Last week, Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York blessed us all with the epic story of Bobby and Cheryl Love. As soon as part 1 of 11 dropped, we knew we were in for a wild ride. The Loves' story took the internet by storm, but it was clear to everyone who read along that while riveting, this love story was not a fairytale.
Long story short, without too many spoilers, relationship betrayal was the foundation of their marriage. Mrs. Love described experiencing 4 decades of marriage with "no intimacy." In the end, Cheryl decided to stay with her husband. The culture responded by calling this viral story a glorification of "struggle love". This was confusing to me at first because I'd always associated struggle love with financial lack or the unwillingness of a partner to contribute to the financial security of the household. But according to BlackDoctor.org struggle love "is referring to a relationship where one partner experiences long term stress as a result of the other partner’s actions or inactions during their relationship".
Well, in that case, there's a lot of us in the struggle.
I've been married for 13 years, and while we'd both say we are happy and in love, neither one of us really knew what we were signing up for. At 18 years old, I walked into my marriage with what I now know to be unresolved complex trauma. This set the stage for a lot of mistakes, hurt, and pain within our relationship. And while experiencing trauma doesn't give you a pass to harm your partner or to escape accountability for that harm, knowing the impact trauma has on your ability to partner in a loving and healthy way is a great place to start your healing work.
A trauma-informed relationship with yourself helps you better understand the root cause of the actions that may be keeping you and your partner frustrated.
Having the tools to navigate relationship betrayal in a way that doesn't further compromise our well being seems to be the missing link to shifting out of the struggle love dynamic. And because we all deserve better, I decided to talk to Faith Joyner, Relationship & Trauma Recovery Counselor, to see what we can do if we are in the middle of our own struggle love story.
What are some tools a couple can use to navigate a partnership where one or both partners have experienced complex trauma?
[FJ]: Whoever has experienced the complex trauma needs to get support from a trained
professional who specializes in trauma; specifically counseling. If both of you
experienced trauma, both of you need professional support. Counseling will give
you a safe space to express yourself, help you rewrite unhelpful narratives of the
traumatic event(s), teach you how to manage your emotional triggers, and help
you explore new coping skills.
Past complex trauma may cause present romantic relationship dysfunction.
Studies have shown that when one or both partners experienced trauma, they
report lower marital satisfaction and higher individual stress symptoms,
compared to couples in which neither partner reported trauma. If you are the
partner of someone who experienced complex trauma, I highly recommend that
you get support as well. You are more than likely experiencing secondary
traumatic stress (STS).
What is STS?
[FJ]: STS theory tells us that being in close contact with and
emotionally connected to a traumatized person becomes a chronic stressor, and
family members experience symptoms of the trauma. Basically, problems
experienced by people close to a trauma survivor mimic the trauma symptoms in
the survivor. Yes, it’s really that serious. It may be less intense but it’s still there.
You may not recognize these signs because we’ve been taught to just, “keep it
moving” no matter how we’re feeling emotionally or physically. However, if you’re
experiencing depression, anxiety, irritability, feelings of detachment, sleep
disturbance, problems concentrating, anger, avoidance or the desire to avoid
discussing and dealing with the situation/your partner altogether, etc., these are
all signs that you’re experiencing STS.
Who you’re connected to impacts your energy, peace, and mental health in good ways and unhealthy ways. If your partner is not willing to get the proper help they need, it’s time to have
a serious conversation. Discuss how not taking care of their mental
health is impacting you. After discussion, if your partner still refuses to get help, this is a form of emotional neglect. If you choose to remain in the relationship, I recommend seeing a therapist about being with a person who doesn’t care about fulfilling your needs
or taking care of themselves.
What are some steps we can take to start establishing intimacy where it's been lacking?
[FJ]: First, define what intimacy means to you; emotionally and sexually. How do you
want it to look in your relationship? What do you want them to do? What do
you want to do? When do you want them to do it? How often? Think about it
before you share it with your partner. Write it down. Become familiar with your
needs. You and your partner may have a different definition of intimacy and that’s
okay. However, you need to express those differences in order to get your needs
met. Secondly, communicate. Communicate. Oh, and did I mention…communicate? When
you’re in a committed relationship you have to have honest, open, and courageous
conversations with each other if you want to have a healthy and thriving relationship.
Your relationship has to be able to withstand the truth. If it doesn’t then you have deeper
issues. These conversations may get really tough, so be prepared to pause and come back to them over time.
When you've decided to forgive a relationship betrayal, what should come next?
[FJ]: Let’s establish some truths about forgiveness before I answer this question. Forgiveness does not necessitate reconciliation. Just because you forgive them for a relationship betrayal doesn’t mean you have to stay in the relationship. True forgiveness takes time. It may take years to fully forgive a relationship betrayal depending on what it was and how long it happened. Forgiveness comes in layers. You may have forgiven one layer of hurt, but need more time to forgive another layer of hurt. Forgiveness may not come all at once for everything that has happened. That’s okay. You’re not on anyone else’s timeline to forgive. Don’t let anyone,
including the person who betrayed your trust, rush you into “forgiving” because
it’s uncomfortable for a while.
A relationship betrayal is when your partner has betrayed your trust by committing any of what I call the 4 A’s: Abuse, Affair, Addiction, or Abandonment.
Many people experience extreme emotional neglect in their relationship and this is also a form of relationship betrayal. If you’re choosing to stay in the relationship after a betrayal, you need to
create and follow through on your personal boundaries. Boundaries are the limits
and the rules we set for ourselves within relationships. It’s not about them. It’s
about you. Here are 2 important questions to consider when making your boundaries:
What are you not willing to accept any longer?
What are the consequences of violating your boundaries?
You also have to discern if this person is unskilled or abusive. Unskilled people can admit they made a huge mistake, were reckless, take responsibility for their actions, and don’t force you to “hurry up and forgive them”. They need you to tell them or show them how to treat you and
they will do everything they can to build trust with you again. They will do
everything they can to make things right with you. Unskilled people will do everything they
can to show you that they’ve changed for the better. Abusive people will not do
any of these things. They will try to fool you with manipulative kindness (be nice
to you in order to get you to do what they want), control you, manipulate you,
gaslight you, demean you, belittle you, etc. It can be very subtle or completely
overt. These are dangerous people and no amount of talking, setting boundaries,
or forgiving will bring peace to the relationship. Please remember that you have the right to protect your mental and physical health, so leaving an abusive relationship may
be the best option for you. Before you leave, please create a safety plan with a trained trauma-informed therapist.
The only way that you will know if a person has really changed for the better is if they have someone holding them accountable for the mistreatment and disrespect
they’ve put you through. Some questions to consider when making your decision:
Who is teaching them how to treat you better or respect you?
How is the relationship being safeguarded?
How are feelings of entitlement being addressed?
People don’t just magically change. They have to put in the work to continue being
better versions of themselves. Depending on the relationship betrayal, they may need
accountability on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. Forgiveness should always
come with accountability.
Timil Jones is a writer, Intuitive Guide and Founder of overflo. You can book a personal reading with her here on theoverflo.com . Faith Joyner is a Relationship & Trauma Recovery Counselor. To access more of her resources, including online courses, visit faithjoyner.com Special thanks to Faith Joyner for being a part of this community and contributing to this article and resource.