By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
If you’ve been abused by a past abusive partner, there are many reasons why it makes perfect sense that you’d be afraid of entering into new intimate relationships. With this experience behind you, the risk of being hurt by a romantic partner is a reality, not just some abstract concept or statistic.
You know firsthand how damaging a harmful relationship can be--physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually. Even if that relationship has been over for a long time, you may still be dealing with the complications of it, such as if you’re still experiencing PTSD symptoms, or if you have to deal with your former abusive partner due to shared child custody. You may question your judgment in choosing a romantic partner, and you may fear that you’ll end up in another abusive relationship. All of these thoughts and feelings are very normal and expected responses to the trauma of abuse.
Despite all of the reactions described above, many survivors of abuse still hold out hope of finding a safe, healthy intimate relationship. Desiring an intimate connection with another person is a normal, natural human need. Even Maslow included belongingness and love in his Hierarchy of Human Needs, although of course there are other ways to achieve these needs beyond intimate relationships. Desiring love, affection, and connection with a romantic partner is natural, so survivors can rest assured that those desires are normal, even when past relationships haven’t been positive experiences.
The truth is, deciding to pursue a new intimate relationship after abuse does carry some inherent risks. There is virtually no way to guarantee that a relationship or partner will not ever become abusive, as we know that some abusers are extremely manipulative and won’t show any abuse until long after a relationship has been established. This thought is extremely scary if you’ve experienced any form of abuse in a past relationship.
You may feel that you can’t ever fully trust another person again. We heard this theme from several of the survivors who have participated in our research. For example, one survivor said, “I have avoided getting close and intimacy and sex because they have been such triggers.” Another participants said, “I was afraid to enter another intimate relationship, I did not trust anyone.” Another shared the following experience: “My journey included learning to understand why I felt the need to be the one in control of my subsequent relationships and the one to end them rather than show any signs of neediness. I chose partners who I knew would not be suitable husbands or fathers of children in order to maintain both power and distance, and at the first disagreement or argument, I ended the relationships. It took a long time to disabuse myself of the belief that all men could become abusive if you were 'weak enough' to trust them.”
Making the decision to move forward with pursuing new relationships does mean accepting some inherent risks that can come from getting involved in a deep relationship with another person. Some survivors may be able to feel fully recovered from any of these fears, and one research participant said, “I knew I had overcome my past abuse when I felt like I wanted another intimate relationship and I wasn't afraid anymore.” However, for others, acknowledging the fears that can come along with this is an important step to moving forward. One survivor who participated in our research said, “I don’t think the fear will ever go away completely.” Therefore, moving into a relationship may require moving forward, despite the fear.
Developing self-awareness is important for being able to recognize potentially unhealthy relationship patterns as survivors enter new relationships. As one example, consider the following story shared by one participant in our research: “I was also hypersensitive to abuse-signals and warning signs, which made me prematurely end relationships, even though it was just a normal action, looking back. Any sign of jealousy or anything that reminded me of my abuser, I was out. I found reasons to leave even healthy relationships as soon as they became serious. I think I was just too scared to become stuck, like I had with my abuser. I am with a wonderful guy right now and couldn’t ask for a better partner.” Once you can identify these patterns, it’s easier to figure out how to alter them and move toward healthier relationship choices. Working with a counselor can be a valuable resource for addressing your emotional responses and relationship patterns when entering and exploring new relationships.
Several of the survivors in our research also emphasized the importance of entering into new relationships slowly after a past abusive relationship. This allows the time to get to know your new prospective partner, and it can also help make it easier to end any prospective relationships that show signs of being abusive, unsafe, or otherwise unhealthy. One survivor said that it took her “longer to commit to a new relationship,” and another shared that “I didn’t meet a new partner...until the children were old enough to acknowledge and communicate to me their fears or worries, if they had any.” Another survivor offered the following suggestion to others: “Don't jump into any new relationships, only do what is best for you and your kids at first.”
Taking it slowly also requires finding a patient, supportive partner. Two participants in our research shared meaningful examples of the importance of a partner who offers this type of support:
After an abusive relationship, entering a new intimate relationship takes a leap of faith and a healthy dose of trust in yourself. One participant in our research said about finding love again, “I NEVER thought I could do that again.” However, the stories of many of the participants in our research demonstrate that finding safe, healthy love after abuse is possible, especially when you seek a supportive and patient partner, develop your self-awareness, acknowledge the impact of fear or other emotions that may arise, and surround yourself with a support system that you can rely on through the ups and downs of a relationship.