With the extreme stresses of COVID-19 and social distancing, it is easy to crave a relationship that will make all the pain go away. Some survivors of domestic violence want another chance at love. Some feel lost when they separate from the partner who abused them, missing the companionship that even a controlling relationship provided. They may long deeply for the promise of love and protection that the abuser failed to provide.
At the same time, survivors of domestic violence may hesitate to trust new potential partners—concerned that they will again be at risk.
Confusion and Triggers
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Just being in a relationship may remind the survivor of the abuse. Healthy relationships can make a person feel loved; abusive relationships typically also make a person feel loved at times. Healthy relationships can have exciting sex; abusive relationships can also have exciting sex. Both healthy and abusive relationships can feel romantic. And so on.
Survivors of domestic violence usually have post-traumatic symptoms. They may feel “triggered” when in a new relationship—whether it is by touch, a raised voice, a sexual act, making a mistake, or something as seemingly small as a smell or a song on the radio. The triggers can cause panic, crying, fear, anxiety, nausea, and other painful responses.
When a person who has been in a controlling relationship meets a possible new partner, it is important to figure out if this new partner is showing signs of being abusive, too. Below are some issues to consider.
Respecting Your Boundaries
Your new partner should accept that you may need more time and space alone than they might wish. It does not matter whether this is because of your past experience or just a preference. If the new relationship is going to succeed, your new partner must learn to respect your boundaries. Additionally, the pandemic requires us all to set firmer boundaries around intimacy than we might in normal times: Our survival and the survival of our loved ones depend on it.
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- Do you feel obligated to spend more time together than you would like?
- Are they asking you for a commitment before you are ready, such as dating exclusively, living together, getting married, or having a baby?
- Do they want to take over aspects of your life, such as your parenting, your home, or your money?
- Have they failed to respect your limits during sex—pushing you further than you wanted to go, or pushing you into doing things that you said you did not want to do, or just taking charge of sexual acts in a way that silences you?
- When you say “no” to something, do they try to push you?
- Do you feel trapped? Do you feel invaded?
Helping You Be Strong and Feel Good
Healthy partners help you feel good about yourself. They reflect your strengths back to you and you bring out the best in each other. You should not feel that you are failing to measure up.
- Do they treat you as an inferior, as a child, or as a stupid or inadequate person?
- Do they lead you to feel that you just cannot do anything right?
- Do they make you feel ashamed or embarrassed?
- Do they insult you?
- Are you worried about their temper?
As abusers take over their partners' lives, they shape them into accepting more and more oppressive conditions.
- Has your new partner isolated you through insisting on too much time alone together, turning off phones, or separating you from family and friends? (This may be harder to judge when we are all locked inside for the pandemic, but demands around your use of the telephone or social media may be a red flag).
- Do they seem too eager to win over your children, parents, friends, or co-workers?
- Does something about their kindness or generosity toward others feel insincere or just like “too much?”
Being Kind, Gentle, and Generous
Your partner should be gentle, kind, and courteous with you, even when you are having a conflict. A person who is mean, violent, or unkind, even if drunk or on drugs, is signaling trouble ahead.
- Have they ever threatened or hurt you physically?
- Have they hurt you during sex and failed to stop, or apologized and then repeated the behaviors?
- Do they act possessive and jealous?
- Do they ignore (or try to control) your needs, your schedule, your opinions, and your life?
- Do they ever make you feel threatened or afraid?
- Do they seem excessively "cheap" or stingy or too eager to spend your money?
- Do you feel that you have to do certain things, “or else?”
Being a “Good Person”
While it is true that none of us is perfect, it is also true that people are as they are—not as we wish them to be. All too often, abusers are able to entice their partners into trying to rescue them—acting as if there is a “good person” hidden inside the “bad person” exterior, and only their partner can help them overcome their problems. This is a recipe for trouble.
- Do they abuse alcohol and/or drugs?
- Do they seem to lack empathy for others?
- Do they lack respect for other people’s opinions?
- Do they disregard the impact of their behavior on you and others?
- Do they blame their bad behavior on others?
- Do they speak disrespectfully about their past partners?
- In general, do they treat people poorly? Or do they treat certain kinds of people poorly?
- Do they express biased or discriminatory opinions about people from certain groups?
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, your new relationship might be headed for trouble. Maybe this is because your new partner is overly controlling. Or maybe you have not expressed what you want clearly. Try to let your new partner know what you need and want. How they respond will help you decide whether this person is right for you.
One hallmark of a controlling relationship is isolation. Unfortunately, pandemics also make us isolate ourselves, for physical safety. Be sure to stay in touch with family and friends, and reach out to a domestic violence advocate if your new relationship seems questionable. Stay safe in every way you can.
Not sure if now is the time to start looking for love? Read Starting a New Relationship After Abuse to learn what to consider before dating again.
Editor's Note: Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.
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