Dating after an abusive or toxic relationship presents unique challenges since most survivors experience chronic PTSD… especially if you were with a cluster B personality (narcissist, psychopath, sociopath, or BPD) and survived childhood trauma.
But pat yourself on the back for taking the first step in leaving.
Abuse alters brain chemistry, making it almost impossible for victims to leave their abusers. According to a study conducted by UCLA psychology professor Shelley Taylor, “oxytocin released from the amygdala promotes positive social bonds and has a calming effect, but under distressing conditions such as domestic violence, it’s released from receptors in the lateral septum to trigger a social stress response. This response is associated with physical feelings of pain and withdrawal, along with a desire to return to happier times in the relationship. Neurochemicals like oxytocin are powerful in dictating an individual’s emotions and actions, and they cannot simply be turned off or overridden with logic.”
People who have not experienced psychological abuse or domestic violence have trouble understanding this. As you venture out, unfortunately, you will hear invalidating comments from friends, family, or even potential romantic partners, such as:
- There are always two sides to the story.
- The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
- Get over it. It’s the past.
- Why did you let her do that to you?
- I can’t believe he did that to you. He’s such a nice guy.
Remember, most refuse to look at the world as it is.
But if you’re recovering from abuse, you must commit to reality at all costs to heal and eventually to date again.
In abusive and toxic relationships, victims acclimatize themselves to terror. They reinterpret, repress, distort, disown or use any number of strategies to accommodate their reality. And they have traumatic amnesia with no conscious recall of specific events. Since your survival depends on accepting the terror, you disbelieve the obvious and accept the improbable.
As we leave abusive relationships, we no longer have the cushion of denial, and the accumulated pain envelopes us. We grieve the relationship while the loss is shrouded in shame, betrayal, and constant questioning of “Why?” We and our children may be dealing with the psychological and physical effects of the abuse for a long time.
So how do we move on and date again after so much damage?
- Commit to ruthless self-honesty. Since trauma, betrayal, and exploitation distorts our perceptions, we must learn to face reality without denial. Be clear about your intentions, state your needs and wants without shame, and never live a secret life. Refuse to be “nice” all the time to keep the peace. Be willing to not hide from difficult moments. Look at your life clearly by speaking to a mental health professional. Consider journaling and doing therapeutic bodywork such as yoga, massage, or acupuncture.
- Learn to have boundaries in all your relationships. The most important part of recovery is developing a trustworthy relationship with yourself. You cannot do that if you do not know what you stand for, need, or want. Begin with expecting respect from everyone. Say no to anything that goes against your principles or forces you to sacrifice something important to you. Ask for space if you need to sort through issues privately.
- Say goodbye to anyone who disregards your boundaries. As we learn what is healthy and unhealthy behavior in recovery, we begin to reevaluate everyone in our life. This is hard because we will learn who is abusive and who is not. Every toxic “friend” will test your boundaries. For example, refuse to be with anyone who screams or verbally abuses you. Discard anyone who has consistently lied to you or enabled abuse. Life, as you know it, may require a complete transformation. To what lengths are you willing to go to find good, stable relationships and friendships?
- Embrace healthy anger. It helps you identify what triggers you when people cross your boundaries and tells you what is acceptable and what is not. It is unrelated to narcissistic rage, which seeks to control others and inflict pain.
- Seek joy. Learn what makes YOU happy and gives you peace, not your former partner. Is it singing Bohemian Rhapsody full throttle on the highway? Or hanging out with your pet or sister or kids? Is it learning to play guitar or conquer Wordle? Whatever it is, have fun. Be with friends. Find your tribe. Laugh. Joy heals. When we think happy thoughts, cortisol decreases, and the brain creates serotonin in response to our positive emotions. When serotonin levels are normal, one feels calm, less anxious, and emotionally stable.
- It is okay to grieve any relationship and realize that your life did not turn out how you wanted or deserved. It’s okay even if no one understands why you’re grieving an abusive partnership. Give yourself the time and space to heal.
- Transform suffering into meaning. Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” observed that everyone has the freedom to change instantly despite immense suffering, even if it is just in their mind. I have learned that out of indescribable pain comes a depth of purpose and no tolerance for living a lie. It creates enduring accountability and honesty. Share your story with others. Pay kindness forward. Help other men and women understand toxic personalities and the destruction they leave in their wake, whether emotional, physical, financial, or sexual.
After leaving our abuser, we can redefine future relationships and heal our minds, bodies, and souls. Finding a good, supportive network is the foundation of recovery.
As you begin your dating journey, look for the following:
1. People who want to get to know you before initiating a sexual relationship.
2. People whose actions match their words.
3. People who do not lovebomb, gaslight, or talk trash about their former partners.
4. People who make an effort to learn about you and make time to date you.
And lastly, know what you want in a loving, emotionally available partner, and always trust your instincts. If it feels bad, then it is.
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