April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. While instances of sexual assault can be random, a striking percentage is perpetrated by partners.
Recovery from any form of assault can be a painstaking process, but we need to talk about the process of self love after you’ve become intimate and vulnerable with someone, and they return your love with violence.
Intimate Partner Violence, or IPV, affects millions. IPV can happen to and be perpetrated by people of any gender, race, sexuality, class, or ability. It can manifest as physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. It can be one of the hardest situations to recognize and separate from, particularly because our understandings of love and relationships are often heavily scripted by patriarchal and ingrained intersectional injustice.
Statistically, once a person leaves an abusive partner, their life and well-being is in increased serious danger from that partner. We need to create more resources and safe spaces for survivors, and we need to address our society’s toxic representations of relationships. We need to perpetuate that love is founded on radical respect and understanding, so we can recognize unhealthy dynamics and work to treat each other with real love. We need to move away from victim blaming, and towards a culture that foregrounds safety and autonomy.
It isn’t always easy to recognize what love isn’t, and acknowledging abuse is the first and crucial step. Once you do, you are already on the path to recovery.
Here are some truths to help your journey of radical self love after IPV.
1. It isn’t your fault.
Abuse is never your fault. Partner abuse is never your fault. No matter the tensions in your relationship, no matter what you’ve done, no one has the right to hurt you. No relationship is easy, and navigating healthy love can still be painful. However, the difference between struggling through the challenges of maintaining a growing partnership and experiencing actual abuse comes down to communication and adaptability. If you feel your safety or autonomy within the relationship is compromised and your partner is unwilling to work with you to address your needs, is unwilling to follow through or adapt, or if you feel addressing these concerns would pose a threat to you, that relationship is unhealthy.
When you are in an intimate relationship, sometimes it feels like all the rules go out the window. The space between partners can become its own world, with its own language and dynamics. Sometimes it can feel like no one else can understand what your partner gives to you, or understand the motivations behind their behavior like you do.
That intimacy, though, can become a cage.
It is not uncommon for victims of IPV to victim-blame themselves, to work to justify the actions of their abuser in order to perceive their relationship as “complicated” instead of “abusive” or “violent.”
“They’re like this because they want what’s best for me,” one might think, or “it’s just when they’re angry; they can’t help it.” The truth is, the moment your partner is violent towards you, there is no more room for excuses. They must be held accountable. If they do not change immediately or if you don’t feel safe confronting them, you need to get out.
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2. You don’t owe your abuser anything.
It can be tremendously challenging to “give up” everything you may have once had for the realities of present abuse. However, no matter what you’ve shared, you need to put yourself first in this situation. If you share a child, a pet, a home, etc., the legal and emotional battle may be more painful than I can articulate, but your safety comes first. It’s worth it.
You cannot fix them. You have loved this person. You have let them in. They have become important to you, intimate with you. They have taken up space in your heart, mind, and life, and the desire to fix them can be fiercely real. You may believe that you can get them to stop. You may believe that that no one else can get them to stop the violence, but you. Partner abusers often tell you they want to stop. But remember: you are your own person. You do not exist to end violence at the expense of your own safety and well-being.
However, if you do not have the economic means to leave right now, or if you have a child with your abuser, self care can mean staying in your situation until you have the legal or financial means to leave. You do not want to burden your child or cause them further pain, but you need to prioritize safety, yours and theirs. Consider staying with a relative or close friend, or a shelter. If your child is old enough, or when they become old enough, you can communicate with them — teach them what love isn’t, explain that you are going to work to build a home together in which all parties are safe and valid. You don’t have to scare them, but you don’t have to hide from them either. In these situations, emotions and financial/technical realities further complicate the situation. But still, operate under the understanding that your safety comes first, and what you’re doing in the name of self care, for you and your child or children, is right. It will take time, but you are worth it.
In the meantime, if you cannot leave your abuser or cut them out of your life because of children or finances, you can still acknowledge that you deserve better, that your suffering is not your fault, and that you will get out as soon as possible. Start planning. Keep a go-bag packed, seek affordable resources, and, if you feel safe doing so, collect evidence. Take pictures of physical injuries, save or print abusive emails, texts, or voicemails. You are in the right. You are on your way.
3.You are better off single.
It’s not always easy. When the entirety or almost the entirety of the relationship has been violent and/or abusive, very often, we internalize the identity of the abused. It can be familiar. It can even become a semblance of comforting. In a dynamic of Intimate Partner Violence, your entire identity can revolve around your abuser, whether or not you realize it. Every action you take can be guided by a constant awareness of how they will react. How you behave, what you do, where you go, who you talk to, where you work, how you choose to spend your free time – all this can revolve around placating your abusive partner. This goes back to victim blaming, of course – no matter what you do, no one has the right to hurt you – but abusers will inevitably do just that and blame their victims, and so we can structure our lives around protecting ourselves, sometimes without realizing it.
