I’ve had a draft of this blog sitting in my files since December. I tear up as I try to pen this to completion.
To date after abuse means to invite more loss into our story and face intense fear. It means to take calculated risks, to practice the skills we’ve been learning and to rely more deeply on our intuition. It is a chance to mother ourselves; through the excitement, feelings, fun and terror of dating. It’s also an opportunity to redeem the reality that we have been conditioned to betray our own bodies. With the experience of finding partnership – we will trust our gut and our goodness.
This is a hot topic and apart from the occasional articles I see from different recovery coaches – there’s not a lot out there on the dynamics of dating in context of our healing journey. I want to offer my experience to the lot of understanding. It might not be what you expect…. in fact, it may be the opposite of other things you have heard. I am not going to focus on “red flags” I’m going to focus on YOU and how this impacts YOUR healing, because in the end, we can only take responsibility for ourselves.
How Did I Get Here?
In the final years of my marriage I devoured information about sex addiction, I could tell you why my husband was lying, used pornography to numb his pain, and the way he used anger to control and overpower my continual attempts to confront his evil behavior. I could diagnose his narcissisms and recognize a hard heart when I saw one. I knew this man was controlled by pride, arrogance and a love of his own image over exposure, brokenness and humility.
After I left the marriage, I received even more validation and understanding as I consumed resources about sexual betrayal, betrayal trauma, trauma bonds, toxic family systems, more narcissim, associative identity disorder, dissociating, sexual abuse, triggers, internal famiily systems and abuse in general. I worked with many counselors and healers which led me to where I am today. I needed the information to equip myself to heal. Knowledge is power, and it allowed me to name what I needed to grieve. It aided in the process of re-wiring my distorted beliefs and adaptive behaviors. This period of soaking in information like a sponge was necessary, it has made me who I am today.
As this information worked in tandem with the Holy Spirit’s direction, leading and prompting, it guided me to each next step of my healing. I call it my “yellow brick road” and the Lord continues to direct this golden path.
All of this knowledge, however, created a double edged sword. One side which protected me and made me acutely aware, and one side that created a bit of judgement and contempt for any man who showed me his human brokenness.
The Theory Behind My Explanation:
Growing up in a rigid, religious abusive home creates an “all or nothing”, “black and white” framework in our minds. We see the world as ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’, ‘perfect’ or ‘evil’. There is no in-between for us, no margin for error or tolerance for mistakes. You are either on my good list or on my shit list. If you do wrong by me, you are dead to me.
This is a HUGE distortion and creates lots of problems in relationship, as you can imagine. Not just dating relationships but friendships, parent-child, and co-worker interconnections. It is a belief that could cripple our capacity to love ourselves and love others. This sneaky standard of all or nothing is “perfectionism” in disguise that we ourselves cannot meet, nor anyone else. I expect myself to be perfect so I can align all my circumstances perfectly and I won’t get hurt. I expect YOU to be perfect so you won’t do anything to hurt me. When we hold ourselves to this perfectionist standard – we condemn and shame ourselves, naturally inciting self-contempt and loathing. When we hold others in relationship to this standard our own self-hatred spews onto them – leaving them to feel worthless, never good enough and unable to please. The most concerning part of this is the self-contempt.
Yes, we are healed in community, but when it comes to partnership and romantic love – if we are not able to love ourselves well, use our voice, identify our own needs, cherish ourselves in whatever the day brings, validate ourselves from the fire within, hear the Spirit’s voice and prompting… we will not be able to individuate in relationship. We will not be able to separate the “we” from the “I”, as a consequence this relationship will become enmeshed and eventually toxic as each partner tries to seek validation from the other for their own insecurities. This is not abusive – it is the result of two broken people, not yet at adult maturity, ready to work in conjunction within the partnership. You see, it IS possible to do your work within a relationship, if you do not need one another for your own value.
