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Rebuilding Intimacy After an Abusive Relationship

Any abusive relationship, be it with a parent, sibling, or romantic partner, leaves scars. Moving forward with your life can be daunting enough, let alone building the foundations for a new healthy relationship.

Abuse comes in many forms, so does the healing. Your journey can look completely different from someone else's understanding of what healing “should” look like. Many people who have suffered abuse feel daunted by the prospect of building healthy relationships with new people in their lives—don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Trauma from emotional and physical abuse

Abuse—emotional, physical, and sexual—is a global issue. Many people suffer behind closed doors. To leave an abusive relationship, first, you must acknowledge that it is abusive. Over time, people who live with abuse can come to believe that it is acceptable behaviour. Before we can choose to change our circumstances, we need to acknowledge the reality of what we are living with.


Victims of abuse can feel like they’re stuck with their abuser—oftentimes because the abuser has made sure they are cut off from other people. This can lead to fear of not having a place to go once you decide to leave, and can be debilitating for many.

Once you have decided to leave, it’s crucial to make sure that you are safe. Safety will look different in each case, but these are a few things you will want to take into consideration:

  • Be careful what you reveal. Don’t let your abuser know that you intend to leave as they will likely try to stop you. Let a trusted person know about your plans if you can. If you don’t follow through, they will know something is amiss.
  • Be prepared. Pack a bag so you can leave whenever you are ready; if you are taking a car, be sure to fill the gas tank—anything you need to mobilise at a moment’s notice.
  • Practice your escape plan. Make sure you know exactly what you are going to do, if you are being watched through cameras, make sure you have enough time to get out before your abuser can reach you.
  • Know where you are going. Even a rough idea of your next step will be better than no idea. You will reach safety faster.

There are resources for victims of abuse that can help you—shelters, hotlines, employment programs, support groups. Look for them in your area and utilise them as best you can.


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Build a support group

Victims of abuse are often isolated from support networks—family, friends, and colleagues. This makes it more challenging to keep or rebuild relationships. Start small—reach out to one person and see where that leads you. Then try reaching out to another, and another, and another.


Reaching out is difficult, but you will need support. You deserve support. There is no shame in needing help, keep trying until you receive it. Often the people you have been cut off from, like family or friends, will help if you turn to them. If not, support groups have been formed for this very reason.

Sometimes the best place to start is therapy. Some people prefer an individual approach, but group counselling works well for others. Support groups focus on helping people that come from difficult or abusive situations and can give you a feeling of support, safety, and community. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to this type of support.

If you have limited access to shelters and support programs, consider online support groups and counselling. Many online platforms are available for users regardless of their location.


Therapy

Starting therapy is often confusing. You might blame yourself or feel unable to understand why someone could treat you this way. These are valid questions, and therapy can help you tackle them. The work will be up to you to do, but a good therapist can guide you through. Remember, it may take a few tries before you find a therapist who is a good fit for you. Don't give up.

Unfortunately, in some places, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding therapy. This can make it difficult to seek help; however, therapy is often a crucial step in dealing with past traumas. A therapist can help you structure your thoughts and navigate the slippery slope to recovery. Looking clearly and painful emotions and experiences is hard work; having someone to help you through it will make the process go more smoothly.

Your therapist isn’t there to be your friend, but they are there to support you. More often than not, that means giving you the shovel to dig up all the buried emotions and holding them out right in front of you. Facing your demons is the only way to get rid of them.

Whether you choose individual therapy or group counselling, it’s easier to deal with your situation if you have people around you who can listen and understand. Those who have gone through something similar are more able to do that. It always helps to feel that you are not alone. Some agencies provide access to free counselling, while others do not. If for any reason, you don’t feel that you can take this step, there are many online resources such as books and podcasts that can help nudge you towards a healthier mindset.

Focus on yourself first

You can’t build a stable relationship on a broken foundation. You might feel the urge to find someone else who could nurture you back into being you again, but it’s not that simple. A new love interest can distract you from your need to process and heal.

That being said, forming new relationships with people is crucial to making a full recovery. You need support, and that means having people around who you can trust. Figuring out who is trustworthy is the difficult part. This usually takes time and might require the help of a professional. This is the time to pay attention to your mental and physical health and prioritise it.

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Starting anew

Having gone through a traumatic experience, opening up and being vulnerable with another person doesn’t often come naturally. Victims sometimes blame themselves for not being able to open up to love.

