Expert Q&A: How to Act in a New Relationship After Being in a Bad One
Q: I want to date again after getting out of a bad marriage, but how do I express my feelings in my new relationship?
A: Bad relationships seem to have an endless after-life. You've been burned. Even worse, in your next relationships you vacillate between stridency—"telling it like it is"—and hesitancy—"walking on eggshells." Sound familiar? You are hardly alone. The following brief stories come directly from the women in my study:
Too strident. Mia really didn't want to get divorced. Matthew was everything Mia wanted—a very successful businessman from her same religious and family background. "I thought I hit the jackpot. I was the girl who never went to a prom, the one my parents always called the 'unhappy one." Mia was sandwiched in between two sisters whose marriages were the pride of Mia's socially competitive family. When Matthew left, Mia's parents were devastated and extremely disappointed in their daughter. She told them that Matthew cheated on her with women who were more glamorous, but they blamed her.
Mia vowed to be more outspoken in her next relationship. She took assertiveness classes and dramatically changed her looks. But, privately, she was still insecure. "I masked it by speaking up about every little thing that cropped into my head." She became so demanding and suspicious with her new man that she drove him away.
Too hesitant. It took every ounce of Tabitha's inner strength to stay away from Brian after she broke up with him. He would call, text, and even show up at events where he knew she'd be. Brian could never make a commitment. One minute he wanted to get engaged and the next moment he changed his mind. He was always criticizing her for not being smart enough. "I never went to college," Tabitha said. "I felt uncomfortable around his friends so I spent every free moment looking up words in the dictionary and listening to news shows. I drove myself nuts doing it." Finally, on her 41st birthday, Tabitha had enough. "I just couldn't invest any more time in him. Nothing I did was right. I was getting older, and that bothered me."
Soon, Tabitha started dating Darrell, a very kind man, but, in her own words, "I almost ruined that relationship. If things bothered me, I never spoke up. I was afraid I'd seem stupid." Luckily, Darrell felt her tenseness, and he encouraged her to talk about her feelings.
Both Mia and Tabitha suffered from over-correcting their previous relationship mistakes.
Here is a guide to help you dial down the intensity from your past missteps in love:
1. Examine your interactions in your previous relationships. Look at your old interactions. How would you describe them? Here are the most common adjectives from the women in my study:
l. Add your own version
Your first step is to recognize your relating pattern.
2. Don't vow to "do just the opposite" in your next relationship. In the stories above, both women were too heavy-handed in correcting their unsuccessful relationship behaviors. They vowed to do a 180 by correcting too much of their previous interpersonal styles. This over-correction can also lead to disappointment.
3. Identify your specific triggers. Instead, think about the underlying themes that connect your behavior management in your previous relationships. What are the issues that "get you going?" In Mia's story, she always felt like the ugly duckling. She felt doomed to disappoint her family. "It's like I didn't belong in my own family. I was so different from my sisters." Her new style was too strident, and, paradoxically, it still was based on her insecurity.
Similarly, Tabitha retreated into too much silence. She doubted every one of her feelings. She didn't come from an educated or professional family. In her words, she felt that she "wasn't enough for a good man." As a result, she never expressed her feelings. She lived emotionally underground in her next relationship.
4. Observe your reactions. Spend the next two or four weeks observing your own behavior, feelings, and thoughts. Pay special attention to your body's reactions. Do you feel tense? Does your heart rate increase? Do you feel a blow to your chest or stomach? What are your sore spots? How and when do they crop up? What do these incidents make you feel like doing? Do you want to cry, run to another room, or lash out? Keep a chart that shows the incident, reaction, and trigger reason. On a scale of one to ten, with ten high, rate the importance of the incident. See what you learn about yourself.
Most importantly, keep in mind that actions in relationships are interactions. You are part of the relationship dynamics. How you act can start a domino effect of unwanted and unintended results.
5. Start slowly to make changes and always keep in mind how you would like to be approached. Promise yourself that over the next week or two you will be more mindful of your triggers and your usual behavior. When an incident occurs, look at your chart or do a mental checklist. Ask yourself: Why is this getting to me? Am I reacting my old way? Am I about to over-correct?
Always lead with kindness. No one likes to be attacked. Aim for understanding, clarity, shared solutions, and responsibility-taking when you mishandle a situation. Apologies go a long way.
Below are some successful examples of how women in my study managed situations. Notice how they move immediately toward solutions as well as complimenting their partners.
"I'm sorry I sounded so sharp. I thought you were criticizing me, and it tripped off things that used to happen to me in my family."
"I really liked that you apologized. I know it's not easy."
"I'm not comfortable speaking up, so I hope this comes out okay."
"My heart is racing—my sign that I'm getting angry—so I don't want to come off wrong. Can we go over this again calmly?"
"Let's not go back and forth. What would you like to do about it? I'll give you my thoughts, too."
Don't give up. It takes lots of practice to communicate effectively with responsibility and kindness.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS, is a nationally recognized psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in women's issues in love, life, work, and family. Sign up on her website, http://www.lovevictory.com, to receive free advice, blog, cartoon, and information about her two upcoming research-based, self-help books for women: The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie—a cartoon, self-help book and Smart Relationships. Follow Dr. Wish on Twitter.
Sign Up for Free Newsletters
Ask Your Doctor the RIGHT Questions!
the most from your doctor visit.
Emailed right to you!
The Ask Your Doctor email series
may contain sponsored content.
18+, US residents only please.
Get the MOST from QualityHealth
- Top Searches
- 1. Arthritis Management: Nature Heals
- 2. 5 Digestive To-Dos
- 3. Men: Should You Shave It or Leave It?
- 4. Today's Top Fitness Trends
- 5. Sugar and Osteoarthritis : The Link
- 6. Can't Afford Your Hospital Bills?
- 7. Stay Energized All Day Long
- 8. Phobias: Who Has Them and Why?
- 9. What If Your EpiPen Fails?
- 10. 5 Costly Medical Billing Mistakes
- 1. Ice Falls Can Cause Serious Injuries
- 2. Can Inactivity Act Like a Disease?
- 3. Kale Snack Recipe for Diabetics
- 4. How Running Affects Arthritis
- 5. Sugar and Your Immunity System
- 6. Do Weight Loss Supplements Work?
- 7. 5 Super Foods for Spring
- 8. The Hazards of Reusable Bags
- 9. How to Avoid Ingrown Hairs
- 10. Health Tip: Constantly Change Shoes
- 1. 4 Common Treatments for Epilepsy
- 2. What Does a Urogynecologist Do?
- 3. GERD Without Heartburn? It's Possible
- 4. Graston Technique: Can It Work on You?
- 5. Music Therapy Can Help Autism
- 6. 8 Ways to Fight MS-Related Fatigue
- 7. Can You Still Bleed After Menopause?
- 8. Be Your Own Health Care Advocate
- 9. Why Is Syphillis on the Rise?
- 10. Ideal Weight vs. Happy Weight