Infidelity in that of itself does not define abuse. It is a horrible thing to do, yes, but doing that alone is not abuse. But it isn’t hard to see that abusive relationships often have an element of cheating, or the abuser not staying faithful – usually to make sure the victim knows that they aren’t the one in control of the relationship, or of anything.
It can be quite easy to feel like you don’t have any control following the events of an abusive relationship. I have stayed quite private with my own struggles of abuse and being in a relationship with an abusive partner, but I am coming out as a survivor to help other victims or potential victims. During an abusive relationship, the survivor is made to feel alone – I am here to tell you that you are not alone, and that the abuse you received at the hands of someone wretched is not your end. There is more to your story, but it’s definitely okay to take some time to feel your pain. I have some tips for survivors and for just those generally reading – and it’s important that we take these into consideration because we all think we’ll never be in a situation like that, but it’s so easy to slip into a toxic cycle with someone.
- First, apologize to yourself.
I can’t speak for all survivors, but I know there’s quite a few that are feeling horrible because all the abuse they received at one point was something they pointed out to themselves. For instance, I had a partner specifically hide me because they were embarrassed that I had been raped on my college campus. There was one day when they called me, specifically telling me to not tell people that we even knew each other, because they were worried a club they wanted to join would not want them because of their affiliation with me. It always felt…slimy to hear comments like, “Act like you don’t know me,” or, “Stop telling people we are together,” because it made me feel like I was dirty and disgusting. Like I wasn’t important enough to even be acknowledged.
When I tried to call it out, I was gaslighted like shit. Told that thinking I was being hidden was crazy, and that I was, too (and every time I tried to bring it up, my partner would tell me that accusations like that was making them self-harm. Manipulation at its finest). But following my escape from the relationship, I was told by my abuser that it was exactly what I thought it was. I beat myself up for weeks, hating the fact that I ignored my instincts (everyone – trust your instincts, please). The constant battle of hating myself for not listening to my common sense wasn’t doing anything to help me – so I had to start forgiving myself. Tell yourself you are sorry. Affirm to yourself that you will never let your hard limits become soft again (my partner sexually assaulted me, left me places drunk, would tell me they were turned off by my looks constantly – all things that under normal circumstances would be absolute deal breakers for me). Write yourself a letter confirming that you are the most important thing in your life, and that you’ll never forget that again. Promise yourself that you will always listen to your body, your mind, and your spirit. Hug yourself, cry for yourself, but most importantly, give yourself grace. Remember that it was not your fault for not believing in yourself – abusers are very good at what they do. You were denied your experiences and perceptions of reality. Apologize to yourself, then begin to heal.
- Understand that healing hurts.
Healing is great in the long run, yes – but be okay with feeling pain at first. You might want to still keep in contact with your abuser, telling yourself that it won’t hurt, right? You’re stopping yourself from healing if you do that, because you cannot heal in the same environment that broke you. Let me write that again:
You cannot heal in the same environment that broke you.
It’s going to hurt stepping out of the cycle because for X amount of months and years you were in a routine. A destructive routine, yes, but a routine none the less. Look into different types of therapies – because let me be clear…You will need help. If you can get it, professional help. I am a college student who has an enormous amount of privilege by being on a well-funded campus. There are support groups I am apart of, and we have access to free counseling. I even get my mental health medication from my school. Many survivors turn to substance abuse (I was never a drinker, but suddenly I became a functioning alcoholic during my abusive relationship), but this is definitely not the way to go.
I understand that not all people have access to professional type of help. So while I recommend professional help, there are some more accessible types of things you can do. Art therapy is especially helpful to survivors because it enables us to find modes of expression that allow us to create and integrate rather than self-destruct. Since trauma can disconnect us from both our minds and bodies through processes of depersonalization, derealization, and even amnesia, art can help us reintegrate the trauma where we were previously disconnected from the experience. Looking back, we may not even recognize the person we became and what we were doing. I was and still am a proud feminist, who tells her friends to drop men because of something as small as an aggressive tone he might have. I was so embarrassed that I was being treated the way I was, that I didn’t even want to get help because I’d have to admit that I was weak. Knowing that I was they type of girl who stayed with someone who cheated was literally too much for my brain – so up until recently, I had actually forgot about it (it happened a few times). Art therapy and other forms of therapy (i.e., the real self-care you’ll need) have helped me slowly actualize the things that happened to me. I am able to see myself in past events clearly, and because I am disappointed in myself for letting my spirit be treated that way, the pain of remembering it makes me more sure that it will never happen again. Acknowledge the ugly. If you were hit, do not downplay it. You have to start being real with yourself, because for so long you were selling yourself dreams. And you can’t heal in a dream, you can only heal in reality.
