If you were subjected to emotional abuse as you were growing up, you were part of a world where love was conditional and trust nonexistent. You may also have been part of a family where physical or sexual abuse occurred. Although emotional abuse doesn’t always lead to violence, bodily abuse never occurs in the absence of emotional abuse. How could it, given that physical and sexual abuses are the concrete, tangible byproducts of an emotionally tortured system?
As an adult, too, you might have been so hurt and betrayed by an emotionally unavailable or abusive partner that you are asking yourself whether you can ever love again. However, you might be asking the wrong question. Survivors of abuse are usually hungry to love, often desperate to be loved – so much so, in fact, that many feel compelled to offer themselves too quickly and incautiously to partners who abuse them all over again. Thus, the more germane question is, “Can I ever love well?” and “Can I let myselfbe loved well?”
What do I mean by “well?”
One of the effects of emotional trauma is the shattering of your precious innocence and instinct to trust. When you lose the ability to trust, you lose a sense of the expectation that others are trustworthy. You come to expect that you will be hurt and begin to weigh how much you can stand rather than how little hurt you will allow. As a result, pure heartache can seem like meaty crumbs of love, and actual crumbs of love can seem like buttery loaves. How can you love another well when you are starving for sustenance yourself?
If you have been abused, you might handle it a different way – by shying away from the prospect of intimacy entirely because you don’t trust yourself to make safe choices. You have done poorly before; next time, you may do worse – so you avoid next time altogether. Your avoidance doesn’t stem from lack of capacity to love, but from fear and the belief that you are too damaged to distinguish real love from dependency. In that respect, avoidance may be a healthy trauma response, a part of your animal survival instinct that protects you as you heal. And that’s good. But you don’t want to rely on the avoidance instinct forever.
That’s why loving well also means learning to wisely choose whom to love. Yet, people who suffer abuse rarely recognize when someone comes at them flying the flag of their own emotional damage. These are the inappropriately sexual, demanding, critical or cruel people who may seem a little intense but otherwise perfectly ordinary to you. Strange as it may be, if inappropriate behavior was ever-present as you were growing up, you won’t see it for what it is later in life. Instead, you’ll normalize the unacceptable.
Here’s a case in point. A woman wrote to an advice columnist saying:
I left an abusive marriage, and now Im in love with a thief. If we move in together, should I buy a safe?
The awful paradox here is that this woman wanted to protect herself from being betrayed again, yet she didn’t see that she was in a relationship that, like all abusive relationships, was grounded in mistrust. She was blind to the context while focusing solely on the conditions she thought she could control. Like so many budding relationships among survivors of abuse, this one repeated the familiar malignant drone that the woman’s heart recognized as coincident with “love.” When abuse is a part of your history, you see damaging contexts as “normal.”
The drive to repeat your past is one of the most powerful you will ever know. It is sometimes even a marker of your identity, and is always the force that brings you together with your abuser. Yes, the same abuser as before, merely wearing different skin and features.
Survivors of abuse never need wonder whether they will unconsciously continue a cycle of abuse; they only need wonder how they will do it. And for some people, the mystery is whether they will continue to do so as victim or abuser themselves.
The drive to gain mastery over the past by reliving it explains why some choose the role their caregivers took rather than their own victimhood. For instance, if your most powerful parent was controlling of everyone around her, you will either be controlling toward your partner or gravitate toward someone who dominates you. Abusive methods are passed down almost like genetic code, replacing feelings of helplessness with an illusion of competence.
Whether one loves too desperately or too little; whether one accepts too much hurt or dishes it out, in order to change enough to love well everyone’s tasks are the same. You must learn what healthy love looks like and how having sane boundaries feels. Loving well and allowing healthy love into your life means developing skills you didn’t have a chance to learn from your abusive caregivers or in your early love affairs. Because you didn’t absorb those lessons in the natural course of life, you have to learn them with determination and deliberation later on.
In the end, loving well is about breaking the cycles of repetition and learning how to feel desire within contexts that are so unfamiliar they may not seem at first like love at all. A healthy love may seem almost unrecognizable. Yet it is in these oddly uncomfortable places that the final healing from abuse takes place. It is in relationships that barely resemble those you know that you begin to learn about boundaries and about trusting yourself.
Loving well comes from allowing yourself a gradual, fully-supported process of emotional retraining to discover where your boundaries lie, to learn to trust yourself, and then to learn how to determine who is trustworthy and how to invite them into your life. For that, you need good teachers and the gift of time. Good therapists are good teachers; good books about relationships can be excellent teachers; and so can good friends. Sometimes the best medicine is found in listening to those who care more about your soul than about reinforcing your strongest urges. When they tell you that someone is bad for you, believe them. When someone you’re seeing (or pursuing) offers a rare moment of honestly in which he admits that he’s bad for you, believe him. And if he or she is a child of abuse, too, don’t imagine that your shared histories bind you, or that you can empathize and help him or her heal. That’s often a trap – and if it’s an intensely alluring one, then it’s probably reminiscent of your own early attempts to rescue or “fix” an emotionally ravenous abuser.
Everyone has a personal timeline for healing; focus on yours, not on anybody else’s, or on the fantasy that you can do it better in tandem. (We call that folie a deux.) Instead, find a caring therapist and dedicate yourself to inner discoveries. When you learn how to love well, you’ll be far clearer about the folly of rescue. Healing that isn’t done purposefully and with effort isn’t healing at all – it’s just another way of repeating history.