This means it can be very, very hard to leave, because we don’t know who we are without them. Especially in a world that can be very judgmental of single women & femmes, and a world that is heavily structured on heteronormativity, it can seem appealing to stay with an abuser rather than to face the world alone.
One day, if you want it, you will be able to find real love, radical love. But don’t worry about that right now – right now, you are looking for you, outside of what’s been done to you. You don’t need to be part of a relationship to be valid. You don’t have to let heteronormative expectations trap you in a dangerous dynamic.
Internalizing the identity of the abused also means that once we’ve separated ourselves from our abusers, we can feel lost and unscripted. Who are we, when our lives don’t revolve around avoiding pain or seeking their validation? Who do we become, when we are no longer battered, when we are no longer the caregivers for the embodiments of such violence?
The transition from victim to survivor, the re-establishment of you as the master of yourself, of working towards radical self love in the same body, mind, and soul that suffered at the hands of someone who you thought loved you, is a process.
By reading this piece, I know you are on your way.
4. You don’t have to do it alone.
Being single doesn’t mean being by yourself. This process can be messy; there can be missteps, setbacks. Seek resources, seek friends and family, counseling, chatrooms, hotlines, support groups. You are not alone, it is not your fault, and you deserve to recover.
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5. You are a whole individual who can exist and thrive without them.
You deserve to discover who you are separate from what they’ve done to you. You may never separate your history from your present, but you can build upon it, grow from it. You know what you deserve now – to be respected, listened to, treated with kindness. You know no one is permitted to hurt you. You can hold your future partners to these standards.
The first time I had sex after cutting my abusive ex out of my life, it was probably the worst sex I’d ever had. He was drunk and younger than me; he cheered me on like he was watching a basketball game; he grunted like a wild animal; he fell asleep on my face – and I was grinning to myself the whole time. I was finally free, free to have shitty sex with whoever the hell I wanted. My body was no longer a plaything for the tempers of my abuser. I could do whatever I chose with it; I could find out what I actually liked.
It took me a long time and too much pain to get to that point. I am still in the process of discovering who I really am with partners, in relationships, in bed, as I am not his anymore.
I catch myself sometimes still falling into those patterns. After being nearly tricked into a date with a colleague, the first thing I did was blame myself for “leading him on.” I catch myself behaving in “cutesy” ways an abusive partner used to fetishize (which I used to perform to assuage potential danger); I catch myself about to participate in degrading sexual scripts before I remember I don’t have to.
I am still in the process of finding out what love looks like as experienced through a heart and body that has been burned by it before.
But I know I am not looking back.
I take what I lived through and I work to build upon it. I recognize my compassion, my intelligence, my desire to love and be loved, to be a part of something intimate and beautiful, and I see how my partner manipulated that into a dynamic that served only him.
Now, I serve me. I build on what’s been done to me, and I work to become who I truly am.
You are a survivor. You are also many, many other beautiful, powerful things. As your wounds scar, spend time doing what you love. Find out if it’s business, science, art, animals, mountaineering – perhaps helping other people? Perhaps a comfortable life with a few friends, good books, and the gentlest of adventures? Whatever it is, it’s yours. You’ve made it this far. You’ve made it so, so far. You’ve survived, and you will thrive. Remember who you were before, take what happened during, and work to become. No matter what happens next, remember that no one has the right to hurt you, not ever again, and that –
6. You are enough.
When home is no longer home, when love is no longer love, when a place of safety and security reveals itself to be a source of suffering, you are enough. You are a home, a space for your heart, thoughts, hopes, dreams, goals, fears, and skills. Again, you are not alone, but despite patriarchal scripts, there is nothing shameful about relying on yourself.
Take all that love, kindness, and forgiveness you gave to your partner. Dust it off, refocus and reframe it, and direct it right back at yourself. You deserve your own compassion. You deserve your incredible love. You are not alone. And you are enough.
Are you struggling to see that you are not alone, but you are really enough? Come and join our webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love in order to support your journey toward self-acceptance.
(Feature Image: A photograph of a person with shoulder length brown hair standing outside. They are wearing a grey-blue long-sleeved shirt. Their arm is crossing their torso and their hand is holding the opposite shoulder. In the background is a rock formation. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sop220/15753739737/)