Boyfriend’s Past Trauma Hurting Current Relationship

Dear Liz,

I am at a crossroads because I am about to graduate, I have job interviews lined up, I have one more month living so close to all my best friends, and my boyfriend and I are super committed. Everything on that list is so exciting- except my boyfriend. I would say a vast majority of the time we’re together he is AMAZING. Friends and family adore him, he respects me and he’s sensitive toward my emotions. But, he has had awful trauma in his life that he has not sorted through. So this results in attachment issues and violence. He is hesitant to support anything that I plan for post-grad because he is scared I will move too far away from him, he’ll lose me, etc. It’s frustrating- but we have had very open communication about it and I do not see it as a deal breaker…on its own. As for violence, he is not violent toward me. However, when he gets near alcohol he becomes very aggressive toward other men- especially when he sees them as a threat to our relationship. This came to an “all time high” when I had to bail him out of jail for fighting recently. Violence is a HUGE deal breaker for me- we’ve talked about it, it continues. However, he was in a very dark place when he met me, and he has come out of it, but I feel if I leave him he will slip back to drinking, drug abuse, and failing school a month before grad. I am so conflicted. Help me?

 Dear Friend,

This is a lot to deal with, for you and for him.  But you are the one writing to me, so I will focus on you. You seem clear, as well as protective, of your own insights and wants, and that is very healthy.  So let’s try to find a way to help you meet the two goals I hear coming through in your question:

  1. The freedom and happiness to enjoy these last weeks of college and to dream freely about what the next chapter of your life will look like.
  2. Protecting and preserving your relationship, which includes addressing your boyfriend’s violent behavior, because you did say that violence is a deal breaker for you.

You said that your boyfriend is hesitant to support anything you plan post-grad because he fears he will lose you…Will he?  I’m asking you that directly because perhaps somewhere deep down this is a possibility, and if he is expressing his fear over losing you, your concern for him might distract you from being completely honest with yourself.  So let me ask:  Is it an unfounded fear on his part, or a realistic fear?  And if you could envision the relationship ending, identify the factors that would bring that about.  It is important to remember those factors as you negotiate your post-grad choices.

You did not mention your boyfriend’s plans after graduation—is there a chance he would follow you to where you might find work or attend graduate school?  Would you live together?  Do you want him to go with you?

I agree with you completely that violence is a deal breaker.  If your boyfriend is suffering from PTSD, and alcohol triggers the violence, a response he seems unable to control at this point, I would encourage you to get very clear with yourself regarding what you mean when you say “deal breaker.”  For example, if he was arrested again in the next 6 months, would you end the relationship with him?  If he refuses to get help for his past traumas and current violence, would you end the relationship?  How much time must pass with no violent incidents for you to trust that he is well?

One thing I’d like to invite you to do, independently of your boyfriend, is take some time to do some reflection and/or writing.  Imagine the life you want to live.  See it.  Write it down—from where you’d love to be in one year, to what approaching thirty might look like, and all the years in between.  Sit with your vision.  Ask yourself what it is that can’t live without.  What do your relationship deal breakers really look like?  What compromises are you willing to make for love, and what compromises would eventually morph into resentments, because you gave up something fundamental to your personal well-being and happiness?

Love will always involve compromise, which means we will give up something we want, because there is something we want more:  the person in front of us.  But love never positions us to sacrifice being honest with our self about what we truly need to fulfill our own happiness.  Only each lover can discern that fine balance between healthy, loving compromise and the move toward erasing one’s self.

A final word on violent reactions in general:  violence is what happens when we cannot manage our own suffering (Parker Palmer).  There is no shame in your boyfriend’s suffering, but he must address how he is managing that suffering.  Additionally, his trauma and coping mechanisms will not magically disappear through will alone—without intervention (therapy) his violence is likely to increase.

If the two of you are willing to work together, honestly and mutually, there is great promise here.  But remember—you can love someone deeply, and have true compassion for their plight, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into continuing an intimate relationship with that person.  It is his responsibility to be non-violent and it is his responsibility to hear your concerns and act on them.  If he does not, then that is his choice, and you will need to make a choice as well.

I wish all the very best.

Love, Liz

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