Every day in a relationship with the narcissist was a battle. Whenever I thought we had turned a corner, he would find a new way to knock me down. After I walked away, I was surprised how quickly I flourished. I was smarter, more confident, discerning, and intuitive. I did the inner work people always talk about — therapy, writing, meditation, introspection. From the inside, I found healing relatively easily.
But when it came to dating, I found more broken pieces I didn’t know about. I discovered that while healing starts with the self, it’s never complete except in relation to others. A “whole” life includes healthy love whether it be friendships or romantic relationships.
If you’re dating an abuse survivor, you are with someone who, because of their isolating experiences, has an enhanced capacity to understand intimacy. You’re in the position to co-create a healthy (a.k.a healing) relationship for you and your partner. But first, there are a few things you should understand about abuse and what that means about your partner’s needs.
* * *
1. They’ve likely had more than one abusive relationship
While not always the case, many abuse survivors have a chronic pattern of dysfunctional relationships. Freud called it the “repetition compulsion” — an attempt to rewrite the history of a previous abusive relationship, usually modeled after one with a parent. The sufferer unconsciously seeks people with traits similar to the former partner (or parent) in an attempt to finally prove themselves “good enough” to stop the abuse. But since they are looking for the personality traits that necessarily created the abuse in the first place, the sufferer ends up in a perpetual cycle.
This means that your partner went through a great deal of work to get to the point where they choose to be with someone as great as you. It also means that they may suffer from lingering symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) which develops after exposure to emotional or physical abuse over an extended period of time.
2. Positive events can be triggers as much as potential negative events
Acts of love and kindness bring your partner joy. But they may also stir up unexpected emotions such as fear and pain. Because the typical cycle of abuse includes periods of kindness followed by periods of devaluation, many abuse survivors have associated kindness with the setup to approaching cruelty.
They may hear a little voice in their head saying “Are you going to hurt me too?”
And that voice may stay for a while.
3. Trust will take time
Abuse survivors have fewer trustworthy relationships throughout their lives. As a result, their model of trust may be more theoretical than experiential. They may ask a lot of questions about the things you do because they’re testing their ability to interpret your behavior accurately. This is in part because they doubt their own judgment and in part because they’ve encountered some of the most deceptive types of people in the world. It may take more time than you expect to gain the trust of your partner.
4. They need consistency
Being consistent means never failing to show up. It means being dependable and acting in ways that are predictable. All relationships require consistency.
But it is especially important in a relationship with an abuse survivor that you act consistently right out of the gate.
5. They need reassurance
Abuse survivors have been trained to think most things they do are wrong or annoying. You might find them asking if it’s OK if they cut the tomatoes this way or that way. You might find them scared to tell you the pot pie got burned. They are used to being blamed and shamed for small inconveniences or minor mistakes.
Abuse survivors need more reassurance than the average person. They need to be told that you accept them. They need to know you still love them regardless of any inconveniences, disagreements, or mistakes.
A friend of mine with a history of abuse told me a story of when he visited his girlfriend to reconcile after an argument. After an emotional conversation where he explained what he had been feeling, she stared back blankly.
“All I wanted was for her to hold me and tell me everything will be OK,” he said.
It’s as simple as that. You don’t need to be a wordsmith. You don’t have to know how to fix your partner’s problems. When people are feeling vulnerable, they just need to be held and told that it’s OK.
6. They need you to respect boundaries
Abuse is a process of breaking down more and more of someone’s boundaries. Abusers often completely ignore boundaries until the victim gives in, too tired to stand their ground.
An abuse survivor needs to know you have no intention of breaking their boundaries. They need you to respect when they say “no” or when they are honest about what they want (or don’t want). They need you to work with their boundaries to co-create plans that serve both of you. They do not need you to persuade them to do something they have already told you they don’t want to do.
This also goes for talking about their past. Some survivors are open books. Others need more time and space before they can open up. Respect if they aren’t quite ready to talk about it. Remind them you’re there and willing to talk when they’re ready.
7. When they’re ready, they’ll want to share their stories with you
Sharing life experiences with a partner is one of the most beautiful and intimate things you can do. Understanding the challenges and demons your partner has overcome to get where they are will teach you endless things about who your partner is.
You can do no more loving thing than share in your partners’ loves, triumphs, and pains. We all have the need to be seen for the whole picture of who we are. Sharing our abuse stories is necessarily a part of that.
They might get choked up at some points. They might cry. You need only to listen, learn, and love. And when you feel ready, share your stories too.
8. They will help you face your own pain
Abuse survivors haven’t had the luxury of repressing their emotions for any extended period of time. They have been reminded again and again by their abusers of the wounds they acquired since childhood. They tend to be sensitive; they tend to be expressive.
But most importantly, they tend to reach a point where they are forced open and can’t deny the call to healing any longer.
Sometimes this might be hard for people to witness. Your partner will remind you of pains you’ve long set aside. You’ll wake up to find that something’s been poking at you all along. And with this recognition, you will finally have the chance to address it.
Previously published on “Hello, Love”, a Medium publication.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.