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Reconnecting After Domestic Violence:
Establishing New Patterns in Intimate Relationships
© Dr. Amy Menna
Lynn anticipated the pain that would come at any moment. She was on guard for the humiliation...the lack of control...the hateful ways. She was on standby for the immense amount of agony a relationship can bring. Lynn felt the fear in her chest just waiting for things to become scary and destructive.
The thing is that Lynn left her abuser over a year ago and he is nowhere around. She had broken all contact with him and had moved on in her life. Lynn is currently dating a man who is kind, gentle, and understanding. He has done nothing to send off any indication that he would harm her or become aggressive. However, Lynn is still plagued by the pain and aftermath of a domestically violent relationship. She is reacting to her current boyfriend as is he was a monster; only the monster was long gone.
Lynn is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of experiencing domestic violence. Her body is working against her to feel safe in her current relationship as she sees her new boyfriend through the eyes of the past. Feelings of safety and security elude her as she anticipates this relationship will hurt as much as the last one.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one out of every four woman will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. It is estimated that one out of every 10 men will experience the same. Approximately 30%-60% of perpetrators of domestic violence also abuse the children in the household. With statistics like this, domestic violence affects the majority of people whether it is directly or indirectly. However, the majority of these experiences will never be reported to police.
Domestic violence can affect individuals in various ways. The physical wounds may include everything from bruises to broken bones. Social consequences may leave one feeling isolated from family and friends. Economic consequences can lead to loss of employment or financial instability. Then there are the "unseen" consequences of domestic violence which may last a long time. These include the emotional effects such as depression, anxiety, insecurity, and re-experiencing an overwhelming sense of fear. All these mentioned could result in something known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which can plague someone for years to come.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Three-Legged Stool
PTSD can be described as a three legged stool. Three legs hold up the seat, providing a platform upon which to rest. The three legs of PTSD are intrusive, arousal, and avoidance symptoms. The resting platform is made up of distorted thoughts and feelings upon which current situations rest.
Intrusive symptoms are ones that intrude upon one's life. Intrusive symptoms are thoughts, memories, or even feelings that are based upon past experience instead of what is going on currently. These symptoms may come in the form of unwanted thoughts, sensations, memories, or feelings as if the situation is happening again.
When things like these intrude upon one's life, it is natural to become anxious, fearful, or on guard. This is the second leg of the stool known as arousal symptoms. The arousal symptoms are those that put an individual on alert as if the situation is either happening or about to happen again. Due to the arousal symptoms, one may become hyper-vigilant to his or her surroundings and be easily startled.
Experiencing thoughts and feelings intruding upon one's life and being in a constant state of hyper-arousal can naturally lead to the desire to escape or avoid this experience. This is the third leg of the stool known as avoidance symptoms. These symptoms lead the individual to avoid situations, people, places, or things that cause the intrusive and arousal symptoms. This may be a conscious or unconscious phenomenon where one attempts to avoid experiencing the unwanted thoughts, feelings, or anxiety associated with them.
PTSD can be an internal warzone filled with unpredictability and fear. This warzone full of constant fire may lead to expectations of the worse case scenario. Living under this fire may lead an individual to experience the world with fear, horror, anger, or other negative emotions. The feeling as if he or she did something to cause the devastation in the past may also lead to feelings of shame or alienation from others.
This feeling as if the world is bad or dangerous is the seat of the stool which future experiences may rest. A harmless and seemingly pleasant experience may rest on this stool and be perceived as bad or unsafe. This is the case with Lynn. She is currently dating a kind and gentle man yet this experience rests upon the thoughts that relationships are violent, hurtful, and something bad is going to happen. Even kind gestures by Lynn's boyfriend are tainted by the expectation that pain will follow.
Recommendations on Reconnecting After a Domestic Violence Situation
Domestic violence can produce injuries that last far beyond the termination of the relationship. It may leave a stain on the heart which creates a barrier to opening up in future relationships. This is true for both intimate relationships such as dating as well as friendships and other individuals with whom the survivor comes in contact. The idea that someone can love without harm is a notion that the survivor's body cannot easily grasp. There are moments the new boyfriend or girlfriend is seen as a loving and kind individual yet as things become more intimate he or she may be seen as intimidating, lying, or threatening in some way.
Remember that things that rest upon the three-legged stool are going to be seen as harmful or scary. There will be an anticipation of doom despite the circumstances being positive. This is when the past haunts the present relationship. Yet, there are ways to reconnect despite having a history of domestic violence. Following are some suggestions to assist with reconnecting after a scary relationship.
Know that it is possible to reconnect and have a healthy relationship after a domestically violent relationship. It starts with recognizing what the survivor in you has overcome that reflects the strength within. Honoring that you are no longer in an abusive situation is the beginning of a new platform in which experiences can rest. Knowing that terminating an abusive relationship is not an easy task and takes courage, strength, and stamina. Seeing yourself as a survivor and no longer a victim is the first step in creating healthier relationships.
Stay away from the past abusive individual. Remember that you are building new ideas about relationships. To do so, it is helpful to surround yourself with only healthy and supportive relationships that are respectful and safe. In doing so, it will allow you to retrain your brain and your body that relationships can be safe and loving. However, when there is contact with an old perpetrator, it reminds one that the world is unsafe and relationships are fearful.
