Falling in love can be scary. Being vulnerable can be scary. Vulnerability is a risk.
I like to think of The Fool when it comes to taking such risks. If you’re feeling scared – maybe to fall in love, or to start that hard conversation you’ve been dreading – ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen if things went wrong?” Then ask yourself, “If that happened, would I be able to heal from whatever hurt emerged from that situation?”
Knowing the answers to these questions can tell you a lot about how ready you are to be vulnerable, about the level of intimacy you are ready for, and can remind you that you’re much stronger than you think and that you have the tools you need to protect yourself.
Relationships are baffling things; interpersonal dynamics can be made fuzzy by structures of power, and abuse is a rampant problem that a lot of us have no idea what to do about. We’re all just stumbling through life, trying to keep ourselves safe – and for those of us who are survivors, relationships can be frightening. At the same time, for some of us, the validation we get from having a partner is a balm to our sometimes chaotic internal landscapes forged by trauma. With so many factors to consider, finding a healthy partnership seems impossible at times. It really isn’t though, and if you’re one of those people who inhale self-care literature like I do, you probably already have your mind set in the right direction.
Some people say that you need to take time after a toxic or abusive relationship ends to make sure you don’t just jump into another toxic relationship. But here’s the deal: It isn’t time alone that helps survivors break patterns that get them into toxic relationship after toxic relationship – it is consistent practice of self-care, resulting in the development of self-love and respect, that breaks these patterns.
Loving again is a very brave thing to do. I’m glad you’re taking the steps you need to take to keep yourself safe and to open yourself up again. You’re doing great.
Here are four important things to consider when looking for a healthy relationship:
When you love and respect yourself and you’re able to identify the voices in your head saying you’re crazy, too sensitive, or your feelings are a threat and your needs and boundaries are unreasonable, when you can see the ways you have internalized abuse, you are able to identify when other people are doing it to you. Going into any relationship, it’s a good idea to start from a place of self-love and self-respect.
Even if you don’t always feel like you love yourself, it’s not the feeling that matters. Love is an action. Even if you feel like you hate yourself some days, do you have it in you to take action to protect yourself? For instance, leaving a toxic relationship? Or walking out of the room when someone is yelling at you? Or setting clear boundaries and sticking to them? This is what true self-love and self-respect means.
We all have our internal battles. It is the way we treat ourselves, and allow other to treat us, that counts here.
Learn about abuse, how it works, what the patterns look like, how an abuser thinks and sees their victims.
When you gain literacy in what to look for concerning red flag behavior, you’ve gained knowledge that will keep you safe while dating in the future. Coupled with self-respect and self-love, you’ll be able to identify a red flag and leave that relationship as soon as you see it.
This one is a two-parter: noticing yellow flags and watching someone over time. Yellow flags are little things that make you feel off. They could be an indication of something bigger, or it could be something that needs to be discussed but ends up harmless, like small boundary crossings. Notice how the other person responds in the moment. Are they getting defensive and making you feel guilty or bad for expressing your needs, feelings, and boundaries? Or are they seeming genuinely concerned that they have hurt you and crossed your boundaries? (I know, for survivors it can feel impossible that this is real, that there are people out there who are truly like this, but there really are!)
This where watching someone’s behavior over time comes in. After you notice a yellow flag, it’s a good idea to do a few things: First, journal about it. Write about the incident in detail, what you talked about, what their response was, and what feelings came up for you while you listened to them respond. Second, talk to a friend who you trust to be very honest with you, who hopefully has some understanding of abuse and trauma and won’t normalize mistreatment. Finally, set some goals in your mind. You can do this with journaling or mentally, or you can tell a friend about it. Tell yourself you’re going to pay attention to how this person handles similar situations in the future.
