When two healthy people come together, their worlds over lap into a space where they create a life together built on respect, trust and communication. They share common interests and friends and at the same time, continue their own interests. They have time together, time alone and time with friends and family. Differences of opinions are discussed and respected. One person does not always have to give in to the other. Decisions are made jointly. Each partner’s voice has equal value.
This concept can feel foreign to a survivor of domestic violence.
Before we met our controlling partners, we had a life. Some of us had jobs and lived on our own, others were finishing up an education. We had dreams for out futures, were uncovering our talents and figuring out how to use them. Our worlds were filled with activities that we loved, families and friends.
Our controlling partners came into the relationships with their own individual worlds. At the beginning of the relationship, our partners were willing to participate in activities we enjoyed. They encouraged us to follow our passions.
Over time, our partners created reasons why we should not spend time with our friends using lies like: “Your best friend hit on me. She’s not your friend.” “Mike told me they laugh at you behind your back.” Intentionally, isolating us, giving them more influence over our lives.
Our partners made it difficult for us to continue to follow our passions: “Your job is more important to you than I am. Don’t you love me?” “You need to face the fact that you are never going to make it in that career. You’re just not smart enough.” They accused us of being selfish and damaged our self-esteem so they had more control.
Drawn, coerced or forced to stop our life journeys, our worlds dissolved. That left us standing in the abusers’ realms. They positioned themselves at the center of their worlds and our job was to serve their needs and wants. We, as human beings, ceased to exist and were seen as nothing more than property. Narcissists believe that they have the right to use any means—including physical force—to keep their property.
Relationships after domestic violence are scary. While we yearn to share our lives with someone, we no longer trust our judgment to pick a partner. Also, we don’t trust our ability to take care of ourselves, and children. That fear can cause us to jump into a new relationship before we are ready and, worse yet, before we’ve vetted our new partner.
When I joined a rebuilding group, the first thing the facilitator said was, “For the next year, you are not a good date.” He went on to warn us about rushing into a relationship before we healed. When it comes to leaving an abusive relationship, those words are particularly important. Desperately seeking another partner can almost guarantee that it will be another violent one. That’s because we gravitate toward what we know--what feels comfortable. Our understanding of relationships could have been skewed as early as childhood, if we grew up in a violent family. To end abuse, we have to change what feels comfortable. That takes time and introspection.
We must to learn that we can take care of ourselves and children. Good decisions do not come from a place of desperation and fear. That means we reassemble our world. We grieve the loss of time that could have been put to better use, take the lessons that we learned and begin to restore and upgrade our life. It’s hard but satisfying work. With time we will be back on our journey and moving in the direction we were meant to go.
When are we ready for a new partner? When we've achieved the following goals...
- Completed a good portion of our healing work (preferably with a therapist or support group).
- Laid the foundation of our worlds.
- Gained control over our own lives and don’t expect or allow our new partners to “fix” them.
- Learned to set steadfast boundaries and are willing to walk away if they are not respected.
- Learned to speak our minds respectfully and firmly even if it is scary.
A healthy relationship will feel outside of our comfort zones. We are a work in process. Let's not allow our discomfort blow up a good relationship. Instead, let’s face the issues head on.
The first issue to address is the instinct to fall back and let a new partner take the lead. Our past relationships were so exhausting that we would like our new partners to handle everything. This is not a component of a healthy relationship.We must stand as an equal and responsible partner.
That leads us to being a part of all important decisions. Since our former partners chastised us for any decision we made, we may be reluctant to share our opinions. If our new partners aren't interested or respectful of our opinions, we need to leave the relationship.
We are used to our partners calling us all the time, checking up on us. We may find ourselves doubting our new partners love because they don’t call as often, instead of seeing their behavior as a sign of trust. In a healthy relationship, space is respected and the other’s word is good.
The biggest issue may be asking for what we need. Since our needs and wants were never acknowledged, expressing them will definitely feel strange. This will take some practice. Start with small requests.
The more we challenge our false beliefs and openly express our feelings the sooner we will be able to relax into the new healthy normal. It takes practice and courage.
The right partner will respect your journey, encourage you and walk along side you. You will do the same for him or her.
My favorite quote comes from Rabbi Harold S. Kushner (How Good Do We Have To Be?):
“One of the basic needs of every human being is the need to be loved, to have our wishes and feeling taken seriously, to be validated as people who matter.”
May this become your new normal.