, enjoyed what I’ve done, denied what I’ve done, denied what they’ve done with me, lied to their “friends” and “family” about me and about their connections to me, and made certain I was ejected from more places than I generally care to be. And the only thing that has changed, as far as I can tell, is that I am embracing me without shame.

Lots of people don’t like me without shame.  But, remember, those people are the narcissists. Those people are the people swimming in their own shame. Me losing mine means they might need to honestly face their own.

There is another connection I want to share — one that isn’t with a narcissist. One I am still somewhat afraid of and trying to wrap my brain around because there is so much of me that tries to say, “you don’t deserve this amazing man!” But I do. That screaming part is the shame trying to get a foothold again. And if I let it get a foothold, I might lose that amazing man. He doesn’t belong with a tattooed heart. He belongs with the free and loving and bold and joyful me who floats and sings and dives into life. That is the woman he met, and that is the woman I am seeking to remain. He has forgiven me twice for sinking into the pit of shame and getting paranoid and thinking he will leave or thinking he is cheating. Twice. And we have still not met in person. Can you believe I am so connected to my shame that I have almost scared off the perfect partner twice before we have moved our relationship offline? I am — or at least, I was.

But he is reason enough to let go of that shame permanently, if possible. And he helps me let it go! He reminds me every day of my talents and my beauty and my value. He writes me poetry. He sends me love songs. He tells me about his day. We talk about the future and what we want that to look like. We question one another about all sorts of things so that our online time isn’t wasted time, and every answer leads me away from shame and closer to the best version of myself.

I’m absolutely not saying you need to find a man to help you rid yourself of shame. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m saying: once I found I didn’t need that shame and stepped out of it and into the light, I stopped repeating the crap relationship I have been repeating for the past 30 years. He helps remind me how much better it is in the light, so I don’t accidentally slip back into the shame. It is a lesson I wish I could have learned a long time ago. But, I am also glad I am learning it today, because otherwise, I might not be learning it alongside him. And I love learning it alongside him.

So, people who hold shame — which is probably most of you, whether you have PTSD or not — I am here to tell you to begin the very difficult process of giving it up. It won’t happen overnight. You might need the help of a wise therapist (like I do). It might feel like you are moving one step forward and two steps back. You might find some people liked you better filled with shame than strong and empowered, and that will suck.

But you deserve so much more than repeating the same shame over and over and over again.

Rinse off. Do not repeat.

Keep going without that shame.

You’ve got this.

Photo by Timothy Paul Smith on Unsplash

Originally published: July 21, 2019
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