There are a bajillion articles on what to do and what not to do if you’re in a relationship with someone who has been abused. Many were written by people who have suffered from abuse from the position of a victim. Many were written by psychologists who offer up specific phrases to use or avoid.
In going through these, none of them resonated with me. I was abused. My mother quit physically punishing my sister and me because she couldn’t handle the swelling in her hands and arms around the time I turned 4 or 5. That left it to my father, an alcoholic with an Irish temper. He would snap at the strangest things. He didn’t just leave bruises all over my back – my sister and I sometimes had to sleep on our stomachs for a week after one punishment. He whipped me with a belt if I came home five minutes late, and he once made me eat a bloody sandwich (after I lost a tooth and cut the gum, causing a small river of blood to trickle out). The punishment never seemed to fit the crime.
What a lot of people don’t seem to take into account is that most physical abuse comes with verbal and emotional abuse as well. Fathers who beat their children don’t often do so silently. My father constantly shouted insults and told me, “You’re never gonna be anything!” He used fear as a manipulation tactic. He would stand over my sister and me, or act like he was going to hit us to make us go grab him a beer or do whatever he wanted, and he constantly lied to us.
Like most people who fall into a cycle of abuse, my first “love” was just like him (although he hit me more after we broke up because I stupidly tried to stay friends with him since we ran in the same circles). What I want to emphasize here are tips to support someone who has been abused in a way that breaks the cycle and doesn’t pander to self-pity – people who fall into victimhood patterns do not heal. They keep their trauma close and live in it.
Becoming a survivor takes time. It’s an ongoing process, but I am living proof that the right support system is all a person needs to fully move on from years of trauma and pain.
Be Honest and Consistent
People who have been abused need a consistent partner, someone who is honest and committed. It’s especially difficult at the start of the relationship because we will push you away, lash out, and be hard to understand. I can’t detail how many times I broke up with good guys because I couldn’t bear the thought of letting them hurt me. I cared for them so deeply that I thought it was better to walk away while I still saw them in a positive light.
There are ways to get around this. If you want to hang on to someone who has been abused you have to be honest. If you see them pushing you away, call it out. Tell them you don’t want to leave and just how much you care. Show them that you are not an abuser. Break out a few romantic gestures to solidify this fact.
Tell them you don’t want to leave and show them just how much you care.
Don’t ever get too comfortable. Nightmares will randomly surface even after years of recovery, so there’s a need for consistent reminders that you’re not going to hurt them and that you’re a different person than their abuser(s). In return, they will have to mature and offer their own affections. A successful relationship can’t be based on one person constantly “saving” the other, and men especially can’t fall prey to women who use their heroism as a tool to manipulate them into being their servants either.
Don’t Play the Victim Game
This is work. It can be too much for a lot of people, but anyone who wishes to hang on to someone who has been abused has to know that they can’t pander to victimhood culture. It only deepens the trauma. It creates bad habits and allows victims of abuse to avoid healing and becoming survivors.
Don’t be afraid to argue with someone who has been abused, but be calm and level-headed. Keep your voice down and respect their space. It helps to even point out that you’re upset too but you’re being respectful because you care. Vocalizing this brings reason and logic back to the conversation.
Don’t be afraid to argue with someone who has been abused, but be calm and level-headed.
If a victim is set on hiding in their pain, slowly help them form good habits. Give them a drink of water when they start feeling anxious or panicky. Offer them a hug and let them come to you. Be conscious that crowded rooms are sometimes terrifying, and go on more adventurous dates that empower people. Hiking, swimming, fishing, even hitting the gun range to help them learn to defend themselves can help someone who was emotionally or verbally abused.
Getting out and doing something together in nature, where the grass is green and the birds sing no matter what kind of pain we feel, is so very healing. It’s also helpful to lead by example. Even if you haven’t experienced trauma, you can find survivor stories or stories of redemption to share. I always enjoy feel-good books, songs, and movies about success after pain. These tap into the subconscious and help individuals who have experienced trauma to realize that they are stronger than they believe and that they can rise above what they’ve been through.
Be Attentive to Daily Behaviors
Every day is a new day. Some will be worse than others and acting accordingly helps. When I have a bad day, my husband is prepared. He knows I’ll need to sit alone for a minute, then get my fill of cuddles once I’m ready. It has to be gauged on a day-to-day basis, and the longer you’re with someone the better you can help them.
Again, I want to emphasize that no one should stay with a partner who uses victimhood as an excuse to abuse or harm others, nor should they expect special treatment, but giving someone a hug when they need it is not special treatment, neither is singing their favorite song to get them to stop crying or telling a corny joke to make them smile.
When your partner is in a funk, use what you know about them to do what you know is best.
Honestly, humor is something I couldn’t live without. Especially cheesy humor that makes me groan. Getting a victim’s mind off what happened and on to what they can succeed at isn’t always easy, but we need healthy coping mechanisms and that usually comes down to a hobby that engages our brain and creates positive memories. Trauma is more easily remembered because it’s a survival skill. Learning how to avoid danger is part of survival, and so people with traumatic pasts have to learn to differentiate between avoiding danger and ignoring people who care. It takes time and effort.
Each day holds plenty of potential for growth. When the one you care about wakes up in a funk, use what you know about them to do what you know is best. They might ask for space but suffer if left alone. Space doesn’t mean full-blown isolation, sometimes it’s just sitting a little further away on the couch.
Balance Space with Comfort
Finding that middle ground between offering space and providing comfort is tricky because everyone is different and everyone manifests different needs after experiencing abuse.
It takes an attentive, caring partner to weather the fallout of abuse. Strength must be balanced with tenderness. Comfort has to be balanced with space. This is all more easily done through time.
Strength must be balanced with tenderness. Comfort has to be balanced with space.
Space is more of a necessity at the start of a relationship, but if you give an abuse survivor too much space they will feel neglected, and neglect is worse than abuse quite often because it leads them to fall back into a pattern of abuse. In their mind, it’s better to receive some love and be abused than to be ignored.
Now when I say space, I’m not being figurative. I mean literal space between your bodies. I mean, not pressuring for sex, intimacy, or make-out sessions. Some of us fall too quickly in the beginning of a relationship. Instead of craving “space,” I tend to get attached very fast and that’s not healthy either. We need someone to say, “Woah, slow down. You haven’t even met my mom yet.”
You can give someone space and still text them. You can respect that they need to wait to be in love before making love, and still kiss their hand, forehead, or nose.
Abuse isn’t normal, but it’s common enough that it has made the dating pool a mess. Well, honestly, dating has plenty of other issues, but those of us who have suffered from abuse are not easy to handle when we’re still healing, and it’s no picnic after that. Honesty, consistency, reasoning, patience, attentiveness, and balance will often lead to a healthy relationship.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work to be there for someone, they’re not ready to move on from their pain. That can be heartbreaking, but that means they’re not ready for you. The best way to know is to try. Effort is never looked down on by those who deserve it.
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