Opening up after abuse is part of healing, but when and how that happens depends on several variables. The vulnerability of intimacy is daunting, especially if opening up reminds you of the possibility of abuse.

When we aren’t sure what a healthy relationship looks and feels like we may enter a new abusive relationship. To recognise abuse and be able to set healthy boundaries, we must first regain our self-love, self-respect, and self-confidence.

Working on boundaries

In an abusive relationship, all sense of boundaries and self-respect is lost. If personal boundaries are constantly disrespected, any lines you set become blurry and are easily forgotten. According to Bridget Levy, a licensed clinical counsellor, all healthy relationships have boundaries, and that’s a good thing.


Having clear boundaries is more than setting limits, it’s a process of mutual respect. You need to respect other people’s boundaries in order for them to respect yours. Being as clear as possible about your boundaries will help both you and anyone you have a relationship with. While not always easy, when it comes to what you think and feel in a growing relationship, the best policy is honesty.

Setting healthy boundaries starts by identifying what a healthy relationship means to you—what are your values, needs, and wants? What makes you feel uncomfortable, and why? It is one thing to make a mental note and a whole other ordeal to implement boundaries. Boundaries that fail are often expressed in absolute language, using words such as always and never, which tends to be unrealistic. At first, you may find that what you are saying and doing doesn’t match what you’re feeling. As with anything, you must learn from experience and adjust your understanding of your own boundaries until you can teach other people how you want them to treat you.

After leaving an abusive relationship, you are especially vulnerable. You will have grown accustomed to having unmet needs, a lack of respect, and the despair that goes along with that. You might feel the need to be with someone who is the exact opposite of your abuser. But the opposite isn’t always better. Taking some time to recover and to understand what it is that you need to feel okay, pretty good even, will make a world of difference when choosing a new partner.

Long-term effects

Abuse leaves scars and not just physical ones. It takes time and courage to heal from emotional trauma. Many people suffer from panic attacks or even PTSD after traumatic abuse.

Panic attacks can present themselves in many different forms, depending on a multitude of nuances in a person's emotional, psychological, and physiological structure.

PTSD symptoms include:

  • Intrusive and recurring memories, including flashbacks and nightmares
  • Avoidance of certain topics or places that serve as reminders or triggers
  • Negative thoughts, depression, the feeling of hopelessness
  • Heightened physical and emotional reactions to ordinary situations


People who have survived sexual abuse can experience PTSD or panic attacks in intimate situations. Their body and mind might react the way they did in the times of abuse.

Traumatic experiences aren’t necessarily straightforward or easy to understand. Those affected may not have been able to comprehend that what happened to them was, in fact, violence. Traumas can present itself as unsatisfying sex life, the inability to get aroused or reach orgasm, and even through sexual dysfunction.

Meeting a new partner

Dating is like taking a crash course about someone—you find out about their surface likes and dislikes, favourite movies, foods, and places. But what lies beneath the surface takes time to discover.

Sharing past experiences is also part of getting to know someone. Eventually, to truly understand one another, you will need to talk about the trauma. If you can risk it, and they can respond with compassion and understanding, real trust is possible. The more your friends and lovers know about your past and you about theirs, the more comfortable you will be with one another.

If something is bothering you, or you don’t like the way you are being treated, do your best to communicate what you feel. Be gentle with yourself. This will help you build the foundation for healthy communication. Remember, communication is a two-way street. If you are being exposed to toxic behaviour, the best solution is to walk away.


If the new partner doesn’t understand your situation and makes you feel bad about it, don’t be afraid to step back and notice how that makes you feel. Subtle, seemingly small transgressions, can be important indicators that this person is harmful to you. Listen to yourself and step away if necessary.

At the beginning of a new relationship, we tend to ignore red flags and forgive questionable behaviour more easily. Although it sounds like a cliché, trust your intuition. Intuition is your body reacting faster than your brain, recognising signals and stimuli that have produced a certain outcome in the past. Your gut feeling is often right—trust it.

Take your time

Intimacy is complicated, even without past trauma. Opening up to someone new might feel impossible, but give yourself time and be patient with yourself—you deserve kindness, from others and yourself. There will be challenges, you might even need to rediscover or redefine your sexuality in the new light of a healthy relationship.

No matter how complicated things are now, there are good people out there who can help. Often the first step is the hardest. If you are suffering abuse or have just left an abusive relationship, find someone to talk to. Once you are on the path to recovery, you will feel stronger bit by bit and start to heal.

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