By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
This month at See the Triumph, we’re focusing on the theme of safe, healthy relationships following abuse. Most of our focus is on survivors of abuse, but it’s also important to consider how survivors’ romantic partners can best support, understand, and care for them in light of the abuse they experienced. So, today, I’ll share some suggestions for the partners of anyone who has experienced abuse in a past relationship.
For starters, it’s important to remember that every person is unique, and there is really no one-size-fits-all advice. There are no guarantees for how someone will be affected by past abuse, nor are there any rules or prescriptions for the best way to support someone in the process of recovering from past abuse. However, we know from our research with hundreds of survivors of past abusive relationships that there are some common experiences that survivors may have, both during and following their abusive relationships. The following suggestions are based on that information, as well as my clinical experiences as a couple and family counselor. Before considering whether to use any of the suggestions below, I suggest you first talk about them with your partner to see if they make good sense to him or her.
1. Work to promote a context of safety and support in your relationship.
Anyone in a romantic relationship should work toward building a sense of safety and mutual support in their relationships. Healthy relationships are built on a solid foundation of trust, respect, and valuing one another. When someone has experienced any form of abuse in their past, they may have an especially strong need to feel safe and secure in their future relationships. Keep in mind that your partner has seen a very dark side of intimate relationships in the past, and be intentional about showing your partner you are a safe, trustworthy, kind, and gentle person who wants to provide care and support for them.
2. Honor your partner’s decisions as to how much information to share with you about their past abuse.
If your partner has shared with you that they have experienced abuse in a past relationship, know that you’ve been entrusted with some information that’s very personal to your partner. It likely took a lot of courage, strength, and vulnerability for your partner to share that information with you. Know that survivors of abuse are different in the amount of information they want to share with others, even people who are very close to them. You do not necessarily need to know the full story about the abuse they experienced in order to know and understand your partner. There are a lot of reasons why survivors may not want to share all the details of their abuse with a new partner. These include fear of being judged, a desire to avoid the negative emotions that can come up when re-telling their story, and feeling like they’ve moved on from that part of their lives and don’t want to revisit it. Allow your partner to be in control of how much of their story they share with you, and when and how they share it if they do so. Don’t force or rush your partner into sharing too many details, especially early on. Trust your partner’s judgment, and let them tell you their story if and when they feel ready to do so.
3. Do not judge or blame your partner.
Abuse is always, always the full responsibility of the person who perpetrates it. Unfortunately, victims and survivors of abuse are all-too-often blamed for the abuse, and sometimes they even come to blame themselves. As a close, trusted person in your partner’s life, you have an opportunity to remind your partner that they were not responsible for the way their past abusive partner treated them. Consider carefully the words you use when talking about the abuse. Avoid questions like, “What did you do to provoke them?” or “What could you have done differently to end the abuse?” Instead, you can focus on understanding your partner’s experiences within that relationship, such as by focusing on how they felt, who they turned to for support, and what they did to attempt to protect themselves when their partner became abusive. You can even take this one step further and say clearly, “It wasn’t your fault,” and “You didn’t deserve to be treated that way. You deserved love and respect, and you still do.”
4. Be patient, and take things slowly.
Moving slowly in getting to know a new partner is almost always a good idea, as it takes time to really get to know and understand someone. By rushing into a relationship too quickly, you can create more challenges later on, especially if you’ve taken on a significant level of commitment to the other person before you’ve gotten to know where they stand on various important issues and life goals. Someone who’s experienced past abuse may be especially sensitive to rushing into a new relationship, as we heard from some of the survivors who participated in our research. Because their trust has been violated in the past, they may require more time to build trust in a new partner. In addition, it’s very important to honor your partner’s boundaries about the role you have in their life. For example, if you’re dating someone with children, and they say they’re not ready to introduce you to their children yet, don’t push the issue, and let them decide when they feel right about that introduction. By taking the time to really get to know your partner and allowing them to get you know, you’ll help to build a stronger sense of trust, as well as have a more solid foundation for your relationship as it progresses to deeper stages of intimacy.