I had been with other men apart from my husband, in very destructive ways. I had plenty of data on what I did not want and what was unsafe, wrong and toxic. As I began a relationship after abuse, what I noticed is that I had TOO much information. I began to categorize this man as “abuser”, “narcissist”, “toxic”, what I did not account for was the man as a whole being. I did not account for his story of trauma, his growth as a human nor his ability to make progress in a forward motion after confrontation. Now, hold on! I can already hear you saying, “WHOA! She’s lost it -I don’t care what happened in this man’s past we don’t collect red flags, we put up boundaries and it is no excuse to abuse” I hear you sister, Read On. 🙂
I want to make something VERY CLEAR BEFORE I CONTINUE: I AM NOT USING A MAN’s TRAUMA AS AN EXCUSE FOR ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR. IF YOU ARE IN AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP – THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO YOU! YOU need to find safety, leave and get healing for yourself. RUN from that man. This blog is specifically for women who have done A LOT of work on their own, they have a healthy grounding of self, voice and boundaries. This is not a post for women in abusive relationships. ANY amount of porn use and infidelity, verbal, physical, spiritual and emotional abuse SHOULD NOT BE TOLERATED! I AM NOT TELLING YOU THAT YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR MAN, or YOU SHOULD HAVE MORE GRACE, or GIVE HIM A THOUSAND MORE CHANCES… NO, I believe you should leave if you are with a man who is not taking responsibility and not engaging in his own work. PLEASE HEAR ME!
I had very wise advice from women who loved me and have my best interest at heart, yet at the end of the day I had to learn to experience this for myself. Part of our work as women – especially those who had our ability to make decisions stripped from us in childhood – is to make decisions for ourselves. I do this within the context of Proverbs 24:6. I have made a commitment as a woman to live my life in full transparency. I choose among my circle who to invite on my team in different circumstance. It is wise to have a few, as one person cannot carry the emotional load of my journey single-handedly. It is good to be in a circle of wise sages. It is equally good to respect the boundary of a loved one when they ‘tap-out’ on certain aspects of your current story.
We must become women who can make our own decisions without the approval and permission from others. With balance, we must take in the wise advice, bring that to the Holy Spirit and discern within ourselves. At the end of the day – you answer to yourself and to God.
Why is Community Important in the Context of Dating?
So they can reflect reality back to you. Expose the relationship and expose it early! What do your loved ones notice? Can you stay open to their feedback? Bring your partner into your community, does he have community surrounding him and is he letting you in? If not, are you okay with that? (P.S. you shouldn’t be)
Be Honest With Your Circle:
Something I needed to be honest about was my old sexual behaviors cropping back up and I wasn’t true to a boundary I wanted for myself. With love and no condemnation – my community invited me to think about why this behavior might be returning? Lo and behold – the experience of dating led me to a new layer of the onion that needed to be revealed: sexual abuse within my marriage. Last winter was a painful time of exploration of marital rape, grooming within the marriage and childhood sexual abuse. I was APPALLED and DEVASTATED at how deeply this effected my relationship with a man. I was SO ANGRY that the grooming in marriage, power and control through sex, nearly DESTROYED my ability to relate to a man in a healthy way. I was learning to take responsibility for this wound and it’s healing. This is still a work in progress.
What’s the Purpose in Dating? (It’s not what you think)
The goal of dating after abuse is to practice trusting myself, using my voice and boundaries. The objective is: recognize the toxicity, if it is not something the other participant is aware of, taking responsibility for and making forward motion in the right direction on HIS OWN, then I can leave. What I CANNOT do is stay in the relationship and light myself on fire to form him into what I want him to be. You are NOT his therapist.
My Life’s Example:
As my relationship with this man began to grow – I used my voice and my boundaries, all while battling my black and white thinking. My boundaries were there to let the good in and keep the bad out. However, that rigid distortion was getting in my way: he was either ALL abuser or entirely a GODLY MAN. He couldn’t make mistakes or be messy. Meanwhile, I was a hot mess and holding him responsible for my happiness and my feelings of insecurity.
What I soon realized is he was not one or the other. He was grey, human and complex. As I started to develop a frame work for “grey” anxiety arose. I wasn’t sure of him – but within that messiness, I NEVER lost Rochelle. She was me and she was intact for the whole ride. I never stopped confronting the hurtful behaviors and I never backed down from the truth of exposure.
