How to Date After Abuse: When Our Fear Interferes
Updated: May 11
We have a tendency to compare our abusive experience to those of others. We compare, we categorize, we look to someone else’s experience and see something worse. We apply relativity, as if our harmful experience must have a ranking. And worse, especially if the abuse we’ve suffered was non-physical, we look for some kind of invisible tipping point. We feel uncertain about whether what we experienced was abusive or not. Whether or not it was traumatic. Or traumatic enough.
Believe me, I know how screwed up this sounds to some folks. But if you’ve been there, you know.
Relational abuse is trauma. All of it. Whether you were physically abused, psychologically tormented, emotionally manipulated, neglected, sexually coerced or otherwise, when we are harmed at the hands of someone who is supposed to love us the most, this is traumatic. Why do we struggle so to understand our own experiences? To feel clear about what happened? Because we’re always comparing, trying to use relativity to figure out where we are in the scheme of things.
It is said that “comparison is the thief of joy”. I could not agree more. Yet I believe that comparison is the thief of many other things, as well. When it comes to abuse, comparison is the thief of reason and rationale. Sometimes it is the thief of our exit. Comparison is the thief of our own acknowledgment. Comparison is sometimes even the thief of our self-validation. In the aftermath of abuse we throw ourselves under the bus - by way of comparison – often without realizing it.
Why do we do that? (Hint: this is not a rhetorical question).
The short answer, from my camp, is fear. I spoke about fear this week in my IGTV chat: how much of it we all face in our daily lives, how survivors manage fear and work to protect themselves, and why a history of living with fear chronically (as survivors often do) can make the uncertain world we live in even harder.
So many survivors wonder how to date after abuse. And the strange mix of fear and excitement can create a real push-pull experience when we endeavor to seek love again. Knowing our fears, better understanding them, realizing we’re not alone, and exploring how to shift our fear is a great place to start. Here, I’ll talk about three common fears, unique to survivors, that make dating after abuse difficult and offer some tips on beginning to shift.
FEAR OF BEING BROKEN. In Emily Nagosky’s brilliant book on women’s sexuality, ‘Come As You Are’, she discusses three mindsets that are key to a healthy intimate context. One of them is feeling whole, rather than broken. She discusses the damaging effect of feeling like there’s something wrong with us, that we are damaged, less-than or somehow inadequate.
Many of the survivors I’ve worked with in the aftermath of abuse feel broken. They’ve been told habitually that there’s something wrong with them. That they’re not only wrong somehow, but that they should feel ashamed of what’s wrong with them and – therefore – remain compliant with an abusers plan for easy, fuss-free living. Sounds great for someone, right?
Abusers weaponize our own self-perception. It can feel like someone sweeping your puzzle onto the floor – parts are missing, the clarity is gone. Who are we now? That negative self-perception (what we call a cognitive distortion) took time to create, and it can take some time to dismantle. But here’s good news: you can use the same approach in reverse, with Cognitive Restructuring. Through this approach, we over-write a negative belief with a new and different one. Here are a few suggested thoughts to replace “I’m broken”:
I’m reinventing myself to better suit this moment and my future.
I’m finding a deeper, truer version of myself, piece by piece, and she’s amazing.
I’m building a new mindset from the wreckage and all that I’ve learned
What are some others you can think of? Please share with other survivors! Tag #phasesofchange
FEAR OF THE REARVIEW MIRROR (THE LEAPFROG EFFECT). Relief is a weird emotion. It usually feels darn good, deep in our bones, physically. But only because we feel awash with the absence of something difficult. It’s a bit double-edged.
Often times, people move out of abusive unions and the relief of just getting away from it is so profound that we don’t want to look at it again. We finally get to slam the door on that hardship, and so we padlock the mess in a special, impermeable crate. Voila! Done! What then? How about feeling attractive, desired, sexy or free? How about daring to….hope? Or how about just a little long-awaited fun?
Oh, I know this phase. I know it well from my therapy practice and I remember it well in my own journey. Suffering with abuse can feel so oppressive and beginning to have a little fun can feel so liberating, it’s mighty easy to just leap on over the middle. What’s in the middle? Oh, nothing. Just a metric ton of emotional processing, reckoning, conflicted feelings, confusion, self-criticism and sometimes even shame.
And after all, didn’t we just finish eating a shit sandwich? Who in her right mind wants more sadness, dread, self-doubt or distress? The truth is many survivors need a break from the dark and so they fling themselves into the light. I get it. I never ever really try to stop it. But somewhere in the process, whether our pendulum swings too far, or not enough for a while, we do end up in the messy middle.
The good news is that, well supported, we can take the teeth out of the monsters in the middle. Here are a few reminders to shift some of that scenery in hindsight:
You had reasons for everything you chose, tolerated and “allowed”.
Whatever we’re doing, it’s working for us somehow. This is a universal truth about all humans.
Shame is often a sort of protective strategy, deployed upside down, to protect from more harm.
Self-compassion is not excuse-making, it is ground-breaking – for the foundation of a new relationship within.
If you’ve found yourself leap-frogging over the ‘messy middle’, know that you don’t need to abandon your joy and fun. You can visit the middle without living there. The more Self-awareness we can bring to the process of moving on, the more ease and clarity we’ll meet it with.
FEAR OF BEING OBSOLETE. There’s something almost surreal about going on your first date after being married or partnered for many years. And if your partner was abusive, you’re doing so with a bigger ‘backpack’ full of stuff. The rate at which things change in our social and cultural context is mind-bending and nothing fuels that predator-prey mindset like feeling caught unaware.
Between the time that I married and the time I dated again after divorce, online dating became a ‘thing’ and it felt like traveling to another planet. Many of my clients speak of ‘struggling to catch up with the times’ and understanding the nuances of new technology in dating. Regularly, I hear them express fear that their unfamiliarity with the landscape of dating feels too vulnerable on top of the vulnerability they already feel as survivors.
The compounded nature of the fear and the unknow can be completely arresting, and even stop some survivors from moving forward. Here are a few pearls of insight to tuck away for these rainy days:
Connection is as old as our species and even though how we initiate it has changed, how we connect with another person is like the power of a smile – timeless.
Online dating can feel extra predatory due to the ease of anonymity, disappearance and illusion. Trust what happens offline as the basis for all your judgement of how things are going.
More eyes, ears and hearts serve your cause: don’t date in a vacuum. Let your friends and loved ones help shape your perception of anyone you spend time with.
You don’t need to transform your tech savvy to go forward into love again, and to do so with a sense of safety. While dating after abuse can feel like something between a good romcom and a bad scifi, there are some old school approaches that are long on security and short on overwhelm. The world is ablur with change and yet some things really are static and in them we can find anchoring.
OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FEAR FROM A PLACE OF SELF
Moving into the space of love, intimacy and connection when those experiences have been fraught with harm in your past, is mightily complicated. Our fears protect us, which means they are parts of us. And in my way of working we believe that all our parts are trying to help us (somehow…) and therefore all parts are welcome.
So, while I recommend managing and limiting external fears (like the news) with great temperance, I urge a gentler approach with the fears that we find inside. What do we do about our inner fears that speak to us about finding love again? We befriend them. They have data for us, and purpose. They have intention. They’re not just hanging out trying to make life harder. They’re working on our behalf, and they need our attention, to trust us, and to allow Self-leadership.
If you’re on the journey of dating and seeking new love as a survivor, I’m here to help. Join my mailing list for offerings about love and Self-expansion in life after abuse. As always, drop me a line. Your stories and questions make the most of what I bring!
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