How relationship loss can set you up to trust untrustworthy people
Toxic Relationship Death: The Aftermath
It’s great to have checklists and information that deconstruct the phases and stages of relationships that signal abuse of trust. But there’s also danger in blaming the other person for your misfortune and overlook your role and the circumstances that resulted in emotional bonding with someone who has taken advantage of you.
What would make someone untrustworthy?
The obvious answer is that they break promises, make excuses, are inconsistent and don’t demonstrate integrity. You might tolerate these behaviours once you’ve already formed an emotional bond with them because their other attributes outweigh their flaws…for a while anyway.
An untrustworthy person does all the things in the Narcissism Playbook. They paint pictures of the reality they think you want and the reality they believe they inhabit so that they can woo you, bond with you, exploit you, extract your resources and discard you.
What puts me at risk of trusting an untrustworthy person?
Short answer: loss
Loss comes after an ending - a death, ghosting, exits, departures, completion or a long absence.
Loss is an awareness of the void that remains (paradox!) by the absence of that relationship or thing, and its role in your life. The absence of that relationship can also be experienced as a disruption and destabilisation of your comfort zone, what is certain and known in your everyday life, as you’re thrust into a new reality with a void caused by that loss.
Some examples of endings:
death of a parent, sibling, close family member, loved one or pet (regardless of your feelings for them)
theft of valuables, including intellectual property
end of therapeutic treatment ie. cancer treatment
relationship (personal or professional) break up or ending
leaving a profession
leaving a toxic personal or professional relationship
being cast out of a community, including one’s family
moving house, city or country by force or by choice
becoming a parent
adult children leaving home (empty nest)
a child individuating and becoming more independent
a traumatic event
Each of these losses have the potential to affect your identity - how you see yourself, the connections that provide security, stabilise and influence you, and your confidence in navigating life’s uncertainties. If you do not have sufficient support to take you through a transition from old reality to new reality and to support the integration of this change from old you to new you, you will try to fill the void caused by the absence of that thing and the role it played in your life by replacing that relationship rather than healing the void.
Symptoms of loss
These symptoms of loss accompany attempts to fill the void to replace what was lost.
Feelings: despair, shame, insecurity, imposter syndrome like symptoms, hopelessness and anger. Feeling neglected, rejected, invisible and abandoned by life/Universe/Divine/others. You might also feel depleted and really low on energy.
Thoughts: “Nobody loves me”, “I’m a waste of space/existence”, “I’m never going to get anywhere”, “Nothing’s changed and I’m back to square one”.
Behaviours: seeking new opportunities to reinvent yourself, seeking to join a new community, starting a new project or wanting to finish unfinished work, new professional description, new role, desire for a Saviour to ‘give you a chance’ or ‘your next break’ or desire to be one’s Saviour through the reinvention of your identity.
You’ll feel restless and a sense of urgency to get to your new normal and keep yourself occupied to convince yourself that you’re still being productive and useful despite feeling low on energy or motivation.
You might even have selective memory and romanticise the relationship. You might associate nostalgic feelings with the person and believe that only they can make you feel what you felt, and consider re-connecting with them to get those feelings back.
All of these symptoms are manifestations of feeling powerless and incomplete so it’s only reasonable that you would engage in activities to help you gain and restore a sense of power and control.
So there’s a void. Why is that risky for me?
This transition period, marked by the complex soup of deeply uncomfortable and painful emotional states, is when you’re most vulnerable to being groomed by and forming an emotional bond with a replacement of the loss. The replacement will be with someone new but something about them will feel familiar and comfortable enough for you to want to pursue a connection. This is already a red flag.
For example, if a relationship ends because you experienced betrayals of trust, hurt or exploitation, you will still experience the same feelings of loss from your life, even if the death of that relationship is a relief. If you focus on the relief and moving on, you might still remain unaware of the conditions that led to the toxicity (see steps 1-2), the role you played in that relationship (ie. parent-child dynamic in a friendship), the role the other person played in relationship with you and the unrealistic expectations you had about them and for the relationship…and vice versa.