How Did This Man Respond to that Exposure?
Like a champ, because he is secure in who Jesus says he is. He was repentant, he pursued (and still is) pursuing his own healing, and nowhere in that pursuit did I tell him what to do. He knew what he needed to do for wholeness. It was hard for him to hear the areas I was pointing out in his life – but each and every time without fail his was a response of humility and godly sorrow. (2Corinthians 7:10) Overtime, I have seen a track record of changed behavior, progress in the right direction and momentum toward wholeness. He is the man God intended him to be, despite the depth of his own pain and suffering. He now spends his time using his story to share Jesus’ love with others, while holding other men accountable to how they treat their girls. You see, what separates this man from the abuser and narcissist is, his commitment to not spewing his crap all over his partner. He is self-aware and protects me from the worst parts of himself. My ex-husband and the husband’s wives I coach weekly, do not have this capability.
It is Okay for us to be Messy Together:
I learned that it is okay for a man to be messy in dating. There is a DIFFERENCE between messy and abusive. (I seriously did not know this). It is okay to honor a man’s story of trauma and give grace for humanity. It is okay for a man to make a mistake, and to receive with grace when that man comes back and repents for wrong doing or harsh words. This man is grey.
The Institutional Church and it’s Influence on Women in the Context of Dating:
There is a grooming and conditioning that has gone on in the Christian world for FAR too long and I see it permeating the world of abuse survivors too – which grieves my heart to no end. We have all been conditioned as women; that the purpose of life is to grow up, get married, have babies and live happily ever after. We only have value in society if we are married and have children. We are successful if our family looks ‘put together’, we have a happy marriage and children. There is no room for error.
I once had an older woman innocently ask me; “How old are you? Your so young and your getting out of your marriage!” I answered her question. Her next response went something like this: “Well, you’ll have time, you’ll get married again someday and be able to have children.” Bless her heart, this comment was a consequence of the extreme conditioning that she herself has endured. Like my life wouldn’t start again after divorce until I remarried. Au Contraire! My life is NOW and it is HERE and it is FULL and BEAUTIFUL, regardless of my relationship status.
Here in the world of survivors that toxic conditioning continues to spread to us, the women who are trying to UNBECOME all of their damage. There is a low hum of that same story: escape abuse, get healing, find the ‘one’ who is a godly man, and your second marriage will bring you happiness and joy, your story is wrapped up in a nice neat bow, and you have arrived! Secretly in the abuse recovery world we are perpetuating an idea that we get healing SO THAT we can find a partner and THEN be happy. There is this ‘elevation’ of ‘godly men’ on a pedestal. Which is equally dangerous to our recovery.
Every non-abusive man is broken. They make mistakes that sometimes they are not even aware of – because they have adaptive behaviors, just as we have. There is no unicorn of a man who is going to swoop in and be perfectly loving and gentle, yet there are GOOD men who will not always respond the right way, they apologize, feel remorse and make new history in the right direction.
My Recovery Inside the Dating Relationship:
As I learned to live in the “grey”, I realized something else. A healthy man who is moving in the right direction has the capacity to lift up the mirror to your face too. And let me tell you something, sometimes, I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I saw the toxicity of my own mother and father spewing out onto my partner. He was healthy enough to show me kindly and gently how my adaptive behaviors were hurting him. When you live with an abuser and an addict, your only focus is to survive, right? We are the victims and we are adapting to survive HELL. We are being harmed and the only objective is self-preservation.
In a healthy relationship, with two healthy, adult-maturity individuals – we have capacity to give and receive feedback. You can do the work of GROWTH and HEALING within the relationship. The partnership becomes the vessel to which deeper healing can take place. And you get to decide if you want to be along for the ride in that context.
My friend told me a story as my partner and I were trying to figure out one another’s triggers (which is HARD work by the way). Her friend was dating a man, his brokenness often effected their relationship. The Lord gave her a vision one day. She entered into a hospital, and there lay her partner in one of the beds. Jesus sat next to his bed, holding his hand – she proceeded to sit next to the bed, and Jesus asked her, can you be with him in his healing work? She had to honestly answer Jesus and say, “No, I can’t” Jesus replied, “It is okay”. Without condemnation or judgement, she got up left the room, and closed the door behind her. She decided this was not for her.
