Will Past Trauma Always Resurface In A Relationship?

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

This time the Sugars consider a letter from a woman who says she is in love with a man who had a difficult childhood. She worries that problems from his earlier life may cause problems in their relationship.

Dear Sugars,

I'm a 34-year-old woman who has never been married, but has had a number of long-term relationships. All of my relationships have been safe — meaning the men were pretty conventional, stable and came from good backgrounds. I also come from a very good background; I had an idyllic childhood with almost no big trauma to speak of, my parents are still married, and I see them often.

Recently, I unexpectedly met the most amazing man, whom I immediately fell for. We share an incredibly deep, heart-and-soul connection. We were immediately head-over-heels in love. We trust each other and both feel as though we've known each other forever. But there's one thing, Sugars: He comes from a background full of trauma. His parents (now divorced) were highly functioning alcoholics who occasionally physically abused him and his siblings throughout his childhood. He has done a fair number of drugs in the past to cope with his situation and he lives a pretty unconventional artist's life.

The man I fell in love with doesn't appear one to have gone through such immense trauma. He is emotionally and physically healthy, is a very conscious and active participant in life, has a lot going on creatively and is so full of love and emotion. He also seems totally resilient to what has happened in his past.

Despite this, I'm freaked out. I have never known someone with such trauma, let alone been intimate with him. He is so loving and non-judgmental towards me, yet I can't help but judge him. I feel terrible for doing so. I love him so much, and I realize he has made positive decisions every step of the way to better his life and break free of the awful cycles he experienced. I'm wondering how it's possible to connect so deeply with someone so different from me? How can I move forward loving this man I feel so deeply connected to, yet scared by all the baggage he could potentially bring to the relationship?


Head or the Heart

Steve Almond: She's asking a very serious question that I'm sure a lot of our listeners can relate to: Should I be concerned about someone's past? Isn't someone's past that person's present as well? Should I think about, and be concerned about, these things? Absolutely. But the guy sounds great.

Cheryl Strayed: I agree. This letter spoke to me because, I have to say, I am somebody who does have these things in my past. I have suffered the fallout of a childhood that involved a lot of violence, emotional and sexual abuse, divorce and poverty — all the different struggles of my past. And yet, I'm OK. Of course, I went through a very difficult period in my 20s, but I came out of those really ready to have a healthy relationship. I think Head and Heart is making that little mistake where she's making this very neat equation — that if you've suffered any kind of trauma, it equals: you will perpetuate the trauma in your life. And that's absolutely not true.

Now, that's sometimes true. You absolutely have to heal that trauma to some extent before you can continue forward in a healthy way. But I have done that, and one thing we know — Steve, you and I are constantly getting letters from people with all sorts of childhoods. And we both know that we have letters from people who had incredibly difficult childhoods who have become incredibly powerful, wise, resilient adults. And then the reverse is true — people who have nothing back there in the past, and they struggle in all kinds of ways.

So first, I want to say to Head and Heart, trust what you observe and experience with your partner. If he seems like a great guy, he probably is a great guy. If he seems like somebody who's made peace with his past, he's probably made peace with his past. It sounds to me like this is somebody who has done the work we so often encourage people to do.

Steve: I think the anxiety she's expressing is probably an exaggerated version of what everybody feels when they let somebody into the fortress of their heart so quickly: Is this safe, or is there something lying in wait? Can I trust? Am I going to have to brace against the possibility that I'm going to give my heart to somebody who is not going to be a good custodian? Not because he's a bad guy, but because there's some baggage that I didn't see when we were in the thrall of the early weeks and months when it's all beautiful and ecstatic?

Cheryl: Can I just put a highlighter pen over that statement you just said? Is there "some baggage I didn't see when we were in the thrall of those early stages"? The answer is yes. It is always yes. Whatever background you came from.

Steve: Absolutely, but I think she needs to listen to where her concerns are, and she might have a clouded view of them because she came from a background that didn't involve trauma and alcoholism and divorce and emotional violence. But she is smart enough to recognize — and I think it speaks well of her — look, you can't go through all that stuff and not have it have an effect on you. It could be that this guy is remarkably resilient and has done that work. But her anxiety is not completely one of a sort of cloistered naiveté. I think she's honestly saying, "He went through some heavy stuff. I'm wondering if that's going to arise in our relationship." That's a good, honest question.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to hear a phone conversation with Head or the Heart and get an update from her several months later.

You can listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

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