Getting out of an abusive relationship is one of the hardest things I've ever done. The second hardest thing is, and still remains, acknowledging that I was in an abusive relationship, especially because my scars aren't physical. Third hardest thing? Dating after being in one.
While therapy and writing this article are helping me move forward, there are times that I still struggle, especially with dating. After almost two years, I've started dating again, and so far I've encountered more triggers than I anticipated. Although I'm still mostly terrified, here is how I'm navigating the dating scene after exiting an abusive relationship.
1. Processing the Abuse
Accepting that I was in an abusive relationship has been so hard for me because I still carry shame. I am often ashamed of the version of myself that was a dumping ground for verbal abuse and emotional manipulation. I feel like the abuse happened to me because I was weak, even though that isn't true. That said, I know that to move on to healthier relationships, it's imperative I process my feelings and continue forgiving myself.
Ronjonette O'Bannon PhD, LCSW, therapist and owner of Transformation Opportunities Therapy for Women, says that before you even start dating again, you need to process what happened to you. "Allowing yourself to feel is an important part of the pre-dating process," Dr. O'Bannon said. "You want to be still, and being still might mean allowing yourself to feel. [Don't] allow yourself to run into another relationship or different projects so you don't have to deal with the emotions."
2. Being Aware of My Triggers
I sometimes feel like an emotional minefield. I am full of emotional triggers and hear the disapproving voice of my ex at every turn. I remember talking to a guy I met on Bumble and being triggered when he made a comment about my weight. I got defensive and had flashbacks to the many times my ex would body shame me and talk about how skinny I was. There was another guy who wouldn't text back for days, and I'd spiral into a dark place because I thought he was withdrawing affection. I'm still not comfortable with sleepovers or not wearing makeup in front of men because I envision them using my vulnerabilities to try to break my self-confidence.
Thanks to therapy and journaling, I am more aware of my triggers and how to manage them. When I'm triggered, I know it is one of two things — either there are wounds that still need healing, or I need to set boundaries. I practically deal with triggers by allowing myself to feel my emotions, exploring the "why" behind them, and giving myself the love and compassion I need in that moment. Doing this also ensures I'm not projecting my old traumas onto new people I'm dating.
I started therapy before I left my ex, and I'm honestly not sure I would have had the courage to leave if I didn't. It has helped me self- reflect to understand what led me to an abusive relationship and how not to get into one again. Dr. O'Bannon emphasizes the importance of ongoing self-reflection to uncover underlying issues that lead us into patterns of abuse or unhealthy relationships.
"For some people, they really need to get to the root of some of the challenges they've been suffering with before the start of that relationship," Dr. O'Bannon said. "We might want to look at early childhood traumas, our own insecurities, and levels of self-esteem that were impacted before, during, or after that relationship."
For me, it was fear of abandonment, a lack of boundaries, and a disorganized attachment style all stemming from my childhood. Therapy is helping me work through these issues, and hopefully I'll choose better candidates during the dating process as a result.
4. Setting Boundaries
I had no boundaries with my ex, which made it easier for him to abuse me. He'd bombard me with calls and texts throughout the day, search my phone regularly, show up unexpectedly, video call to ensure I was alone, and insist on taking me everywhere. If he wasn't the center of my attention at all times, it would lead to aggressive behavior, verbal abuse, and arguments.
I used to allow this to happen because I thought it was a sign of passion and an expression of love. I was also afraid of being rejected if I set firm boundaries. Now that I've started setting boundaries, I'm able to protect myself and feel less guilt about putting up with unacceptable behavior.
Dr O'Bannon recommends setting boundaries early on in the dating process to prevent yourself from falling into old habits. "You need to ask yourself, 'How much am I willing to give to this person I don't really know? How much trust and availability should they have from me?'" Dr. O'Bannon said.
Personally, I'm putting this into action by not oversharing, canceling existing plans to go on dates, or giving up things I love to date someone. This has been a practical way to remind myself that I come first. It has also taught me that love and boundaries can coexist, and that boundaries are a sign of a healthy relationship.
5. Identifying Red Flags
Oftentimes when we're dating someone new, we tend to overlook red flags that can be signs of troubling behavior for a variety of reasons ranging from fear of not being capable of finding anyone better to trying to see the best in that person. It's also possible that when we've experienced traumatic childhoods, we mistake abuse for love. Regardless, we shouldn't excuse bad behavior or write it off as something insignificant.
Some subtle red flags that Dr. O'Bannon mentioned include constantly needing your attention, a relationship moving unusually fast, demanding access to things that are private, love bombing, and difficulty with managing their emotions.
These are all things I experienced in my previous relationship and things I thought were signs of interest and affection. Now that I know better, I've become pretty good at rejecting dates when I notice abusive red flags.
6. Loving the Hell Out of Myself
I realize now that I set the tone for how people love me. While I may not have had the best foundation for love growing up, it's my responsibility to reparent myself and learn how to love and care for myself. Being true to who I am and committing to learning more about myself are ways I show myself love. As Dr. O'Bannon explains, "Self-care are the things you do every single day because you know it keeps you grounded."
Surrounding myself with people who love me and allowing myself to receive their love is a form of self-care and healing for me, too. This time around, I am practicing being honest and open with my loved ones about who I'm dating, instead of leaving out key details and trying to protect someone who treats me badly.
Dating after an abusive relationship is difficult, but I'm proud of my growth so far. I'm giving myself another chance to experience love because I deserve it, but this time I'm hellbent on ensuring it's healthy.