Adult life as the partner of a person who has been bullied in school: the transfer of a bullying trauma into a relationship

Serious and prolonged school bullying often causes particular challenges to a bullied person’s self-esteem and mental health even in adulthood. Depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, emotional coldness, evasive attachment style, and difficulty engaging in long-term relationships are common experiences among bullied. Anger, shame, guilt, sadness, and fear are central to the feelings generated by experiences of bullying, often even as adults. They are prone to trigger in the relationships of the bullied, although the experience of bullying itself may have occurred decades ago. School bullying trauma causes general distrust and caution in relationships and sometimes when actually triggered for example withdrawal and seclusion similar to what discrimination at school once caused. The bullied can go into hiding in the relationship and withdraw into themselves as they seek to control the situation and regulate the rejection they expect and the ensuing sense of shame and self-loathing.

Even decades after the school years, in EMDR therapy those bullied may describe their difficulty in trusting people and entering into relationships, e.g. as follows:

"Someone should love me intact, but no one has been able to, because I'm completely broken and my head is full of horror stories."

“I have frozen my heart because it is easier to live that way. I won't let anyone near me. It is not worth feeling affectionate or investing in a relationship with emotion when being dumped is inevitable.”

“I like to be alone. There is no need to play mental chess all the time and analyse what the other one means and whether there is a catch there, because I think it is always there.”

"It's a bit like I’m an onion, the peel of which, with good luck, someone can get a layer or a slice of, but no one can even see the core."

Having a crush and the subsequent attachment and falling in love with a person traumatized by school bullying can become a difficult experience for a person who has no contact with the experiences and feelings of the bullied person. The bullied’s caution, distrust, and occasional withdrawal into their shell are easily interpreted by a partner as being rejected and discarded. In this case, the bullied’s school-age negative idea of self “I am not enough”, “I am bad and inadequate,” or “I am not lovable” becomes part of the bullied person’s partner’s world of experience and self-image. The partner can describe their experiences in EMDR therapy e.g. in the following ways:

“He doesn’t answer me anything when I try to discuss it. Is completely quiet and says nothing. He rejects me completely. I feel completely worthless then.”

"I feel like I'm a bystander in my own affairs and I have no influence over the situation."

“I don’t understand why I had to go to such deep waters because of him. I don't know what all this suffering about.”

In the worst-case scenario, both feed the other’s insecurity and feelings of sadness and confusion as well as defencelessness, leading to withdrawals from the relationship. In the bullied’s own mind, exactly what they had predicted happens: they became abandoned and think they were again unworthy, even though it was that they had transferred their own experience of unworthiness to their partner, who internalized it because of the actions of the bullied. Like this, both feel unworthy and rejected by the other.

The partner of the bullied often suffers the negative consequences of someone once wanting to harm someone they love. This way the responsibility for bullying and its consequences does not fall on the bully but on the bullied's partner. They may have to with the mental wounds constantly leaking due to irrational triggers, even though they have no role or part in their origin. The resulting state of being and emotional world may resemble the original state of being and emotional world of the bullied caused by being bullied. It is likely to cause confusion, fear, sadness and despair in the partner. The relationship is then strongly characterized by the past experiences of the bullied, to which the partner does not have an interface. Where playing the victim and failing to process the bullying experiences may seem selfish to the bullied’s partner, the bullied person may find the subject so shameful and frightening that he or she is not prepared to deal with it even at the risk of losing the relationship.

Fear is not called the greatest enemy of love in vain. From the point of view of the success of a relationship and the happiness of both parties, the tragedy in these cases is that fear and shame are based only on the other party’s past experiences and history, and as such are not even shared experiences at all.

One Response

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