If they cross the boundary again, notice how they handle it and how many times it happens. I think a 3 strike rule is a good guideline depending on the severity of the boundary crossing, more serious boundary crossings may only deserve 2, or even 1 strike. With a healthy, respectful person they may cross the boundary again by accident – learning takes time and mistakes do happen (again, depending on the severity of the situation). You know you’re probably with someone worth your time if they immediately recognize it, apologize, and then never do it again. If they habitually cross the boundary, making excuses, this is a red flag – and red flag means full stop, time to go.
I want to note here, I don’t mean you are constantly processing with the person you are dating. I mean that you are keeping notes, journaling, talking to friends, a therapist, etc. Some people have a tendency to get mad at a person for harming them (a valid response!), call their anger ‘communication’, and assume the harm will stop because they got mad. This is something of a codependent tendency, and I’ve been very guilty of it myself in the past. A good attitude to have is ‘what you see is what you get’.
Check yourself: are your motives of communication to express a boundary, or are you trying to change someone who is telling you with their actions that they don’t respect you and aren’t really listening?
Taking time to reflect is so important. The Four of Swords is a good card to meditate with when you’re digesting important information.
Lastly, and most important, is to pay attention to your gut. This is so hard and so tricky, especially if you’re honeymooning hard for someone. Your body or the person you are dating will likely be triggering a cascade of mad hormones, causing you to feel so excited and very quick to dismiss important cues from your body and that the person you’re dating might be giving you. This isn’t going to be popular advice, but this is why it really is a good idea to wait on having sex with someone. Some people say three months is a good waiting period – I say it’s really up to you. Anywhere from 1-3 months is probably a good goal, particularly if you feel you’ve had problems with having been taken advantage of sexually and your emotions toyed with in the past.
How will you know? You check with your gut. Has this person respected your wish to wait on having sex? Are they happy getting to know you in a non-sexual capacity? Do you feel they have respected your boundaries? Made you feel valued, cared for and respected without crossing into red-flaggy love bombing territory? Do you feel safe and able (notice I didn’t say comfortable – this shit is awkward!) to have a conversation about boundaries and expectations surrounding sex? Have you had conversations about non-sexual boundaries and expectations that have gone well? Were you left feeling heard and truly respected? You’re probably ready, then!
Most of all, waiting on sex is a good way to tame those hormones that make your love-goggles block out important signs you need to see to keep yourself safe. I know it sucks, but it’s a good practice if you’re new at the whole looking for a healthy relationship thing.
As far as gut checks go, if you’re having trouble getting clear, tarot and divination are awesome tools. Some other things I like to do are leave offerings for spirit guides and deities I am working with and ask them to grant me clarity on a situation. You can also always talk to a friend, therapist, or get your cards read by someone else.
St. John’s Wort is a great ally for learning to allow light into your life. You deserve love! You deserve a healthy partnership!
I like to say go forward in new relationships with both eyes open.
It can be stressful and scary, and you have to be diligent and accountable to yourself, but over time when someone gains your trust you will be more able to relax. You take care of you. Intimacy will develop with trust, and trust takes time and diligence – especially as survivors.
Of course, there is so much more to finding a healthy relationship after abuse, but these tools can help you create a solid strategy for keeping yourself safe while trying to break the patterns that lead you into toxic relationships. I know it can seem unreal that healthy relationships exist, but they really do. If you are in a relationship, especially for an extended period of time, where you feel chronically undervalued, it’s easy to think that when people say “relationships are hard” – that that’s what they mean. It’s really not.
Let me share something personal. The other night my partner said something that hurt my feelings. I was scared to tell him, but I told him. He held me tight and told me he was sorry, that he would not say anything like that again, and then – he thanked me for telling him this. And the best part about it? This is not surprising behavior on his part. He has consistently treated me this way since the beginning of our relationship. He has made it abundantly clear, not just with words, but with his actions, that he wants me to feel safe and loved.
I know a healthy, caring relationship is possible. I didn’t think it was. But I am living it. And I deserve it. And so do you.
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Feature image by Genessa Panainte via Unsplash.