Trigger/content warning: sexual and relationship abuse
This article was written by a 3rd Year Medical Student.
The day after my 17th birthday I met my boyfriend and found myself in an abusive relationship. My life became controlled by rules I doubt even he knew off by heart, and for the next year I lived in fear of his regular yet unpredictable rages. When I managed to end this relationship I was left with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder); the next two years were spent juggling university with a regular therapy slot (thank God for extenuating circumstance forms). Despite remaining wary of men and relationships, I eventually felt ready to start dating again. To help myself navigate romance as a domestic abuse survivor, I began to write out what I learnt as I went along and would like to share some of these realisations in the hope they will reach somebody who needs it.
Lesson number one: Setting new standards. Just because you were treated appallingly by a partner in the past does not mean that everyone you go on to date should be judged in comparison to this. If you find yourself having a debate in your head that goes along the lines of ‘Well yes he did get too drunk at the pub and flirt with girls at the bar, but at least he didn’t slap me when we got home’ it’s time for a rethink. My sense of self-worth was almost destroyed by my relationship, but spending time with friends who love and respect me helped me remember how I deserve to be treated. It’s safe to say that I no longer consider a man who is simply ‘not abusive’ as the gold standard of potential boyfriends.
Lesson number two: Re-learning the language of dating. After a relationship where innocent sounding messages from my boyfriend had ominous double meanings, it was difficult not to see these everywhere. For example, when a normal person says ‘I miss you’ they mean ‘I miss you’. When my ex said ‘I miss you’ it meant ‘You haven’t messaged me enough tonight and I’m angry.’ Innocent enquiries such as ‘What are you having for dinner’ could morph into a lecture about what he wanted me to eat, and even ‘Fine.’ could be terrifying if I knew he was in a bad mood. Initially I was frustrated to find myself reacting in this way, but there is no timeframe when recovering from trauma. I have been able to remember the true meaning of these messages and am able to reply with ‘I miss you too’.
Lesson number three: Rediscovering sex. In my relationship, the sex I had did not belong to me. It was something I did to pacify my ex and his jealous tendencies, and to avoid the anger I knew would ensue should I dare to say no. Now, I have sex when I want with the people I chose which feels so empowering. Reclaiming my sexuality as my own was not always easy- at times I felt guilty for enjoying sex as a victim of sexual violence (which is totally illogical) and some perfectly normal, consensual sex triggered disturbing flashbacks. However, I now regard sex as a fun, pleasure centred experience which is how it should be.
Some of these lessons I figured out on my own, but most of the recovery I’ve made wouldn’t have been possible had I not sought help. To anybody who is or has experienced an unhealthy relationship I promise you are not alone. The period of freedom post breakup is confusing and it’s hard to know how to begin putting your life back together. Utilise the support systems around you, don’t be afraid to talk about your experience and know while you will never completely get over an abusive relationship, life will resemble normality again one day.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, please visit our Zero Tolerance page for support and guidance.
For support and information about domestic violence, Refuge is a charity that can offer support and help in times of need.
The University's Advice and Counselling Service also offer support.