How Do I Regain Trust in My Relationship After a Brief Breakup?

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Reader’s Question

I am 20 years old, and my boyfriend and I have been together for 4 years. We have a very loving, caring relationship. We are high school sweethearts and above all, we are best friends. We have a lot of the same friends, but we go to different colleges, so we also have our own individual friends as well. We both feel like we have a nice balance between things we do for ourselves and things we do together, and our relationship is always the top priority. We have open communication and are both happy.

But back in October he broke up with me just out of the blue. He said he needed some time to just be a 20-year-old and to see what it is like to be single. This came as a complete shock to me, and I was devastated. We went for 3 weeks without seeing or talking to each other at all. Then, at the end of 3 weeks I called him one night, just to see how he was. We ended up talking for hours and he admitted that he missed me and had made a mistake. He said he couldn’t believe he was breaking up with me when he did it, but it just felt like something he had to do. We talked long and hard about it and decided to give it another try. It has been about a month now and we are back to the happy couple we were before, but the seed of doubt has been planted. I am constantly over-analyzing things and wondering if he is as happy to be back together as I am. I have talked to him about it, and he says not to worry, that he wants to be with me. But it is a constant question in the back of my mind. I know that things will never be as they were before; this is a part of our relationship now. But I want us to be stronger because of it, not suspicious. How long will it take me to regain trust in him, and what should I do if it doesn’t get better?

Psychologist’s Reply

While your relationship has returned…it has not returned to normal. You have been emotionally traumatized by the breakup incident and are now recovering from the event. When we experience a situation you describe with “I was devastated”, the brain makes a strong “emotional memory” — a memory of the event that not only contains all the details of the three-week event, but the emotions we experienced at that time. Emotional Memory continues to be a problem long after the trauma is gone. Imagine walking to an evening class at the university and being physically attacked and robbed. The Emotional Memory of that event can continue for months and you quickly become fearful of the dark, attending evening classes, and approaching students. You try to protect yourself and develop strategies such as walking with a friend, avoiding evening classes, carrying mace, crossing the street to avoid other students, etc. Your sense of physical safety has been damaged.

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In your situation, your sense of relationship and romantic security has been damaged. As in the robbery experience, you are now fearful of another breakup and are developing strategies to protect yourself — such as over-thinking, over-interpreting, and and being overly sensitive to any situation that might influence your relationship. Your boyfriend will have difficulty understanding your anxiety as from his point, he had a crisis and discovered that he wanted the relationship — making him very secure that he’s made the right move by returning. He may have difficulty understanding why his unexpected breakup would be so devastating. To help him understand your need to recover from the experience, ask him to imagine being with his best male friend who suddenly, out of the blue, hits him hard in the face with a tennis racket! Even though the friend apologizes and recommends that the incident be forgotten, it would take several months before he could be totally trusted again.

I’d read my article on Emotional Memory on this website. It provides strategies to quicken your recovery from such emotional trauma. Remember that most relationships go through a crisis in confidence and security, sometimes more than one, as the relationship reaches emotional levels that are new, surprising, and even uncomfortable. The ability to communicate and understand your way though these difficult passages does strengthen the relationship, at the same time producing a few scars.

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