Identify what triggers you. PTSD can create a distorted view of the world. Taking the time to really view what is going on currently and gain insight regarding your reactions is helpful in building a new foundation. It will assist with you knowing whether it is the present or the past influencing your perception. Fear is an emotion which assists an individual to remain on guard thereby keeping him or her safe. When it comes to PTSD, that fear can creep in during innocuous or safe situations. Reviewing when fear has crept in and whether or not it is based on the current behaviors of your new partner or the actions of the past perpetrator will help you to see what triggers you.
Instincts may be misguided as a result of domestic violence. Perception may be skewed because of the past. However, this does not mean that you cannot trust your instincts. It is important to listen to your body and evaluate whether it is misdirected fear or a red flag deserving attention. Remember that having a history of domestic violence provides a unique perspective on relationships and you may have even more of an ability to see what may cause problems in the future.
There are various things a partner can do to trigger past emotions. Learning what triggers the fear and anxiety is half the battle. When your anxiety is up, take some time to view the situation from various angles. It can be anything from a statement that was made by your partner to a particular shirt he or she may have been wearing at the time.
Seek independent assistance or therapy. Recognizing red flags versus triggers from the past may be difficult. It is helpful to have an objective party assist you in this matter. This may take on the form of therapy, a domestic violence support group, or even a trusted friend. Having support through the process of reconnecting can be invaluable. Seeking professional help can be beneficial in learning about the effects of domestic violence as well as signs and symptoms associated with it.
Communicate to your new partner what triggers you. This does not mean that you have to disclose everything to your new partner. You may make a choice to not disclose your abuse to your new partner right away. It is possible to communicate what triggers you without having to go into detail. Simply stating that you would appreciate it if he or she didn't do something can be a reasonable request. You may simply state that something he or she does makes you feel "uneasy" or "anxious." It is not necessary to go into detail. Healthy relationships are filled with understanding and respect for other's wishes. Reasonable requests being ignored or ridiculed is a tenant of an unhealthy relationship and it is important not to minimize or deny these red flags.
Identify what makes you feel safe. In contrast to what triggers you, identify what makes you feel safe and secure. This is a twofold process. The first part is to know what your partner does that makes you feel safe. This may be a simple request such as "I like it when you hold my hand when I get anxious" or "I would appreciate it if you didn't raise your voice when watching sports." Requests like these should be respected and can produce a foundation for feeling safe.
Equally important is to identify what you can do to make yourself feel safe. Sometimes situations arise where we don't feel safe and it has nothing to do with the current situation. A new partner may say something or do a gesture that reminds you of your past abusive relationship. It is important to be able to recognize when you are feeling anxious and what you can do to sooth yourself bringing yourself back to the present.
There may be touchstones that make you feel safe such as journaling or another friend who understands the situation. It is perfectly reasonable to request to take a moment to step back from the relationship to take time with a friend, go for a run, or do something else that makes your anxiety go down. Identifying how to bring yourself back to feeling safe is an important skill when experiencing PTSD symptoms.
Giving yourself the love and respect you deserve. On the heals of knowing what makes you feel safe, it is important to be able to give yourself the love and support you need. Maintaining your own friendships and identity while beginning a new relationship is important. Knowing how to care for yourself and love yourself is part of the foundation for healthy relationships.
Giving oneself love and respect may take on many different forms. Most of the time it means carving out time for yourself to do something that solely benefits you. Figure out what recharges you whether it be going to a park, riding your bike, spending time with friends, reading, and the list could go on. It may be helpful to make a list of things that bring you peace and happiness and from time to time refer to that list to see how often you are incorporating those activities into your life. New relationships take time and it is easy to lose oneself in them initially. However, making a standing date to take care of yourself can make all the difference in the world when trying to maintain healthy relationships.
Be cautious not to want to sabotage the relationship. It is important that you not ignore red flags in the beginning of any relationship. However, be cautious that you are not overly critical of your new partner in an attempt to discontinue the relationship. It can be scary to re-enter a dating relationship after experiencing domestic violence. However, giving the new individual a chance is the only way to move towards a healthy lasting relationship.
Sabotage may take on different forms. You may be overly critical and look for things your new partner does wrong without being able to take in the acts of kindness he or she presents. It may take on a more insidious form of wanting to do something on your end to make him or her want to leave you. This may be in the form of trying to tell your partner all the reasons why he or she should not want to be with you instead of knowing that you too have a lot to offer.
You may even be tempted to create a situation where he or she may get angry enough to leave you such as having an affair or talking to your ex. Individuals tend to seek out situations which confirm their beliefs. Going back to moving from victim to survivor, if you feel as if you should be treated like a victim, you may seek out individuals who don't treat you right. It may actually be more uncomfortable to be loved than to be criticized. This is a normal process and gets better the more you place yourself in loving situations with people who see you as the survivor you are.
Domestic violence can permeate different areas of an individual's life. It can produce turmoil in all kinds of relationships in one's life. However, it is possible to establish happy, healthy, and healing relationships after experiencing domestic violence. There is a new world out there waiting for you. You are armed with new knowledge about relationships and an internal voice which had the strength and courage to leave the past relationship. With that courage, acceptance of the good, and an honest and open heart, you can heal those wounds and find the loving and supportive relationship you deserve.
Amy Menna has a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and Certified Addictions Professional. She is in private practice.
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