While it’s easy to fall back into the same old pattern, you’re entirely capable of breaking it. Below, psychiatrists and other mental health experts share 9 tips on how to approach a relationship if you’ve been scarred by an emotionally abusive partner.
Being in a toxic relationship can leave you with lasting emotional scars — and you’ve probably given plenty of thought to why you stayed with your ex for as long as you did. That sort of self-reflection is a good thing, said Toronto-based psychiatrist Marcia Sirota; figuring out what drew you to your ex and kept you in the relationship will make you less susceptible to falling for a similar type the next time around.
Plus, she said, “you’ll be less attractive to the predators out there when you’ve built your confidence and self-esteem and learned how to give yourself some much needed validation and nurturing.”
In doing the reflection work above, don’t be too self-critical about why you stayed with him or her.
“Instead of beating yourself up for having stayed with your abusive partner, you’ll need to forgive yourself and look at the choices you made with honesty and compassion, letting go of any self-blame, guilt or shame,” Sirota said.
At some point post-split, grab a piece of paper and outline what you want — and what you absolutely refuse to accept — in your next relationship, said Abby Rodman, a psychotherapist and author of Should You Marry Him?: A No-Nonsense, Therapist-Tested Guide to Not Screwing Up the Biggest Decision of Your Life.
“List out the behaviors that you would never again tolerate in any relationship,” Rodman said. “If and when a new relationship gets serious, pull out the list and share it with your new partner. Every couple needs to understand and honor each other’s vulnerabilities and boundaries and this is especially important if there’s been abuse in your past.”
You’ve spent years of your life with someone who belittled you and made you feel as though your needs were unworthy of being met. Before even considering getting in a new relationship, take your needs off the back burner and get in touch with what you really want out of life, said Margaret Paul, a psychologist and the co-author of Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You?
“Focus on how you have been treating yourself,” she said. “Do you judge yourself too harshly? Did you make your partner responsible for your sense of worth and safety? Often, others treat us the way we treat ourselves. When you treat yourself in any of these ways, you are rejecting and abandoning yourself. Once you learn to love and take care of yourself, you will find yourself attracting more loving and trustworthy people.”
Chances are, your ex monopolized your time and tried to pull you away from your friends and family. Now that you’re single again, it’s time to reconnect with old friends so that when you eventually do get in a new relationship, you have a close, supportive friend group to depend on, too.
“Letting friends fall to the wayside leaves you completely dependent on one person for connection, making it that much more difficult to leave,” said Craig Malkin, a psychologist and the author of Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad-and Surprising Good-About Feeling Special. “Plus, your friends often see things you can’t because, for good or ill, falling in love muddles everyone’s thinking. Discussing your feelings and perceptions with trusted friends can help you see your situation more clearly.”
Don’t let a pattern of bad relationships lead you to believe you’re not capable of a happy, healthy relationship. You will find love and someone new and better for you — you just need to learn to love in a smarter and healthier way, said Kristin Davin, a New York City-based psychologist.
Having honest conversations about each other’s relationship history is key to building trust in any new relationship, but it’s especially true if you’ve experienced emotional abuse, said Rodman.
“Explain what it felt like and how it diminished your self-esteem,” she said. “Let your partner know you’re still healing and that it’s a work in progress. Your partner’s reaction to your disclosure may tell you everything you need to know about this new person in your life.”
If you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship, you might be prone to ignore your intuition, Malkin said.
“One form of emotional abuse — gas-lighting — is designed to make you feel ‘crazy’ when you know something’s wrong,” Malkin explained. “For instance, when you thought your ex was seeing someone else, he may have called you crazy or paranoid.”
If you start to doubt or worry about someone’s intentions, don’t assume you’re being paranoid — respond to it.
“Tell your partner what you’re feeling,” Malkin advised. “Even if you’re wrong, a healthy partner — someone who is capable of empathy — can handle talking about your worries. If he or she can’t, your gut was right.”
This time around, promise to speak up if you’re not being treated with the respect you deserve, Rodman said.
“If your partner is willing to be a part of your healing process, she’ll hear your concerns without defensiveness and tweak her behaviors to make sure you’re more comfortable.”
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