Fight-or-flight is the instinctive physiological response to an external threat. It is a reaction that no doubt has early evolutionary roots. When fight or flight kicks in, the brain does not take time to weigh the circumstances, because a very quick response can mean survival. Of course, this lack of reflection means that in many cases, the body is overreacting. With experience, most of us learn to quickly recover from the first flush of fight or flight and find an appropriate response. It is a balance.
Fight or flight, or something akin to it, can also come about when a person experiences sharp, chronic romantic trauma. Those who have had relationships in which they were emotionally abused, physically or sexually threatened, or assaulted understandably may have developed an acute sensitivity to the cues that preceded these events. Even if they have managed to extricate themselves from a bad relationship, they may retain the learned impulse to react without reflection to any hint of a repeat.
As a result, the distress they experienced in bad relationships now gets triggered, inappropriately, in new situations with other people. If this describes you, you may in the moment feel a dreadful sense of deja vu and react negatively. While it may feel like the exact same situation, as you reflect later, you recognize that it was not the same situation at all. This often makes people feel ashamed or guilty for mistreating a current, healthier partner.
Here are four ways to assess if past romantic trauma is being triggered in your current relationship — and how to start processing the original trauma:
1. If you suffered a betrayal through cheating in your past romantic relationship, you may find yourself in a panic when you are out of touch with your partner.
You frantically text, call, and otherwise do whatever possible to discover their whereabouts. Instead of allowing yourself to engage in these futile behaviors (futile because these behaviors won’t actually help you to feel safe and at ease, but instead beget more anxiety), take a step back and work through the hurt you suffered in your last relationship. Consider talking to your new partner about how you were betrayed and what you need to feel safe in your current relationship. Talk with him/her about how you are working on not letting this old experience taint your new one.
2. If your past partner was controlling or domineering, you'll likely become triggered when a partner tells you what to do, how to feel, or how to act.
Your new partner may not actually be trying to control you, but merely expressing an opinion. Nonetheless, the triggering may send you into flight or fight. You may tune out while they are talking, ignore them, or appear paralyzed. Instead, try to communicate with your partner about what you're noticing about yourself and how loaded the idea of control is for you. (In Toxic Love, I describe specific strategies for escaping toxic love dynamics.) Instead of blaming them, see if they can understand where you are coming from and if they will consider ways to communicate opinions and desires that feel less domineering to you and are less likely to trigger an overreaction.
3. If you suffered emotional abuse in past relationships, it would not be unusual for conflict in a new relationship to trigger an overreaction.
Your current partner may just be expressing normal feelings that need to get out, but for you, it feels as if the walls are caving in. You may panic or live in a state of fear about upsetting your partner. The possibility of an argument paralyzes you. Instead, work on noticing how your partner is communicating upset to you; instead of assuming it’s the same old thing, look for differences: Is he or she more sensitive to you, or are they still able to see the good in you even when upset with you? Remind yourself that all couples have conflict, and even if someone is upset, you can work things through without it becoming a crisis.
4. If you suffered physical or sexual abuse in past relationships, you may be susceptible to having negative emotions triggered by physical closeness or touch.
If your past partner hurt you physically or made you feel as if you were physically disgusting or had no worth, then sexual interactions may become emotionally painful. Many in this situation leave an encounter by disconnecting and tuning out. Before entering a new romantic relationship, consider that your body and brain need time to heal to feel safe again. It is unrealistic to go from physical mistreatment to feeling safe while being physically vulnerable with a new partner. Take a break, talk to a therapist to help you work through the trauma. Do not force yourself to engage physically: If you are not fully on board, each new sexual experience will only add to that original trauma.
Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C. and the author of The Relationship Formula Workbook Series.