After abuse, success in relationship is NOT about the outcome: it is about TRUSTING YOURSELF. Trusting yourself to recognize toxicity, confront it, use voice and boundaries, decide to stay or go. Dating after abuse is not about re-marrying the godly man. It is about your own journey, coaching yourself thru the losses in or outside of the relationship, and staying true to your own needs. The outcome of the relationship itself becomes irrelevant, because it’s not about that. It’s about YOU.
Dating After Abuse is About Asking Hard Questions:
Do I want to get married again, or is that just cultural and religious conditioning?
Do I want to have children, or more children? Or is that just what I was told success means?
Do I believe that my value is based on singleness or partnership?
Am I more concerned about his feelings than my own? Am I beginning to walk on egg-shells, afraid to make a mistake?
Am I using my voice? Do I still have access to myself?
Am I changing any part of myself so this man will not leave me?
Am I asking him the hard questions or not speaking up because I am scared of being alone?
Is he showing a track record over time of repentance, humility, and godly sorrow?
Is the roller coaster ride of conflict getting smoother and less up and down?
Are we moving too fast?
Am I getting enough alone time and staying grounded in myself and community?
What are the green flags in the relationship? What are the red flags?
When I address the red flags – what is his response?
Do his words match his behavior?
What is his knee -jerk reaction to conflict and triggers?
Do I want to be a partner who can love and ACCEPT ALL OF HIM? I cannot change another human being!
Am I viewing him as a human, or a project?
Does he have deep community and a life of his own? Is he grounded in who he is?
Do I see any insecurities and how does he respond when I press on those insecurities?
These are all questions that can help guide your decision making as you process any dating relationship you attempt. Dating is not about the outcome – it is about the practice within yourself. It will challenge your belief system, your own co-dependent thoughts and tendencies and your ability to identify what you like and don’t like.
You can live in fullness WITH or WITHOUT:
After abuse; we experience success when we become a co-owner of our story, we use our voice, we identify our needs and ask directly, we can request and receive help, we are kind and gentle to ourselves, while the child within is nurtured by the adult-self. We have traded self-contempt for self-compassion. All of these components make for a beautiful journey of individuation and autonomy. You are your own woman, set apart and called by a new name.
You are successful if you live solo the remainder of your days, and you are successful if you choose to find a partner and participate in the privilege of watching another human grow. One is not better than the other.
It is hard to be alone it can be very lonely at times and it is EQUALLY hard to be in marriage/partnership. In my opinion it is harder to be lonely in a partnership, then lonely on your own. Proverbs 17:1 says, “Better a dry crust eaten in peace than a house filled with feasting—and conflict”
My Wish for YOU and ME:
I wish the Christian culture would join the rest of us in reality and stop perpetuation the idea that for a woman to be “whole, complete or successful” she must find her “other half”. I’m gonna say it: Jesus was single y’all!
After abuse – your story does not end when you find the “right godly man” – this is NOT the goal of healing. Healing is NOT about preparing you for a next relationship. Sure, it can equip you, but the goal is to HEAL for self – to walk in the wholeness that your Creator desires for your life, the reason He bled and died, so YOU could live your life to it’s fullest and enjoy the COMPLETE BENEFITS PACKAGE of the cross!
My Dear Sister,
If you are dating, or thinking about dating. That is okay, you are not wrong for trying, you are not living in sin, you are lovable and capable of finding a partner, if that is what you desire. You have the skills to navigate this new arena.
If you are not ready, that is okay. Please don’t let the fear of loss, pain or repeating the past stop you from exploring this area in your life. I do want you to TAKE THE TIME TO HEAL, LEARN TO BE ALONE, BECOME YOURSELF. Solo living IS experiencing success.
Your value does not change whether you are married, dating or by yourself. The love Jesus has for you is NOT based on validation from an outside source.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are worthy to be loved well! Begin by loving yourself.
You are not alone.