- Thank your friends, and maybe even apologize to them.
When I was deep in the cycle, I wanted to prove to my abuser that I was better than what they were treating me as. Looking back, the best way to do that would’ve been to simply leave. But I thought buying them things, doing their assignments, writing their statements to get into orgs, and staying by their side was going to do the trick. Hopefully this goes without saying, but that is a horrible way to do anything with anyone.
Not only did my abuser recognize that I was doing everything under the sun for them for little to nothing in return and exploit that extremely, but during that process I became isolated from many of my friends. I was definitely not hiding out in my room, but I began to literally not have time to keep up my other relationships. I am so, so blessed that they stayed with me, but apologies were still in order.
I apologized for letting relationships fall by the wayside, and I also apologized for keeping them in the dark about what was going on with me. It’s common for many victims to actually never tell their friends because they know deep down that their friends will tell them to leave. By not telling my friends I was blocking myself off from getting help, but I was also reinforcing the notion that, “It’s not that bad, right?” It wasn’t until I opened up to my friends about the cheating, the sexual assault, the sexual exploitation, and the financial abuse that I saw how badly I must’ve been treating myself. My friends telling me that, yes, I was being abused, was one of the first steps to me realizing I needed help. Your friends and family are your lifeline. Period. Abusers get away with a lot of stuff they do because they’re doing it in the dark. My abuser made sure to tell me they didn’t like my friends, and while I didn’t cut them off completely, I let those comments seep into my subconscious. I had to start being honest with my friends in order to maintain the love we all had for each other. Tell your friends thank you as much as you can, because if they’re going to be with you during your healing process, they are going to be doing a lot of emotional labor and seeing a really ugly side of you sometimes.
- Be okay with changing your life drastically, if you want.
Okay, actually, be outraged at that, not okay. I could write an entire dissertation (I actually might) about how it’s completely unfair for survivors to have to leave groups, move schools or towns, or transfer jobs because the person who harmed them is still there. People have that, “Fuck all abusers” energy online, but not in reality. I wish I could change that, but I cannot at the moment. So I have to give advice on the reality of the situation.
If your abuser is in proximity to you, you might not be able to function, and that’s okay. Even as you heal, their name might even still trigger you. That’s okay, too. But if they are causing that much disruption to your life be real with yourself – do you want to leave? Can you leave? You are not running away from your problems by leaving environments that aren’t helping your grow into the great person you are. When I was raped and my college campus celebrated it, I seriously thought about leaving. My Barnard application is still in my bookmarks and everything. I eventually stayed because I began to get help, but if I really wanted to leave I would have. I am currently in the process of deciding if I am going to take a year off since my abuser attends my University and we work in conjunction with each other because I helped them get a job similar to mine. And I feel empowered knowing I have the ability to make a decision like that.
Know that you leaving or moving is not a weak thing to do. It is you having a choice in how your future will loo,, and after feeling like you have no choice for so long, it will feel refreshing. It sucks, because it’s a choice you’re making based off of something horrible that’s happened to you, but be okay with your life looking different after something like this. Or, if you don’t want to move, be okay with talking to your bosses and school about having a restraining order against your perpetrator. How your life looks after abuse is completely up to you – and you have to be okay with that. It can be scary having to make all these decisions because you didn’t make decisions for such a long time. But don’t doubt yourself. You can do this.
I’ll admit that I used to find girls in abusive relationships funny. Me and all the old people I used to hang out with did. While abuse is never funny, seeing a girl who let her partner treat her like shit? It was something I’d never experienced, something I wasn’t very empathetic to. I would never victim blame, but not having empathy for victims is just as bad. Period.
I know the type of world we live in. I know that abusers will never be held accountable like they should, and that because I am who I am on my campus many people will find this enjoyable. But the hard truth is that it could be you. I’m one of the most empowered women around, and it happened to me. Nobody is immune. Start being skeptical of who your friends entangle with – if who they’re messing with is truly worth their salt, they’ll see what a good friend you are and appreciate how protective you’re being over them. But if there’s anything you should take away from all of this, it is this:
It’s not your fault. You didn’t deserve it. You are magical, and wonderful, and you matter. You will not feel this way forever, and you’re not worthless. You are the most important person in your life, so give yourself all the love you never got from your abuser. You are love, you are light, and you are irreplaceable.
Links for survivors: