You’ve got embarrassing, tricky, bizarre, and otherwise unusual life questions, we’ve got answers. Welcome to Is This Normal? — a no-nonsense, no-judgment advice column from HelloGiggles. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll track down expert advice you can trust.
Dear Is This Normal?,
I have been in a relationship now for eight months. We were really good friends for two years before that, and it’s been a process of working out a lot of things while transitioning from friendship to partnership. There have been some ups and downs, and one major fight, but we’re in a very happy, stable place now, and we are communicating with each other better than ever even through the stresses of finals and graduating from college.
On the flip side of this, I’m living with PTSD, have a history of sexual assault within relationships, and an unstable home life. All this has made it really hard for me to trust my instincts. Even though my current partner is kind, supportive, loving, and always looking for ways in which he can do better in our relationship, if he does something that is slightly imperfect or makes me a little annoyed/upset, I find myself wanting to run for the hills.
All the advice I read online tells me that if I don’t feel 100% secure in a relationship then it means that it is wrong and toxic and I should end it. I don’t want to do that, but I am so scared that I’ve got it wrong again. I love this guy, and I think I want to build a life with him, but are these feelings of insecurity normal, particularly with my history and mental health?
— Insecure, U.K., 21
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s take this step-by-step. First of all, I want you to know that you are normal. No matter what you’ve been through and what you’ve heard from any toxic person in your life, you matter and you are whole. You also deserve good, healthy love, whether it’s with the partner you have now or someone you haven’t met yet.
Okay, on to your questions. Considering what you’ve been through, your feelings of insecurity are not surprising. Starting with an unstable home life — where perhaps you weren’t loved unconditionally, or had to behave a certain way to be loved or cared for — to your experiences with sexual assault, it’s no wonder you are struggling with attachment.
It sounds like you haven’t known a healthy, secure kind of love, whether familial or otherwise.
You’re not alone in feeling insecure: Studies have shown that people who have experienced sexual trauma often have lower self-esteem than those who have not, and low self-esteem can lead to feelings of relationship insecurity. You’ve been through a lot, Insecure, and anyone in your shoes would be feeling unsteady.
Relationship therapist Dr. Sue Varma agrees and notes, “Trauma, even if you don’t formally have PTSD, erodes your sense of trust. The symptoms [of trauma] — hyper-vigilance, irritability, emotional numbness, sleep issues, avoidance — all have obvious affects on not only your own mood, but how you see and engage (or don’t engage) with the world.”
She explains that many women have experienced sexual trauma in some form, and those experiences erode trust, which makes it hard to bond with a partner. But, she says, going to therapy — especially cognitive behavioral therapy — can help you work through your past experiences and stop you from projecting your old scripts onto your new partner.
Of course, there’s a chance that your feelings of insecurity aren’t all in your head — your partner may be doing something that’s setting off alarm bells in your brain. Dr. Varma says that if he’s inconsistent or unreliable, he could be contributing to your insecure feelings. If you think that might be the case, look for the evidence — if it’s not there, move on.
She also recommends looking at your relationship and asking yourself what advice you’d give to a friend — would you tell a friend with a boyfriend like yours to leave her partner? If yes, then maybe you should consider it, too.
Finally, it’s going to be important for you to learn to trust your instincts. Dr. Varma suggests keeping a journal: write down what you think will happen in a certain circumstance (for example, you might think your partner’s going to abandon you if you’re sick) and then write down what actually happens (hopefully, in that scenario, he shows up for you and makes sure you have everything you need!).
Then, look back on your journal and start to see patterns — when were you right about a situation, and when were you wrong? You’ll begin to develop a better, more trusting relationship with yourself, and then (if all goes well) you’ll be able to extend that trust to your partner.
Insecure, it might be you, it might be him — but don’t discount your feelings. You might just need a little therapy, and a whole lot of self-love and reflection. Sending you nothing but good wishes.