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  • Writer's pictureEleanor Snare

How can I be more open in future relationships after being hurt by my ex?

Dear Eleanor,


Having just ended a long term relationship I am trying to better understand how to improve my openness and intimacy. I believe that low self-esteem caused me to tolerate poor treatment from my partner and a lack of openness and self awareness on my part made it worse.


I have a spectrum disorder (what most would call ADHD) and associated Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) that are both surely complicating factors in my case. My previous partner was dismissive of my late in life diagnosis and attributed the symptoms to personality disorders. This made it easier for her to “understand” the behaviors and rationalize her response to them but made it harder to understand and address the problematic behaviors. There is very little information I can find about how ADHD (especially late diagnosis) in adults impacts our relationships and how to understand and overcome some of the challenges it presents to building and sustaining intimacy.


I’d really like to find resources to help me achieve the right balance of self confidence without ego and self awareness without obsessive introspection. It seems (western, cis) men are conditioned to project confidence in a way that often prevents us from being open and vulnerable. Society rewards us for projecting strength and confidence and offers little in the way of encouragement to share and show “non-masculine” emotional displays. How do we cultivate greater levels of compassion, openness and intimacy outside of relationships so we can bring those things to our relationships?


Yours,

Anonymous


Question edited for clarity



 

Dear Anonymous


First up, let's just pause to say well done for leaving a relationship that wasn't giving you anything any more. Too many men will stay in long term relationships where they are 'coasting' - not unhappy, not happy - for fear of rocking the boat. But you saw what was going on and you left - good for you.


You're now in a moment of vulnerability: recovering from a difficult relationship in which (you believe) your low self-esteem caused you to tolerate poor treatment from a partner ... but not yet, perhaps, fully confident in moving forward.


Moments of transition like this are challenging. What you're moving towards - greater intimacy, greater openness, a better knowledge of yourself and what you need relationally - has felt so alien for so long that you're not going to get it right first time.


I want you to give yourself a bit of grace in this process - and here's why.


The axis of emotional expression


You're right to point out the gendered social conditioning that rewards men for projecting strength and confidence rather than authentic emotional expression. This means that as you move towards more openness and intimacy, it's going to feel ... weird. Uncomfortable. Because you've had a lifetime of being taught, as a man, not to do that stuff.


This movement is going to bring up fears - and I can already hear a little of those fears in your concern around ego and self-obsession. What if I go so far into self-confidence I become egotistical? Or spend so much time on self-awareness I end up navel-gazing?


I work with my clients on this idea: they want to move towards something (like greater emotional expression) yet this thing has been absent from their life for so long it feels deeply uncomfortable, even scary. Together, we explore this experience by using an axis.

A diagram of the axis of emotional expression from hypo to hyper expression

At one end is your 'hypo-expression': the under-expression of emotion. At the other is your 'hyper-expression': the opposite, the over-expression of emotion.


And ideally, we want to be in the middle, just like you say, having the "right balance" between under- and over-expressed.


An analogous clinical concept that comes from work with trauma survivors is the 'window of tolerance' in which you can effectively operate and enjoy life. Outside that window - too much. Inside the window - you can handle it.


An expanded diagram of the axis of emotional expression showing a mid point of balance and a window of tolerance

When it comes to emotional literacy and intimacy, my experience shows many men have a very slim 'window of tolerance' and spend quite a lot of time fighting to stay within it even when it is grounded in unhealthy, unhappy hypo- or hyper-expression. You can survive for years in these states, as you've experienced with low self-esteem, but they come with significant physiological costs.



An example of an emotional axis where someone's window of tolerance is narrow and grounded in hypo expression

When you choose to start to expand that 'window', or move towards a more balanced emotional expression, your psychology fights back. This expansion or movement feels weird, uncomfortable, and sometimes even frightening. It can activate your fight or flight nervous system response, resulting in panic attacks or strange physiological sensations.


For example, I had a client whose emotions were so hypo-expressed (i.e. suppressed, unfelt, ignored, unheard) they became overwhelmed and tearful from simply looking at a list of feelings words, let alone experiencing them.


An example of an emotional expression axis showing a window of tolerance being moved from a hypo expression to a more balanced expression, indicating the nervous system response that can be generated from that movement

So when you say you want to achieve "the right balance of self-confidence without ego and self-awareness without obsessive introspection", I'd like to offer you some grace. When you're coming from a place of low self-esteem, any movement towards self-confidence will feel egotistical; any movement towards self-awareness will feel obsessively introspective. But they are not. They are critical parts of your journey.


