Abuse survivors are usually wary of new relationships for extremely good reasons that are not their fault. Almost always, the cycle of abuse starts out as something that appears wonderful. The new guy or gal is interested in them. Not only interested, but infatuated. They too-quickly claim they are “the one.” They study their target, quick to note all their likes and dislikes, which feels like manna from heaven for someone who has been emotionally neglected. They are quick to become intimate, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Abusers hook their victims fast, always under some romantic guise of “fate” or “true love.” Just when the victim believes it’s real, the trouble starts.
This initial stage of love bombing is how an abuser manipulates their prey into a false attachment. Everyone needs to be seen, heard, loved, and cared for, and this is the ammunition an abuser uses to target their victims. When someone feels loved, they relax. They bond. They become emotionally dependent, believing *at last* they can entrust their heart to another. In a healthy relationship, all of this is beautiful, necessary, and true for the relationship to grow and evolve. In a toxic relationship, this bond becomes the stuff of nightmares.
Because of the trauma bond this initial love bombing experience creates, the victim becomes confused. They struggle to reason and reconcile why their lover suddenly changed. “He’s just having a bad day.” “She didn’t mean it.” “He really loves me, deep down. I remember how it used to be. We can get back to that.” In the cycle of abuse, love bombing turns to emotional neglect, which causes the victim to shift to minimization and denial in order to make sense of it. Emotional and psychological abuse begins, and in some cases, an abuser can become physically violent. If an abuser is challenged, the gaslighting begins. Suddenly, the victim is “selfish” and “crazy.” The abuser will rage, manipulate, and blame their victim of everything they are actually doing. If their victim does not break out of the minimization and denial, they will succumb and feel like they really are going crazy.
The cycle of abuse can de-escalate quickly, but when a victim of abuse decides it’s time to leave, the abuser will quickly switch back to the love-bombing stage in order to keep them. ‘Round and ’round it goes, and it’s pure hell.
Long after a survivor has left and done a fair amount of healing after an abusive relationship, panic can set in when meeting anyone new. The remedy for healing is not to isolate oneself and swear off all future love interests, but to learn how to open one’s heart to another again in an intimate relationship. Healing from relational abuse requires being in healthy relationships with others. I can’t think of anything more legitimately terrifying for someone who has experienced this form of abuse, to have to open up and rely on another to heal.
So, how does one approach a new relationship after a toxic one? Very slooooowly, and extremely cautiously. Boundaries are the key word. Tattoo it on your forehead if you must. In a healthy relationship, the love interest will respect and appreciate your boundaries. Set more boundaries than you think you need to start, and see how your candidate handles them. If you feel any pressure, manipulation, or guilt to relax those boundaries, this person is not the one for you. Perhaps they are not abusive, but a survivor of abuse needs someone who respects all boundaries in order for things to work. Look for empathy. Fallout from a toxic relationships are easy to understand (if you’re not a narcissist), so look for understanding and compassion. Someone who genuinely wants to get to know you and love you deeply will not be “put off” by a trauma history. They will want to weep with you when you are grieving, and get angry with you when you are angry. So give them the opportunity, slowly.
Love after abuse is possible. Healthy, healing relationships are possible. Abuse survivors are worthy and deserving of loving and connected relationships, and they often make the very best partners. When they are paired with those who truly love them, all of the positive aspects of their personality that once made them a target for an abuser finally get to shine.