Moving Forward After An Abusive Relationship

When I started putting together a book proposal for a collection of personal essays on domestic abuse in relationships, I knew I had to write about Tom,* my first boyfriend and first love. We were only together for three months, but I still have enough stories about the emotional and sexual abuse I experienced while dating him to fill an entire book.

I understand what other abuse survivors say when they say their abusers “cared” for them even while they were making their life feel like Hell. Their abuser probably seemed charming at first and was maybe even humorous. They may have seemed wounded and in need of care. Tom was all of these things.

When I was sad, Tom was sadder. When I was happy, Tom was happier. When I was in pain, Tom was in more pain. Our relationship always felt like an emotional competition.

I had an idea that his behavior while we were dating was wrong, but his abuse wasn’t always so straightforward. At the time of our relationship, I was struggling with an eating disorder. When Tom drank, he laughed at my body and said horrible things about my frame. But when he was sober, he forgot about the comments and told me I was beautiful.

One night, Tom told me that “deep down,” he had “no respect for women.” This was something I had never openly confronted him about but always silently suspected. His disrespect was particularly clear when it came to our sex life. Tom told me multiple times that I was “bad” at oral sex and that he never felt aroused around me. I realized later that he was saying this to make me feel bad about myself, because when I cried and apologized to him about it, he ignored me and changed the topic.

I always apologized when he criticized me. I always thought that I was the one to blame, not him. There was “bad” Tom and there was “good” Tom, and “good” Tom always made me second-guess whether “bad” Tom was really all that bad.

The relationship finally ended the first night Tom and I were going to sleep together. He took off the condom and wanted to have sex without it, which scared me because I wasn’t on birth control at the time. I told him I didn’t want to sleep with him if he did that again. He ignored me the rest of the night and slept with his ex-girlfriend a few weeks later.

I broke up with him after that, but it was hard for me to fully walk away from him even then. I never thought about leaving until after he cheated. I hadn't been comfortable or secure enough to say anything about his behavior, but when I was finally free, I cried for weeks on end. It still wasn’t until three months after the breakup that I truly saw the whole picture in clear light.

And I'm not the only one: Emotional abuse is often not easily seen or felt until the aftermath of a relationship. In fact, it takes about seven times for an abuse victim to walk away from a relationship.

Around the time of our breakup, I also landed a marketing internship in Los Angeles. I began to explore my creative side through poetry, painting, and blogging. As I furthered my career and education, I found self-love, body acceptance, and feminism. After multiple (completely harmless) Tinder dates that summer, I met a beautiful man who I’ve been dating for almost a year and a half now.

Even after this growth, though, a very small part of me has still missed Tom. I’ve honestly never publicly admitted that before, but I think it’s important to emphasize how difficult abuse is to recover from. This abuse left invisible scars. I’m guarded when I meet people for the first time. I still get chills when I see a model of Tom’s car in the street. I still haven’t gotten past self-blame and vulnerability, and cry when my boyfriend is upset and blame myself for our fights.

But while it’s hard to destroy painful memories and progress past them, it isn’t impossible. I’ve found ways to handle these feelings, to secure myself. I smile more often and laugh at the small, simple things in life because I understand pain. I’m more vulnerable when I trust someone and never take my close relationships for granted. I’m a better listener with my family and friends and have found passions for hiking and running. Writing has helped, too.

Now, more than two years after the abusive relationship, I feel stronger and more confident than ever. The more I have written about the experience, the more anger I have released from my heart. I’ve found spiritual comfort through meditation, exercise, art, education, and self-love — and in the healthy relationship I have with my boyfriend, who knows all about the pain I experienced with Tom and loves and accepts me unconditionally.

Abuse survivors shouldn’t be ashamed of their abuse, or try to bury the past, but be open about their experiences in order to grow and move forward. Through writing or embracing personal interests, survivors can find self-love and self-acceptance, and move past their pain.

If you or someone you know is dealing with an unhealthy relationship, visit Love Is Respect or call the National Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474.

More articles by Category: Feminism, Gender-based violence, Violence against women
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