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Bonnie Tonkinson — June 23, 2023

The Hidden Side of Healing From Emotional Abuse In An Intimate Relationship

Bonnie Tonkinson

By: Bonnie Tokinson 

Emotional abuse includes non-physical behaviors that are intended to control and intimidate an individual. When emotional abuse takes place within an intimate relationship, it is often the initial ending to the relationship that seems the most daunting; the when and how are endlessly questioned in the survivor’s head, and every possible aftermath is considered before making the decision to leave. Finding the strength to leave emotionally abusive relationships is extremely hard and sometimes only happens when the only thing worse than leaving is staying.

Types of Emotional Abuse 

When emotional abuse takes place, it can be very difficult for the survivor to realize they are being abused. Coercion and gaslighting can be subtle when combined with the mix of stonewalling and love bombing. Additionally, verbal abuse is often difficult to recognize. Over time, survivors may internalize the abuse, which can cause one’s sense of self-esteem and confidence to slowly deteriorate.  Survivors can be left in a state of cognitive dissonance, struggling to conceptualize the possibility of a life without the perpetrator. This isolation can lead to feelings of lost identity, waning relationships with friends and family, and a significant reduction in self-esteem.

Seeking Support & Resources 

Once I had left my abusive partner, I sought out resources to identify emotional abuse. I noticed there was vast literature surrounding different signs of emotional abuse, especially around knowing when and how to leave a relationship safely. However, the discussion surrounding the experience of life after a survivor leaves an unhealthy relationship was scarce.

 The process of healing that comes with emotional abuse in romantic relationships is not linear. There are many stages and complexities that contribute to a long process of healing after trauma.   Some moments of the healing process will be ongoing work with yourself. Here are some aspects I found challenging: 

1) Flashbacks 

One of the first behaviors I noticed after leaving an abusive relationship was the continuous flashbacks in my day-to-day life. In many circumstances of emotional abuse within intimate relationships, abuse forms slowly. It can take a long time to truly see the impact it is having on every area of your life – work, health, relationships, and most importantly, your self-worth. 

Because of the nature of my relationship, I was obsessed with my partner. Their validation was something I craved in the same way as some may crave drugs. Things like colors, songs, and locations triggered flashbacks of our arguments and our time together. Once you’re out of the relationship, it can lead to bittersweet feelings. On one hand, you’re relieved the relationship is over. You are no longer in flight or fight mode, and your physical self begins to slow down and process the relationship. When one is able to unravel the events of the relationship and what areas of life were tethered, then reclaiming and healing can occur. Abuse is traumatizing and leaves marks in unexpected places. 

Flashbacks were a constant battle in my head while trying not to break down with each one. Although it was difficult, I started reframing flashbacks as protective signals in my mind. I considered them reminders of how anxious my abuser used to make me. When I accepted flashbacks as a protective guard, it allowed the triggers to fade and lean into preventing abuse from happening again in my life. 

2.) How healing impacts future relationships 

Once survivors have been through a timeline of rebuilding their self-esteem, they may eventually desire the exploration of a new relationship. Although this journey can be exciting it can also lead to fears of intimacy again, fears of rejection, or fear of moving on entirely. After emotional abuse, an ex-partner’s voice and opinion can linger. Learning to trust someone new and allowing yourself to be vulnerable after trauma is scary. The fear is valid, but it is also your newfound power. The growth that occurs in healing is empowering — you can recognize dangerous situations or behaviors and be selective about who you choose to be vulnerable with. When you meet a healthy partner, you will know it is safe to be vulnerable. 

The experience of meeting the ‘right person’ is frightening and considered a new stage of healing from the immediate flashbacks that survivors may experience. Striving toward stability to create a healthy relationship should feel like a steady train journey, traveling through the world on a steady foot and being aware of the next stops in sight. This will take time and communication with your new partner. It requires both partners to accommodate each other’s needs to support and love for one another.  

3)  How Healing Impacts The Relationship Between Friends & Family 

 As a survivor, one of the hardest battles was getting rid of the perpetrator’s voice in my head.This included blame for the abuse and the responsibility I took for many of the issues within the relationship related to reactive abuse. My perpetrator often labeled me as a ‘victim’ or ‘overly sensitive’ and ‘needy’ to excuse his aggression or failure to meet my basic needs.

 If this experience resonates with you I insist you take time to self-reflect, not on how your behaviors are toxic and the cause for your issues, but on what your needs and boundaries are. Do some soul searching and enable yourself to have a stronger understanding of the characteristics you require in your future partners and all interpersonal relationships, and ensure you are not building relationships with someone who never showed any interest in meeting you where you are at. 

In my healing, I began to slowly understand how my partner was never going to be someone that treated me with respect. I threw myself into other roles as a care worker, mother, cleaner, and punching bag. I also began to recognize other relationships in my life that similarly were not meeting the needs I desired. Some of those relationships even emulated the abuse I had experienced in my intimate relationship. Certain people or situations would trigger the trauma related to my abuse history. Over time, I learned that not all triggers meant it was the same kind of abuse my ex-partner inflicted on me. However, I did have to make difficult decisions to protect myself from relationships that were no longer serving me.  
Navigating any relationship, especially after abuse, is nuanced. Sometimes, being exposed to abuse can cause you to re-evaluate boundaries with others in your life. I definitely think this part of healing is one that is not spoken about — the way that your new knowledge can trickle into other relationships and cause you to re-evaluate whether or not they are healthy and serving the person you hope to become. Sometimes it is lonely and scary, but it can also lead to empowerment, independence, and self-confidence you have never experienced before.

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