As you move from hypo-expressed self-esteem to a balanced awareness of the self, you are going through a process of re-sensitisation: becoming more attuned to your intimate needs, desires and self-worth. It will be a bumpy road, and you may often feel you are going 'too far' or to 'extremes'. But you're actually doing the hard, inch-by-inch work of transplanting your window of tolerance from an unhealthy location of poor self-esteem to a happier, more self-confident place.


A photograph of a man from behind, with a misty background and an atmosphere of loneliness
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.

Men with ADHD and relationships


Before I tackle the heart of your letter, let's talk about your neurodiversity: as you describe it, a "complicating factor". And yes, it does throw a bit of spice into the mix.


Like many neurodiverse men, you've probably had a history of being told what you are doing, feeling or thinking is 'wrong' - so it's unfortunately unsurprising to me that your ex-partner dismissed not only your diagnosis but the real, lived experience of your ADHD and MCI.


Being told you are wrong for many years means chronic self-doubt becomes normalised. Hidden within your statement about the difficulty you had in understanding and addressing your ex's problematic behaviours, I hear evidence of that self-doubt: "Is it them, or me? Is there really a problem, or is it just my brain?"


And the thing is, it's both. Yes, there really is a problem ... and yes, it is your brain. A relationship is about two (or more people) growing together, so if your partner has a behaviour which doesn't work with your neurology, then in a good relationship they will adapt to your neurodiverse needs. But simultaneously, you will adapt and acknowledge that hey, maybe, there might be some growth I want to do here.


You don't need your partner to fulfil your neurodivergent needs, but you do need them to empathise with them. Your ex-partner definitely did not do this, but you can check in with your future partners to understand their ability to practise this empathy before embarking on long-term commitments with them.



A photograph of two people holding hands, one with dark skin and one with light skin
Photo by Lareised Leneseur on Unsplash.

Being more open in relationships


So, onto the heart of your question: "How do we cultivate greater levels of compassion, openness and intimacy outside of relationships so we can bring those things to our relationships?"


Anonymous, the answer starts with you. The place in which to cultivate those greater levels of compassion, openness and intimacy are within you - even more so if you recognise your life has been characterised by low self-esteem and 'complicated' by neurodiversity.


Men are encouraged to take on self-development and growth as if it was a fight: emotions need to be tackled, procrastination defeated, life won, etc. You are not encouraged to care about yourself tenderly and gently - but that, really, is the path.


So I suggest you to reflect on these questions:


  • What does it mean to you to be self-compassionate? To forgive yourself for tolerating poor treatment from your ex? To cut yourself some slack on your journey to greater self-awareness?


  • What does it mean to you to be open with yourself? To acknowledge all of who you are, and to be okay with that? To accept your neurodivergent and emotional needs as important, and fulfil them - rather than mask them?


  • What does it mean to you to be intimate with yourself? To speak to yourself with love and affection, to give yourself a hug and a soothing sound when you need it the most? To find out what you most desire in relationships, and see how you can give that to yourself first?


You've taken the biggest steps by removing yourself from a relationship that wasn't giving you what you wanted, and reaching out to seek advice on cultivating your compassion, openness and intimacy.


Now, you've got the opportunity to move your 'window of tolerance' from a hypo-expression of self-esteem towards balanced self-assurance of who you are and what's important to you in relationship. That process is going to feel alien, edgy and uncomfortable. And it's all the more reason to take really, really good care of yourself.


You've got this.


Eleanor



 


Resources


My favourite ADHD relationship advice account is @adhd_love_ on Instagram. Rox has ADHD and Rich is neurotypical, and they share a lot of funny yet helpful posts about how ADHD and non-ADHD people can communicate in relationships. They've just released a book too!


For self-compassion work, check out the work of Dr Kristen Neff, the 'godmother' of empirically-observed self-compassion. Her co-authored book, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, is one I found very powerful, but she also has a lot of free resources on her website.


You can read more about the 'window of tolerance' and how it shows up for trauma survivors here.


Using positive self-talk to engage with self-compassion and openness with yourself can feel strange at first, but it's been shown to have positive real-world effects. This TED Talk on the subject is a good primer on why it works.



 

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