July Questions

This time on the podcast we answered four listener questions. Here’s a few notes on the questions and our answers. They relate to (1) changing support dynamics in friendship, (2) navigating a reconnecting relationship with an ex, (3) dealing with intrusive thoughts, (4) unhelpful friend’s responses to a shift in gender of partner.

Sorry the sound isn’t as good as usual

1. How can you navigate it when a friendship goes into a place of one person doing a lot of heavy lifting supporting the other person and you’d like to be able to move back to a more mutual model, ideally without blaming or shaming the other person?

First of all we normalised that relationships will all go through periods of more to, more fro, and to-and-fro when it comes to support. In other words we’ll sometimes be giving more support, sometimes receiving more support, and sometimes it’ll be more mutual. Ongoing consent and regular check-ins about how the relationship is being – in relation to care and support as well as other things – is a great thing to have in place because it makes conversations about this an easier, regular feature.

If regular check-ins aren’t something you have done then it’s good to approach a friend with open curiosity around this, perhaps starting by asking about how they’re feeling in the friendship – recognising that they’ve gone through a tough time and wanting to check in about whether they’re getting enough support and the kind they need. This can open up space for you to both say how you’d like it to be and see whether you’re on the same page. If there’s a mutual willingness to shift the dynamic to something more mutual, it might be useful to put some structure in place for this initially, like starting conversations with a brief check-in from each of you, or headlines of things you’d like to cover.

If the support/supporting dynamic feels more stuck, or plays out a lot in other friendships too, or it’s hard to bring this up and have it heard, it might be worth exploring what the role of ‘caregiver’ gives you, and what you miss with it. It could be that it feels safer than being vulnerable for example, or that it helps validate that you’re a ‘good person’. If there are these kinds of relationship patterns in play from either/both of you, then doing a bit of work around these individually might be helpful to support a shift.

2. What’s a good way to navigate an ‘ex’ relationship that has recently become connected again and feels warm and friendly and potentially worth pursuing further now that we’re potentially in a different place and do relationships differently? 

Here we emphasised that in a way this is already happening. There is a new relationship unfolding between the two of you. It can be helpful to frame this as: there are all kinds of different directions this might take and it’s about finding the relationship container that means that each of you are flourishing as well as possible, rather than a binary of ‘do we get back together or not?’

Things to pay attention to is whether both of you are in a different place around how you do relationships because it’s important to be on the same page. It could be tricky if you’ve come a long way in your thinking about what consensual, intentional relating you’d like to do, and the other person hasn’t. Also have the things that meant the relationship ended changed for both of you, or just one of you? If you are on the same page then doing our relationship zine and chatting about your areas of overlap could be great. If you feel in quite different places (e.g. if the other person isn’t up for doing much learning or emotional work on this kind of thing) then potentially keeping it as an occasional friendly catch-up could be a better bet.

Finally it can always be good to check in whether you might be yearning for something in the past that isn’t possible to get back, or something that you’d like from the other person which might actually be a good idea to find in yourself and/or in your wider network of relationships.

3. Many of us – particularly trauma survivors – suffer from intrusive or invasive thoughts. What are your thoughts on how to deal with these?

Intrusive or invasive thoughts are very common, particularly when we’ve been through any form of trauma. They can take the form of memories that pop up, imaginings of scary things happening, ruminations that go round and round: anything where it feels like the thoughts have come into your mind unbidden and they are on a spectrum from unpleasant to downright horrible.

It’s important to remember that these are a common feature of trauma and other mental health struggles and that it is understandable that they are happening. For example, a common survival strategy with trauma is hypervigilance, and this can take the form of constantly scanning for anything that might go wrong, or going over memories to think how we ‘should’ have done things differently, or imagining what we’d do if something went wrong in future. Intrusive thoughts can often be a kind of internal fight, flight or fawn response where we go over and over blaming thoughts towards others, or shaming thoughts towards ourselves, or trying desperately to figure out why something tough happened, for example. So intrusive thoughts are part of a nervous system response to traumatic or stressful events, and the more we go down the same neural paths with that kind of thinking the easier it is for our brains to fall into those patterns again.

As well as understanding how the body works it’s good to understand that neoliberal capitalism encourages us to monitor ourselves hypervigilantly and to internalise anything we struggle with, assuming that we are bad and responsible, and try to figure it out. So intrusive thoughts make sense in terms of our our biology works and in terms of how the culture around us works. It’s biopsychosocial.

So intrusive thoughts are very painful, and they are very understandable, and it’s important to be very kind with ourselves around having them and not going into extra layers of self-criticism when we find ourselves caught up in obsessive or ruminative thinking.

In terms of what helps, each person will find their own way with this, but we find it helpful to stay with them gently and openly, rather than trying to avoid them or eradicate them, or getting really attached to them and identified with them. This is really hard to do because often what we feel like doing with intrusive thoughts is either to escape them (because they are so horrible) or to follow them (because they are so compelling). What is it like to just try to notice that they are there along with everything else in this moment – the sensations in your body, the sights and sounds in your surroundings, etc.? 

It can be helpful to get support from a therapist or other practitioner if you find this hard. Mindfulness and DBT groups or practices can be very helpful, but it is important that you find what works for you. Generally anything that soothes your nervous system is a great idea, as is trying to be aware of the thoughts without grasping onto them or trying to battle them.

4. What can you do when friends respond badly to you moving from a relationship with a man into a relationship with a woman, accusing you of having lied the whole time in the first relationship? What might this mean in relation to your sexuality?

Sadly this is a very common response because people often normatively assume that folks are either straight or gay, and that this is fixed from birth, so a person who is now with a different gender must have been ‘lying’ about their sexuality. This is absolutely not the case. For example a person might – along with the majority of people – be bisexual and capable of being attracted to more than on gender. They might be somebody for whom the gender of a person isn’t very important, it’s much more about the person (some of whom use ‘bisexual’, ‘pansexual’ or other words to describe themselves). Like most people your sexuality may be fluid and simply have changed over time.

To have your sexuality called into question in this way is gaslighting and very unhelpful. It’s left you with questions around your own sexuality which really aren’t necessary. It’s just fine that you had attraction to one person and now you’re attracted to another, regardless of gender. 

It would be great if your friends could learn a bit about how sexuality actually works. The science now is clear that it is fluid and multidimensional.

If you remain unsupported by existing friends then it could be great to access supportive community elsewhere. There are great LGBTQIA+ resources like switchboard, and bi, pan, queer, and fluid communities on and offline, locally and nationally, which are worth checking out, such as Bi Pride UK and The Bisexual Index and many other resources.

© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020