During the relationship, I felt like a cardboard cutout of myself: thin, flimsy, a printed-on smile plastered on my face. After I left, I was a different person. I flinched at loud noises and the sound of footsteps behind me on the street. I cried unpredictably and often. But I was also more intuitive, more empathetic, and much stronger. I didn’t know who this new, post-abuse version of myself was, but truth be told — I thought she was pretty rad.
But when it came to dating? In the immortal words of my New York City ancestors: forget about it. It’s hard enough to date when you’re in the best of mental health, but after you’ve been through the emotional equivalent of a hurricane, it’s like trying to find your way through a completely altered landscape. I’m still learning my way around that new terrain. We, as a society, all are.
If you’re dating someone with an abuse history, you’re in the unique position of being able to help co-author a violence-free future for yourself and your partner, just by being your wonderful self. But first, there are some things you should understand about abuse, what your partner might be experiencing, and how to support yourself so you can be the best possible ally.
It’s a Learning Process, For Both of You
As much as you may care about your dating partner, and as much as they may be suffering, they’re not “broken,” and you can’t “fix” or “save” them. An intimate relationship is no replacement for the physical and mental health care many abuse survivors need to feel truly well. Even if it’s been a long time since their experience of abuse, your dating partner is likely still on a journey of healing, figuring out what they need to be happy, healthy, and safe in an intimate relationship.
You can’t do that work for them, but you can educate yourself about abuse and trauma, so that you can be the best possible partner. That starts with listening to survivors, including your dating partner, when they tell you about their experiences and what they need. This also means learning to read between the lines and understanding how trauma can affect someone’s emotional health and communication style.
You should see yourself, always, as your partner’s equal, and genuinely strive to create a relationship that is as mutually beneficial as possible. If anyone has accused you of abuse in the past, or if you have a history of toxic or unhealthy relationships, you might not be the best match for this person at this time.
You also may not be the best match if you’re someone who tends to view people you date as “fixer-uppers,” “projects,” or if you prioritize someone else’s needs at the cost of your own. It’s okay if you feel like this isn’t the right relationship for you right now: we all have to prioritize our own healing first, so we can be more present and caring toward other people.
When in doubt, ask!
It’s an act of respect to ask a survivor what they need to feel safe, especially if you’re getting to be physically and emotionally intimate. While some survivors may find talking about their past disturbing, each individual survivor is the foremost expert on their own experience and will open up when it’s right for them.
If you’re unsure whether something — a movie that includes depictions of abuse, for example, or a particular sexual position — is okay, ask them. This also means respecting if they don’t wish or they’re unable to engage with your question. And remember: Asking is just the first part — it’s also vital to listen.
Always, Always Respect Boundaries
Abuse is a process of violating someone’s boundaries over time, so that the abuser can have their way. Eventually, the victim learns to expect that their boundaries will be ignored, and their sense of self and their own needs erodes. In new relationships, this trauma often makes it scary for survivors to say “no” and difficult for them to home in on their inner voice. This is why, for many survivors, healing is about restoring a personal sense of agency and re-learning what feels good and what kinds of behavior they won’t accept.
The most powerful, supportive thing you can do is to pay attention to your dating partner’s boundaries, and respect those boundaries. That means, whether it’s sex or something as simple as going out for a dinner date, if you ask and they say “no,” that always means “no.” If they freeze up, that means “no.” If they’re ambiguous, that means “no.”
And remember: “No” does not mean “convince me.” Pressuring someone with an abuse history to do something they don’t want to do is not only disrespectful — it’s a repetition of the same behavior they were harmed by in the past. Their “no” is not necessarily a rejection of you: it’s a rejection of that activity at that time. It’s also an assertion of their own boundaries, which is an important skill for them to learn!
You Need to Earn Their Trust
Because cycles of abuse often include periods of kindness followed by violence, I learned, as many survivors do, to associate a partner’s kindness with gathering storm clouds of cruelty. When I started dating again, I found myself constantly cringing at dating partners’ kindness and wondering: when will the other shoe drop?
If you’re dating someone with an abuse history, know that it might take them a while to trust you. That may feel frustrating — after all, you’re likely a nice person with good intentions — but it’s totally normal and understandable. They’re still learning whether it’s safe or not to open up, and that will only come through time and healing.
It may take a while
Trust is always earned, and dating is like a job interview to demonstrate that you’re worthy of someone’s trust. You can demonstrate your intentions are good by showing your dating partner, through consistent, caring action, that you mean what you say and that, while no one’s perfect, there is no “other shoe” of cruelty or neglect that you’re about to drop on them.
Take Care of Yourself
Each of us deserves a loving, caring, and egalitarian relationship. While a partner who has an abuse history may require certain kinds of thoughtfulness, you should also have your basic needs for trust, love, and respect met. If you find yourself feeling more like your partner’s doctor than their dating partner, it’s a sign that it’s time to step back.
And if this all sounds like a lot of responsibility — well, it is! At the end of the day, dating is always a lot of responsibility. Trusting other people with access to our hearts and bodies is such a big risk and it’s pretty wild that — even after heartbreak or trauma — human beings have the incredible resilience to love again. Whether we’re survivors ourselves, or we love people who are, we all have the amazing strength to learn from past harm and grow toward a healthier future.