When we think of intimate relationships, we tend to think of the positives: love, respect, support, pleasure, and mutual happiness. It is undeniable, however, that many relationships have a dark side, with a happy veneer disguising physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. One survey found 87 percent of respondents had felt fearful or uncomfortable in past intimate relationships. The #MeToo movement has brought attention to the power dynamics that are interwoven into abusive relationships of all kinds, and even some of the biggest names in the ENM community have shared their own stories of abuse, trauma, and survivorship in their own intimate relationships.
There are survivors of intimate partner emotional abuse in every demographic: there is no age, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic bracket, or geographic location immune to its effects. The sheer prevalence of abusive relationships nearly guarantees that anyone who has had multiple partners in their lifetime will, at some point, be intimately involved with a survivor of abuse. Survivors of abuse have been shown, by words and deeds, a grim picture of what being in a relationship means, and entering a new relationship with a partner who does things differently can be disorienting. Relationships can be healing, however, when partners work together to paint a new, healthier picture of what relationships can be.
One of the most common forms of emotional abuse is gaslighting, where a person’s own perceptions, memories, and decisions are questioned, and even directly manipulated, until the person feels they can no longer trust their own thoughts. In new relationships, this can manifest as deferring to your judgement and belittling their own ideas, or as aggressively defending their own views (the phrase “I’m not crazy!” is often connected to past gaslighting). Part of the healing process for survivors is to relearn to trust their own perceptions and memories, and you as their partner can be part of that process. Reassure them that they aren’t crazy, and that you KNOW they aren’t crazy. Ask for their views and opinions and encourage them to make their own decisions.
The word “triggered” has become one of the most overused, and misused, terms of modern discourse, with some using it as a synonym for being upset and others using it to mock the sensitivities of others. Traumatic triggers, however, are something entirely different: sensory inputs, like sounds or smells, that cause a survivor to re-experience aspects of their trauma, memories and present circumstances mixing into a potentially devastating emotional experience. If you know your partner has experienced abuse in the past, give them space to talk about their triggers and work together, with a licensed mental health practitioner if possible, to develop and implement a plan to manage them. Especially be aware of spaces where triggering is likely (a survivor of sexual abuse attending a dungeon party, for instance) and make plans for how to handle them.
Part of living in an environment of abuse is always being prepared for the worst, because the worst often happens. Mentally preparing for the next verbal barrage, the next putdown, the next punch is part of the skills needed to survive. As a result, abuse survivors have learned to watch for the first sign of trouble and then prepare for the worst case attached to that sign. Each person’s own worst case is based on their own experiences and fears, but it is up to you as their partner to learn them and learn the signs of trouble they associate with them. If your partner fears being abandoned, for instance, don’t walk out during a fight without saying when you will be back. Building a trust that the first sign won’t lead to the worst case takes time and consistency.
In abusive relationships, displays of emotion often mean very different things , and carry different consequences, than in healthy relationships. A simple argument can be a precursor to a verbal battering, an expression of anger the first step to violence. Even positive gestures can be manipulations, false apologies, or tests of loyalty. As a result, those who have experienced intimate partner abuse may react in unexpected or inconsistent ways to typical relationship situations. When your partner reacts to the possibility of abuse, it’s important not to react emotionally yourself. Instead, give them a moment of space, and then ask them what they’re feeling. Let them know that you are concerned about them as a person, rather than judging their reaction for being “wrong,” and support them sorting out their feelings in the moment.
Boundaries are a natural defense against abuse from others, so one of the first things abusers do in relationships is break down their partner’s boundaries. They push the lines, overstep and then give a cursory apology, and then encourage their partner to redraw their own boundaries to make the oversteps okay. Wash, rise, repeat, until the boundaries are erased entirely. Encouraging and supporting a survivor’s boundaries is critical in relationships, as every overstep damages trust. It’s also important to have your own clear boundaries that you can explain, define, and enforce. By modeling healthy boundaries with your partner, you create a safe space for them to draw their own.
New relationship energy, or NRE, can be intoxicating, encouraging us to rush headlong into the emotional (and physical) deep end of a relationship. When there is a history of abuse, however, it takes time to build the trust and openness needed to assure a survivor that you are not going to also abuse them. Many abusers start out portraying themselves as loving, caring individuals, not revealing their dark side until their target is too deeply enmeshed to easily escape. Sometimes, survivors of abuse will be the ones to rush a relationship forward, desperate for the love and validation that they didn’t receive in previous relationships. No matter how tempting, it is still important to set a slow, steady pace. Reassure your partner that they can get that love and validation without having to rush forward, and work together to build a solid foundation.
Human beings are, to a great extent, doers. When we are confronted by a problem, especially one that affects someone we love and care about, the first thing we want to do is fix it. Sometimes, though, just being there is all you can do. The experience of intimate abuse and trauma can be very isolating, and combatting that isolation is a healing experience itself. Many of us have the urge to dive into the trauma, ask questions, fix something, do something, but this can be overwhelming and potentially triggering to a survivor of trauma. Remember that you are not your partner’s therapist (even if you are a therapist!), so don’t act like one. Be present, listen without judgement, and acknowledge and validate what your partner tells you, if they choose to say anything at all. Sometimes the most helpful thing to do is sit together in silence.
Abusers create and enforce isolation in their targets of abuse, intentionally damaging support relationships and encouraging isolation. This behavior promotes the continuation of abuse by preventing others from knowing the details of what takes place behind closed doors and by closing off avenues of support if the abused partner wants to leave. Old relationships are painted as manipulative or untrustworthy, and new relationships are viewed with suspicion, leaving many survivors of abuse with limited social support. As a result, one of the best ways to support a survivor (and differentiate yourself from past abusers) is to encourage them to build a substantial support network outside of you. Encourage time with family and friends and other partners that you are not part of. If you do go to family or group functions together, give your partner space to do their own thing; this helps to reaffirm your trust in them, and to rebuild their trust in themselves.
Every person, every relationship, and every trauma is different. There is no right or wrong way for a survivor to have experienced their abuse in past relationships, and other than self-destructive behaviors there are no right or wrong ways to cope with having survived them in the present. Having supportive partners, a healthy support network, and experienced support professionals can help survivors heal, but ultimately time and rebuilding trust are the most important components of healing. Show your partner that you are willing to help them paint a better relationship, and you’ll both be amazed at how beautiful it can be.