In your haste to restore order, regain stability, create certainty and a sense of control in your life, you will also preserve the status quo. Rather than move on, you’re at risk of maintaining those same unrealistic expectations and going through a similar ordeal with someone else.
If you lost a parent through death and you played a specific role in their life and in the family system ie. caregiver or Golden Child, the remaining parent will try to fill the void caused by the loss of their spouse by recruiting a suitable replacement…which could be you. You might also unconsciously look for a replacement for their role in your life, even if that parent caused you a great deal of pain and hardship in life. The members of your family system will each be attempting to replace the void and restore the old order, except for those who are self-aware and opt out of the family system’s rearrangement.
These conditions are sufficient to re-enact a similar experience with someone new (or old) and be barrier to healing wounds of distrust that were caused by betrayal.
11 things to do to prevent trusting someone untrustworthy
Grieve the loss even if the relationship was toxic. Acknowledge the different emotions and avoid blaming the other person or yourself for feeling them. All emotions are normal and valid, even if they’re deeply uncomfortable.
Reflect on the relationship from its beginning, middle and end. Did it fit the description of events outlined here and if so, were you the dominant one or were they?
Become aware of the fantasies and expectations you had about the other person and the relationship, and what you hoped the relationship was going to do for you. Make a note of what was idealized and what happened in reality. This is evidence of a recurring pattern in your life that you’re invited to change by letting go of the fantasy and replacing it with something realistic. This is the first step to creating different and realistic relationship goals that makes trustworthiness as a priority. This is also necessary for integrating the experience to heal and mature.
Become aware of the role the other person played in your life and the role you likely played in theirs that was not apparent during the relationship. Did you re-enact a parent-child or master-servant dynamic?
Revisit the relationship history. If you chose to end the relationship and you’re feeling doubt or regret about doing so because the narratives of the void are painful, revisit the relationship history to remind yourself about what happened ie. the betrayals without apology or repair, that influenced your choices and decision to end the relationship.
Do an inventory of your skills, qualities, supports and resourcefulness that enabled you to get through hardship in the past and will help you through this transition now.
Resist urgency. Avoid starting new projects and new relationships while you’re in this transition period. Anyone putting pressure on you to start something new is not someone who should have the power to influence your choices at this time.
Experience the uncertainty and the unknown. A way to break patterns of control, perfectionism and people pleasing is to allow space for uncertainty and the unknown to exist. Everything about this time is so uncomfortable that your survival mechanisms will kick in so that you feel like you’re in control again. You will want to leap into action and convince yourself that ‘you’ve got this’. This is a period of rest and reflection (as much as you can in your circumstances) not a time to fill your schedule with activities.
Lean on your trusted supports to encourage you to keep taking it easy and to challenge you gently when they notice you’re trying to move on before you’ve completed the transition period.
Set new and realistic goals. What new insights have you gained about yourself, your needs and the other person that you didn’t have before? Now that you have them, how will this inform a different way of doing things that can prevent repeating history? What will you no longer do and what things will you do differently? And, what type of support will you need to help you build new skills to facilitate this change?
Remember that you matter no more or less than anyone else. You don’t need to be special or put others on pedestals as a foundation for a relationship with someone trustworthy. Be alert to grooming behaviours by new people entering your life and consider becoming ungroomable!
When you are able to go through this transition while resisting the urge to move on, start something new, become someone new, act prematurely before you have made meaning from the void, you’re taking the opportunity to know yourself better and deepen the relationship you have with yourself. You are also taking deliberate steps to avoid repeating the thinking that contributed to hardship associated with the loss while allowing a new construct about yourself in relationships to emerge that can take you into a new place of learning and direction for your life.
The more we can each use our efforts to reflect, heal and learn about the self/others through loss, the greater we grow in compassion, clarify our needs and develop discernment to form bonds of mutual trust and reciprocity.
Thanks for reading, supporting and sharing,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker