Very few people look forward to dating again after the end of an abusive relationship. I didn’t. You may wonder how you will ever be able to trust yourself to not date another abuser. I battled the fear that it was something inherently wrong with me which caused a few individuals to abuse and assault me. That was not the case. If you have been a victim of abuse, there was nothing you did to cause it; abuse is always the choice of the abuser. It is the desire for power and control. Being abused by one person – or even a dozen – does not mean you cannot find (or do not deserve) someone who will treat you with love and respect.
Learning to trust yourself comes with learning to value yourself. That can be a process of years. Two books which helped me on this journey of self-appreciation were Ruby Slippers by Jonalyn Fincher and Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid (but there are countless books and articles written on the topic). Counseling or support groups can help. Surrounding yourself with positive, affirming people will also go far in understanding your own worth and value.
Once I learned my own value, I realized that not everyone deserves my trust.
Let’s say you’ve entered another relationship and things are going great. It’s a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship. You feel relieved to discover that the abusive personality of your ex had nothing to do with your taste in partners.
However, you’ve still experienced a loss. Maybe the abuse didn’t start with your ex – it may have begun in your childhood. Either way, someone at some point deeply hurt you and betrayed your trust. It’s only natural that you would hesitate to trust people or allow them to get close to you for fear of another loss. Why would you want to open your heart again and risk being hurt? You fear betrayal and therefore find it difficult to trust this person. You fear (and rightly so) becoming vulnerable to a person who may only use that vulnerability as a weapon.
Part of learning to trust again is purposefully working through the grieving process. It’s not something that will happen overnight. And, ultimately, when you have reached a place of healing, you still have a right to protect yourself from hurt.
I found myself unwilling to tell the first guy I (pseudo)dated after my abusive relationship about the abuse at all, for fear that he would judge me for it and see me differently. He had never experienced abuse firsthand, which only increased my reservedness.
Eventually, he found out about my past through another source and asked me about it. All I said was, “He was abusive.” I didn’t go into detail because (whether I realized it or not), I didn’t trust him. We had not known each other very long and why drudge up every skeleton in my closet just to satisfy his curiosity? I wasn’t ready and, in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t share my heart just to please him.
Long story short, he seemed to handle it really well initially but used it as an excuse to break up a short time later. Classy.
His use of something in my past – something I still did not understand was not my fault – as an excuse to end what had appeared to be a good relationship only reinforced my fear that a man wouldn’t be able to respect or support me once he knew I’ve been abused. Once again, I found myself totally unable to trust someone I had counted as a good friend. Once again, I entered self-preservation mode.
C.S. Lewis did much to change my view of self-preservation, or fear of vulnerability:
“Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering.’
To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.…
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
(From The Four Loves, as found in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, 278-279.)
Once trust is lost, it has to be regained. Your trust in other people has been lost, or at least seriously damaged, and you have to patiently work on rebuilding that ability to trust. As Lewis wrote, there is no safe investment when it comes to loving the creatures of this world. People fail one another, hurt each other. Loved ones die. Pets are lost. Eventually, our hearts will break.
Allowing yourself to trust again may take years. And, frankly, there will be people who never earn or regain your trust and that’s okay. It most likely means they didn’t deserve it in the first place. Rebuilding your ability to trust another person does not mean you drop all defenses. It does not mean that, until you can “trust everyone”, you’re not a good person (because, again, trust must be earned). Real trust, particularly after abuse, is not allowed the luxury of assuming someone is what they appear.
But, as Lewis cautioned, there is far more danger in an unbreakable heart than in vulnerability.
In a healthy relationship, vulnerability builds intimacy. That’s how marriage was designed to work: two people being totally open with each other, trusting that the other person will love them unconditionally and not based on any failures or inadequacies they might bring to the table. Long term, trust is absolutely necessary to building a healthy, lasting relationship.
There is no perfect recipe (that I know of) for relearning to trust. As I’ve said, being hesitant to trust someone is not a failure on your part by any means so it’s okay if progress seems slow. You’re retraining your mind and emotions to do something that hurt the last time. My recommendation is don’t go at it alone: if you can find a counselor or trusted friend in whom to confide, take advantage of that person’s help.
