How to Recover from an Unhealthy Relationship
Have you left a bad relationship? Sex educator Cassandra Corrado provides practical advice on rebuilding self-trust so you can love and lust again.
Trust is a funny thing. Many of us can’t identify the specific things that lead us to trust someone – usually, trust is built slowly over time. It’s many things that, when taken together, tell us “hey, this person is someone I can count on.”
But trust is complicated.
We can trust someone and that person can still hurt us. Sometimes that hurt is relatively small, but other times, that hurt is bigger. As a sex educator who specializes in unhealthy relationships and trauma, I’m often asked “why would someone be in a relationship with someone who harms them?”
There are a lot of answers to that question — someone might stay out of financial need, or because they don’t feel like they have anyone they can turn to, or for infinite other reasons. The reality is that abusers don’t begin the relationship by abusing. Abuse is about power and control over another person, and one of the ways that abusers build power over someone is by gaining their trust and seeming like the ideal partner, then slowly building up abusive behaviors.
After leaving abusive relationships, many survivors find themselves struggling to trust again.
Trust isn’t just about how you feel toward other people; it’s also about a sense of trust in yourself. Self-trust means believing that your intuition and gut feelings are generally reliable, that you’ll be able to recognize good/bad situations as they come up, and that you feel able to make good decisions for yourself with whatever information you have available.
I’ll be honest with you — there is no one quick way to rebuild and recalibrate your sense of self-trust after unhealthy, toxic, or abusive relationships. But there are some strategies that you can implement to guide and support you throughout the process.
1. Write about the world as you see it.
Have you heard the term “gaslighting” before? Gaslighting refers to an abusive tactic where the abuser makes someone believe that what they’re seeing and experiencing isn’t real. It’s something that generally happens over a longer period of time, slowly making the person unable to tell what is real and true from what is not. This is one of the main strategies that abusers use, because if you can’t tell what’s true from what’s not, it’s easier to manipulate you.
So, practice writing out your observations every day. Use a journal or the notes app on your phone, and every day, write down the facts of your day. What did you eat, how was the weather, what did you do, what happened?
Writing down the world as you see it can help you rebuild a sense of confidence in your observations and interpretations of the world.
You can write about your emotional experiences, too. When X happened, how did you feel? Are there any questions you have about the situation? How are you feeling now that there’s been some space from it?
There’s power in seeing your interpretation of the world written down in front of you, but if you’re not a writer, you can still do this exercise. Spend five minutes each day saying to yourself (out loud) the things you know to be true about that day.
2. Know the green flags.
Knowing relationship red flags is important, but knowing the green flags (or the positive indicators in a relationship) is important, too. To be clear, red and green flags aren’t just about romantic or sexual relationships – these apply to any type of interpersonal interaction.
Here are some green flags:
- You are able to voice your opinion and be respected, even if you don’t see eye-to-eye with the other person.
- When you set a boundary, it’s respected. Even better: The other person anticipates your needs by asking you about your boundaries, rather than waiting for you to say what they are.
- When the person talks about you to you (or others!), they use supportive and affirming language. They don’t put you down or intentionally make you feel bad about yourself, and when they’re offering you feedback, they do it in a compassionate way.
- When you feel frustrated or upset, your partner lets you talk about how you’re feeling without blaming you, putting you down, or making it all about them.
- Your healthy friendships and family relationships are encouraged and supported.
- When conflict arises (because conflict is normal and healthy!) you’re able to navigate it as a team, rather than fighting to prove each other wrong.
3. Create a support network.
It’s pretty much impossible to recalibrate our trust compass without support from others. Sometimes, that support is someone listening to you and being empathetic to your experiences. Other times, it’s someone who can help check our gut reactions. It can also be someone who says “hey, I’ve experienced something similar. It was really hard!”
Your support network is about who is able to be there for you — and it doesn’t just need to be friends or family!
If you’ve experienced an abusive relationship, reach out to your local domestic violence resource center. They probably have free or low-cost support groups that you can join. If you can’t find a center close to you, research some online options. Even message boards and online chats can be helpful here!
If you aren’t ready to join a support group or talk with loved ones about what you’re feeling, a therapist with expertise in working with survivors can be a great starting resource.
4. Be kind to the voice in your head.
Abuse isn’t just physical. It can be verbal and emotional, too, and the effects of psychological abuse can be long-lasting. If an abusive partner put you down, shamed you, or made you feel unloveable, it’s possible that those messages are still floating around your head.
If that’s the case for you – it’s okay. This is not your fault.
When that cruel voice gets loud, speak back to it. I’m not telling you to be mean to yourself and say things like “why can’t you just get over it?” or “what’s your problem?!” Instead, turn to that voice with compassion. You can try saying things like:
- “I used to believe that about myself, but I’m working on being kinder to me.”
- “I feel this way when I’m stressed. What would help relieve the pressure?”
- “There is no stopwatch measuring how long it takes me to heal. I’m allowed to take my time. This is a process.”
Give yourself the kindness and compassion you didn’t get before. Soothe the voice in your head and practice replacing it with a gentle reminder instead.
Trust and self-trust take time to build. Remember, you’re allowed to take your time here. There is no time limit. Give yourself radical patience and treat yourself the way you would treat someone learning something for the first time, because, in a way, you are.
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is a Contributing Educator for Nurx and an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
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