5. Don’t assume that every reaction your partner has is directly related to their past experiences of abuse.
When you’re just getting to know someone, and sometimes even if you’ve been with someone for a long period of time, it can be difficult to understand why they act the way they do. If you know your partner has experienced abuse in the past, it can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that some of the ways they act are because of their past abuse. For example, if you perceive them to be holding back emotionally from you, you may assume that this is because they’re afraid of getting too close because of the hurt they’ve experienced before. However, there are a number of other reasons they may be acting this way, such as if they’re just taking their time in getting to know you or they are facing a stressor at work that’s distracting them. Another possibility is that you’re misinterpreting their actions to begin with. In this example, they may not be holding back emotionally from you at all, and it may actually be your own experiences that are leading you to interpret their behaviors in that way. Keep an open mind in learning why your partner acts the way they do, and if you’re feeling uncertain about anything, the best approach is to ask them about it in a calm, supportive way.
6. On the other hand, understand that some reactions may stem from the effects of the trauma of the abuse.
The process of recovering from past abuse can take a very long time. Even when someone has generally healed and recovered, both emotionally and physically, from past abuse, they still may experience challenges that stem from their abuse. For example, someone may have experienced physical injuries that have led to chronic headaches now. Emotionally, survivors may have symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If so, there may be certain triggers that lead them to re-experience past abuse. For example, if their partner sexually assaulted them, you may find that there are certain places on their body where you touch them that create anxiety or discomfort for your partner. It may be that these were places on their body that their partner touched them or hurt them during an assault, and when you touch them there, it reminds them of the abuse and leads them to re-experience it. Maintain open communication with your partner to help you understand if there are specific actions you can take or changes you can make to help them with any ongoing consequences of the abuse they’re experiencing.
7. Don’t allow yourself to be abused or mistreated. Expect the same level of respect and kindness that you are giving.
Remember that both you and your partner deserve to be respected and valued in your relationship. The vast majority of people who’ve experienced abuse do not go on to perpetrate abusive behaviors. But, unfortunately, this can happen, so it’s important for you to maintain an expectation that you’ll be treated with respect and safety, just as you are working to provide that respect and safety for your partner. If your partner acts abusively toward you, do not make excuses for those behaviors or let them slide just because you know that your partner has been victimized in a past relationship. Every person is responsible for their own choices and behaviors in an intimate relationship. If your partner acts violently toward you and tries to excuse it because they themselves have been abused in the past, consider how to protect your safety, such as by speaking with a professional counselor or advocate about how to leave the relationship safely.
8. Nurture your own and your partner’s interests and friendships outside of your relationship.
In an abusive relationship, a perpetrator often limits the extent to which their partner can pursue their own life goals and interests. In addition, perpetrators often isolate their victims by keeping them from their friends and family members. In contrast, in safe and healthy relationships, both partners are able to nurture their own individual interests and outside relationships, and this individuality helps bring new energy into the couple’s relationship. Get to know what activities, hobbies, and future dreams make your partner tick, and ask them how you can help them have time and energy for those interests in their lives.
9. Treat your partner as an equal. Value their opinions.
Another tactic that abusers often use is to control their partner’s decisions. It’s likely that, in their past abusive relationship, your partner’s opinions and needs were disregarded and devalued. To add to the safe, supportive context that you’re building in your relationship, be intentional about showing your partner that you value their opinions, as well as they they are an equal partner in making important decisions about your relationship. Any effective relationship requires good communication, effective conflict management skills, and the commitment by both partners to work on and invest in the relationship. In the past, your partner may not have experienced some of these things, so work together to build strong relationship skills and demonstrate mutual respect and equality within your relationship.
10. Learn about the dynamics of abusive relationships. If appropriate, join your partner in their efforts to raise awareness about domestic violence and/or support other survivors.
We’ve heard from many survivors who’ve participated in our research that they grew interested in advocating for domestic violence prevention and awareness as part of their process of recovering from abuse. Of course, not all survivors will have an interest in this type of advocacy work, so don’t push it or expect it. But, if this is an interest of your partner’s, ask if and how they’d like for you to get involved in those efforts. There are many ways to support domestic violence prevention and intervention work, both locally and nationally, so you may be able to find ways that you could make a unique contribution with your skills and interests. Talk with your partner to see if there are ways that you could work together to make a difference in the movement to end intimate partner violence and support survivors.
Again, every survivor of past abuse is different, and it’s important to view your partner as a unique and special individual whose life is not defined solely by their past experiences of abuse. My hope is that the suggestions above will help to open a conversation with your partner about the best ways that you can support them and work to build a safe, healthy relationship together.