Here is what I have found helpful in relearning how to trust and be vulnerable since that first abusive relationship:
- I still have to remind myself that the abuse was not my fault.
- I still have to recognize when I’m believing a lie spoken by my abuser about myself (i.e. “no one will ever care about you”) and then I have to combat that lie with the truth. Sometimes I’ve had to ask close friends to help me with that because those lies can be powerfully debilitating.
- I try to remember that building trust and intimacy can go as slowly as I need it to. And the person I’m with ought to respect that.
- I follow my gut. Not perfectly but I worry less about offending someone at the cost of my own safety (or perceived safety).
- I’ve spoken with a counselor and done reading on ways to cope with triggers and flashbacks. Sometimes it’s a breathing exercise or calling a friend or simply counting colors in the room; it’s whatever brings me back to reality. Do your research. The more you understand how your body works and how abuse has affected your physical brain (e.g. PTSD), the better you will be equipped to heal.
- I talk to and listen to other survivors. Sometimes I share my own story but not always. It’s healing to let others talk and share and be comforted knowing that I’m not alone. You’re not alone.
- I let myself fail. It’s not always pretty but sometimes I have very real mental battles and I’ve learned that they don’t make me weak. They make me human. Struggling to trust someone else – or especially to trust myself – is a sign of healing. A counselor once (ok, multiple times per hour) told me, “Let yourself off the hook”.
- Another key piece of advice that sounded cliche when I first heard it but really did help in the long run: take it one day at a time. Worry about tomorrow when it’s tomorrow.
- I constantly overthink things (i.e. “what if…” a million times a day) so it helps to talk it out with a trustworthy friend [or counselor] for a reality check.
- For me personally, my faith in Jesus Christ has been the rock upon which I build any other progress or growth in this area.
At the end of the day, no matter what a man might say or do to me, even my husband, I can trust that Jesus Christ is never going to betray me. Ever. No matter what I say, do, think, feel. He has claimed me as His own and that is permanent. God guarantees spiritual life and freedom for eternity through faith in Jesus Christ. His is the greatest love I will ever experience and it is never going to be removed. If the entire world around me were to turn against me, I would still have everything in Christ. I can trust Him.
I can trust Him with my relationships.
Jesus is the only safe investment of my love because His love is unconditional, unending, and unfaltering.
April 2017 Update:
I am learning to see my apprehension to trust as a good, safe thing rather than a bad. I listen to my gut instincts. I am learning to step away from relationships that threaten my mental health or happiness. My safety is worth caution.
Your safety is worth caution.
I’ve also been married now for almost nine months and I trust him completely.
I entered the relationship as I had others since my abuse: super cautious. Almost pessimistic to a fault.
Because he is a genuinely good man who cares about people and has treated me with respect since we first met, he won my trust faster than the others before him.
But I still had a hard time telling him my story. I told him after a few dates that I wanted to take things slow because I had been in an abusive relationship. He gained a bit of my trust when he did not ask questions, simply said, “I’m sorry anyone treated you badly in the past and I respect that; we won’t move faster than you are comfortable.” And he was being honest. After almost seven months of dating, I summoned the courage and told him everything. It was unspeakably difficult to relive all I had endured while sitting next to someone I had grown to love. I trusted him but there was still that nagging doubt in the back of my mind, “What if he leaves because of this?”
He never interrupted or asked for details. He listened attentively. And then he said something that, backed up by months of loving actions, confirmed in my mind that I really could be vulnerable with him and trust that he would never purposely cause me harm. He said, “Knowing you as I do now, I would never have guessed that you’ve been through so much. Thank you for telling me. But there is nothing anyone could ever do to you that would change the way I see you.”
Later he said, “I hate that you were ever with someone who hurt you. If I am not willing to be the person who helps to protect you from hurt in the future, I don’t deserve you.”
He anticipated my fears and put them at ease.
I share this part of my story to say: people who deserve to be trusted are out there and you will know it when you have found them. He is a man who respects my past and does not think less of me because of it. In fact, he supports my advocacy and I believe loves me more for it. Do not settle for anyone who cannot do that. Look to their actions, not just their talk. I married a man who practices what he preaches and that, for me, makes him trustworthy.