Abused people need to talk at their own pace.

Loving a Formerly Abused Person

by Lisa Fritscher

Abuse comes in many forms, including physical, sexual, psychological and emotional. Both men and women can be victims of abuse. Perpetrators run the gamut from parents to lovers, from teachers to employers. Although most people are able to heal over time, the scars of abuse can linger, leaving a new partner confused and unsure how to help. Abuse leaves the victim feeling helpless, alone and often desperate. Basic trust in the world and in other people might be shattered. Patience, love and understanding can help you build a successful relationship.

1. Safety

Many people who were abused do not feel safe. This is especially true if the abuse was recent, but even long-ago trauma can cause an ongoing feeling that personal safety is at risk. Create a safe space both physically and emotionally. Work together to identify possible triggers and eliminate them or reduce their impact. For example, someone who was threatened at gunpoint might feel unsafe with firearms in the home. A person who was verbally abused might be afraid of raised voices. Someone who was sexually abused might need a lock on the bathroom door. Each person’s triggers are different, and it is sometimes hard for an abuse victim to recognize triggers. Encourage your partner to bring up issues as they occur, and then work toward a nonjudgmental resolution.

2. Acceptance

Abuse stories can be traumatizing even when you don’t know the people involved. Hearing about abuse that happened to someone you love is often exceptionally painful. Yet survivors of abuse need to let out their pain and anger. Listen to stories as the victim of abuse feels comfortable telling them. Practice active listening by taking in what is said and considering it before giving a response. Do not press for details if the individual wishes to keep them private. Many abuse survivors carry guilt and shame; let your loved one know you hold no blame or judgement. By your words and actions, you can help this individual re-establish a sense of self-worth.

3. Education

Learn all you can about the type of abuse that your partner suffered, and the common lingering effects. Join a support group to talk with others who are helping someone through the healing process. Some people find that seeing a therapist gives them a place to vent their own feelings of anger, frustration or sadness. Share the information that you uncover only if your loved on is ready to listen. Some abuse survivors find strength in knowledge, while others find that reading about abuse reopens painful wounds.

4. Normalization

Many abuse victims feel abnormal and out of step with the world. Help your partner rediscover previous hobbies and interests or develop new ones. Encourage the facing of any lingering fears about going out in public or becoming part of a group. Plan active date nights. The goal of normalization is to help your loved one put past experience into perspective and reintegrate into the world.

5. Professional Help

Grief, anxiety, loneliness and isolation are normal reactions to trauma. However, some abuse survivors develop ongoing mental health issues such as phobias or post-traumatic stress disorder. If you notice symptoms of any lingering mental health conditions, encourage your partner to seek professional advice. You can be a primary support person, but you cannot replace a qualified mental health professional.

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