Dear Therapist: My last boyfriend was very emotionally abusive, and it was a very unhealthy relationship. He cheated on me several times. We broke up awhile ago and I’m now in a relationship with a great guy, but sometimes I feel like I’m being overly reactive, sensitive, and jealous, because of how I’m used to my ex treating me. How do I stop that old behavior from coming back?
Frame Therapist Audrey Martinez weighs in...
Let me start by saying that it is good to hear that you are out of an unsafe relationship. Emotionally abusive relationships can be hard to walk away from because unlike physical or sexual abuse, it is not blatantly obvious that abuse is occurring. Survivors of abuse often question their perception of reality and wonder if there is something wrong with their judgment.
Chronic cheating on a partner with the intention of causing harm is in fact another sign that emotional abuse is occurring. Survivors of emotional abuse, and survivors of infidelity, often experience trauma-like symptoms. Below is a list of things you can do both alone and with your partner to heal from past abuse.
Healing from emotional abuse and recovering from past affairs will be an active process, but it is completely possible. It is important to know that overcoming abuse means acknowledging that it occurred and directly working through triggers, memories, and beliefs that took root during the abuse. This may feel uncomfortable in the short-term but ignoring your thoughts and feelings will not make you feel better in the long-term.
- Awareness is key. Recognizing when you are starting to feel edgy and hypervigilant is important. Typically, people are more aware of their body states than their emotions and thoughts. Start taking note of when your heart rate goes up or you start feeling jealous. Then, start asking yourself, “what went through my mind when I experienced… or when I felt…” You’ll start to narrow in on unhelpful beliefs developed during your past abusive relationship and you’ll start to see patterns and trends.
- Mindful acceptance of your body reactions. After leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, you may notice that you are more irritable and on-guard for potential signs of abuse, rejection, and affairs. Your heart may race, your breathing may increase, and you may experience other panic-like symptoms. Allow the symptoms to be what they are without trying to make them better or different. Using a non-judgmental approach to your body reactions can help you ride the wave of symptoms. Responding with thoughts such as “getting worse” or “I can’t handle this” may fuel more symptoms. Try doing breathing exercises, body scans, or meditation exercises specifically aimed at helping you allow the symptoms to arise. This is another great way to approach symptoms versus avoiding them. Overtime, you may experience your body recalibrating to allow for peace, quiet and stability.
- Assertive Communication. If your partner has not experienced abuse or infidelity, chances are they will not understand how you are feeling and why things are so triggering for you. They will only experience the behaviors and moods you express. This can be overwhelming for them as well. Assertively communicating to your partner about what your triggers are and how they impact you can help build a bridge of connection between you two. It can help them understand where emotionally when triggers occur. Assertive communication also is a balance of power where you respect your own needs when sharing and you are respectful to the person you are sharing with. Using gentle start- ups to convey your feelings and needs can facilitate this goal. With gentle start-ups, you express your feelings in an “I” statement form, followed by an objective description of the situation, and it ends with a positive request versus saying what you don’t want. For example, you can say things like “I feel jealous when you go out with your friends. It is a reminder of emotional betrayals from my past. I would appreciate hearing from you periodically throughout the night because it helps me feel secure and attached to you.”
- Fighting Fair. While you work through your own past traumas, you may overreact at times and say or do things you regret. It is equally important to be able to repair from fights to help preserve the current relationship. In general, try to avoid using criticisms of the person when talking and focus on behaviors. Avoid using statements of contempt or giving off an air of superiority. Avoid using defensiveness and take ownership of your part of the fight and avoid withholding love and affection as a form punishment. Instead, take a break and come back when both of you are ready to repair. When you do talk, process your perception of the event while avoiding commenting on your perception of their thoughts or feelings. Talk about what escalated things for you. This is particularly important if you overreacted because you experienced a trigger. Take ownership for your over reactions and strive to make changes going forward. Ideally, your partner will be willing to do this with you but if not, couples therapy is always a good option. (Read: How to Keep Your Fights from Going South)
Past abuse and affairs can leave a negative impact on a person, but in the context of a safe relationship and with the right communication tools it is totally possible to heal from past relationship traumas.
About the author: Audrey Martinez, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. She runs a private practice in the greater Los Angeles area and specializes in treating survivors of war, rape, disasters, or other tragedies. Dr. Martinez also helps adults overcome the effects of childhood physical abuse and emotional abuse that result in problems such as chronic depression, anxiety, low self-worth, people pleasing, co-dependency, anger, and relationship problems. Read more resources from Dr. Martinez, or connect directly by clicking on her Frame profile here.
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** This blog series is not suited for people who are in immediate crisis. If you are in crisis, please call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or contact Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.