Last month, I took a two-day domestic violence class offered by my university. The professor was a woman I had met before during my training at a sexual assault center, and I expected to be pretty familiar already with most of her material. What I didn’t expect was to be the girl in the middle of the room crying silently over a handout. It was a copy of what’s called the “power and control wheel,” and if you’re not familiar with it, it categorizes all the different methods abusers will use to control their partner. Financial dependency, physical and sexual abuse, isolation from friends and family, threats, manipulation, blaming the partner, etc. It broke me.
There I was, looking at actual proof that what happened to me was real, that I wasn’t crazy for thinking he did all that to me, that those are actual defined behaviors of abusive partners.
Not all of the wheel applied to me, but enough of it did that I realized, even after reading the thousand and one articles about bad breakups, that having an abusive partner changes everything, and makes moving on to new relationships an entirely different challenge. And that is what I finally decided I could write about.
The first thing, the most important thing you have to do, is figure out how to stop second guessing yourself. You are so used to walking on eggshells, afraid that the next thing you say is going to make your life hell for a few hours, or days. You view conversation as a battlefield full of hidden landmines that you’re constantly trying to dodge, even though you have no idea what will set them off. Listen to me: YOU CAN SAY WHATEVER YOU WANT NOW. Tell yourself that a hundred times a day until you believe it. This new person you’re talking to is not waiting for you to say the wrong thing. They are genuinely interested in what you say, who you are. There is no fight coming. You’re not doing anything wrong. Get rid of the filter. If you say something that turns into a disagreement, that’s okay. That is normal. Most of the time it won’t happen, but sometimes it will, and it won’t turn into a manipulation-filled insane fight that leaves you begging for forgiveness. You have every right to speak freely, and you have to learn to enjoy that. It feels so good, and safe, to talk to someone and be fully invested in the conversation, I promise.
The other really big, important thing you have to do is forgive yourself. You have to face that shame you feel when you look back on that relationship and think “how did I let that happen to me?” and tell yourself that you are every bit as strong and wonderful as you were before him, or her. What happened to you is not your fault and you didn’t deserve it.
I’ll say it again: what happened to you is not your fault and you didn’t deserve it. And until you really believe that, every relationship you even think about starting will be tainted with a defensive thought process that tells you that you’re being weak, and that you’re going to end up right back where you were before.
You won’t trust anyone to not play the same mind games and you’ll blame them for things they’re not really doing. You’ll throw yourself too much into a brand new relationship instead of taking it slow, because you’re desperate to prove that you can do it the right way, that you can find a good one. You’ll do all kinds of crazy things when you’re still running from that person you never want to be again. Instead, look that past version of you in the eye and say “I’m sorry for your pain, and I see you and I am not ashamed or afraid of you, and everything is okay now. We’re going to be just fine.” And this forgiveness is not a one-time deal, either. You’ll have to do it over and over; when you catch yourself doing things he trained you to do, when someone blows your mind with a gesture so normal and healthy that you don’t remember how to handle it, and especially when someone dares to ask you to talk about that part of your past.
I could keep going, but I think it all boils down to the same basic concept: it is hard work to unlearn the things you thought you learned after having an abusive partner, but you can do it, and when you do, you’ll find that this world is full of people who want to love you the right way. Let them. Love them back.