Several months ago, when I was dealing with a struggle in a relatively new relationship, one of my best friends reminded me that good relationships don’t just come out of nowhere — they’re built, the same way that roads are built. You can’t just start walking without laying down some foundations.
But for someone like me, who has experienced abusive relationships that convinced me I didn’t deserve better treatment, the idea of getting intimate again can be scary. It’s hard to trust that someone new won’t do the same things as the last person.
Much of re-learning how to build relationships with healthy communication and boundaries as an adult has been about repairing the relationship with myself. My therapist frequently refers to the “people picker” in my brain — the part of me that chooses who I want in my life. She explains how abusive or unhealthy relationships have made me doubt my ability to choose friendships and relationships, or leave when things aren’t working.
But she also reminds me that I can’t blame myself into better communication or healthier habits. The more unkind I am to myself, the less I can open up to other people and ask for the help I need, or even express the care I want to give to them.
In my last relationship, I realized I didn’t know how to discuss hard things with someone I care about without becoming frantic and crying because of past traumas. Difficult conversations immediately made me feel like I’d be abandoned. I had to pause a difficult conversation and talk to several friends because I was so triggered.
Dr. Laura McGuire, a sexologist and relationship consultant, tells Greatist that learning what a healthy disagreement or conflict looks and feels like is one of the best ways to relearn and rebuild good communication habits. “If you are used to walking on eggshells, being gaslighted, or threatened, you may either go into any disagreement fawning — trying to appease and and hide your true feelings — or ready to fight when the other person has no intention of letting the argument turn ugly,” she says.
But we can start to find new ways of navigating conflict or uncertainty that build the kinds of intimacy and trust we want and need. This starts through exploring healthy conflict resolution strategies, and identifying where we may be projecting past hurt, while still giving ourselves credit for trusting our gut.
All of that takes practice, but before you start, there are plenty of other things you can do to lay a strong foundation, say McGuire and Andrea Glik, LMSW, somatic trauma therapist.
“Creating your own list of red flags and greens flags in relationships based off of relationships you have been in or seen modeled to you will really help when starting anything new,” says Glik. “Review the list as you build new relationships. You can also use communication tools like Imago or Decolonizing Non Violent Communication as guides.”
So often we float from one relationship to the next, never settling long enough to process what has happened or to do our own internal work undistracted, explains McGuire.
Figure out and make a list of the things you want and need from a relationship, and things you won’t put up with. But also figure out how to give some of those things to yourself. Most importantly, don’t put yourself under too much pressure to start something more serious than you’re ready for.
If a new partner calls your boundaries silly or says you’re asking for too much, this is a sign that they may not be a good fit for you. By seeking out people who are willing and able to communicate clearly, discuss and negotiate on both of your needs, and affirm your feelings, you will start to build those healthy and happy bonds.
“It is OK to be distrustful at first, that is your protector part keeping you safe. We have to have a corrective emotional experience within a safe relationship after an abusive one to start building trust. And the person who you are doing that with should be patient and respect your boundaries as you heal and slowly build together,” says Glik.
In a healthy relationship, there’s always room to talk about what feels bad to you. Your partner should want to work on any behavior that has hurt you, take responsibility for it, and change. If you’ve been with people who have shut down your needs or manipulated your emotions before, talking about what feels good and bad might feel foreign at first — but it will help both people in the relationship take accountability and create it together.
Something my therapist recommended in my last relationship was to set up check-ins to talk about the relationship. Check-ins are when both people can talk about what feels good and anything that hasn’t felt good but that wasn’t brought up in the moment. For me, that provided a kind of insulated time where it felt most “safe” to bring things up, and gave me the opportunity to prepare. However, just like McGuire said, disagreements or tough conversations don’t have to make you feel bad.
Not everything is about blame, so using neutral language can be especially helpful. That might look like prioritizing I vs. you statements. Examples of phrases you can both use when you’re trying to talk about feelings and experiences:
- “From my perspective…”
- “When you did/said ________, I felt _________.”
Avoid phrasing things as “always” or “never” and use specific examples of things that upset you to help communicate through specifically difficult situations.
If someone you’re with does something that makes you uncomfortable, check with someone objective to talk through it. However, isolation from support systems is also a common tactic abusers use. That’s why it’s so important to have someone who can take initiative and check in with you during the relationship (and any relationship).
A template for asking people in your life to check in with you during a new relationship could look something like: “Hey, I’m in a new relationship and since I’m still working on my boundaries and figuring out what something healthy looks and feels like, are you okay with checking in on me from time to time to keep me grounded and make sure I’m being treated well?”
Whether you’re going to a therapist or have a trusted group of friends, or even one friend, to talk through things with, it helps to have others who can provide a more objective perspective. Even journaling can be helpful to work through past trauma, figure out current feelings, and keep a record of what you’re experiencing or how someone’s behavior is affecting you.
Being in a healthy relationship can’t heal all of your relationship traumas from past difficult relationships. I was reminded of this in my most recent relationships when I discovered that I had a lot more triggers and insecurities from previous experiences than I thought.
My own therapist and people I’ve been able to build healthy relationships with, both platonic and romantic, have reminded me that it’s never just about my ability to pick well, or my actions.
Creating any kind of healthy relationship, romantic or platonic, requires two people doing the work and showing up for one another. It’s not just about working through my own traumas, or yours, alone. It’s about building something good with someone else: the act of asking someone to learn from scratch with you. And while starting over can be scary, creating that trust together as a team is the best way to build any relationship.
Elly is a New York-based writer, journalist, and poet who also loves to host parties for her friends. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter.