I received a question about anxiety and abuse in the comments to another blog post, which is why I would like to talk about abuse in today’s post.
Far too often, people who have been abused live a life of fear and sadness. Sadness for what has already happened; fear for what could happen again.
Some abused individuals are children who fear that their abusers—short-tempered parents, school bullies, sexually predatory neighbors, etc—may mistreat them again. Some are adults in new relationships, who worry about finding themselves in the role of the victim against—or worse, becoming the abuser.
This is not surprising. Something terrible has happened. Trust has been broken. The abused person can no longer put her faith in important people in her life. Depending on the type of abuse, these people could be her parents, romantic partners, friends, doctors, religious authorities, etc.
Trust and safety
How can we rebuild trust? Trust is often linked with safety. If you fear your present partner or carry insecurities from past abusive relations, it would be difficult to share deep beliefs in the present relationship.
Therefore, in the early stages of a new relationship, it might be helpful to ask questions to examine the level of trust and safety in your relationship. Questions like:
1. Do I feel safe in the presence of this individual? Why or why not?
2. What do I need from this person to feel safe?
3. Are my safety/trust expectations realistic?
The first question helps you spot red flags about your romantic partner’s behaviors. For instance, your partner may have a temper, drink excessively, etc.
The second question requires you to think about what makes you feel safe in a relationship (e.g., spending quality time with the person you love).
But as the third question suggests, your requirements need to be realistic. It is reasonable to expect one’s partner to not commit physical or emotional abuse.
But you can not expect your romantic partner to undo your past or allay all your present fears. If you feel safe only if your partner never experiences anger toward you, then you may need to work on yourself instead and increase your ability to tolerate your partner’s feelings of anger.
Trust is based on faith that another person could feel strong anger but will not act on it.
Having high expectations is important because it shows you really value yourself and refuse to accept mistreatment. Having sensible expectations is necessary because one, you are more likely to meet partners who would not disappoint you; two, it would be easier to leave the relationship (e.g., in case of abuse) because there would be others who will meet your expectations.
Respect is also necessary for creating safety and trust. You might feel safe and valued but not respected. For example, your romantic partner might value you only as a sex object, a source of money, a possession, etc.
It is difficult to define what is respectful behavior, but it is easier to spot what is not:
Mockery, breaking confidentiality, spreading rumors, not listening, inappropriate touching, and many other forms of behaviors which send the message that your partner does not value you as a human being.
If you have been abused in the past, and are now in the beginning stages of a new relationship, it is time to take a proactive approach.
First, discuss what is/not acceptable behavior. Better to know early on if this person will respect you, than after you have invested much of yourself (time, resources, emotions) in the relationship. By then, breaking up becomes very difficult.
Second, be gentle with yourself and your anxieties about the new relationship. Trust, once broken, can not be rebuilt overnight. Be patient with your romantic partner’s genuine attempts to learn to care about you in a way that makes you feel you can trust again. With time, consistent effort, and someone who cares about you, trust will return. Then, your relationship will become a source not of anxiety but support. And happiness.