Content note: This column talks about nonconsensual relationship dynamics.
I’m a pansexual woman currently in college. I had a really bad relationship for about three months, and I ended it about nine months ago. I struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and over the past year and a half I have been working really hard to process my traumas and learn how to cope. I went to therapy for a long while and have been helping myself learn how to self-soothe in a lot of ways.
That being said, for some reason I can’t stop thinking about this ex. It’s not in a longing way, but more in a way that makes me feel sad and ashamed despite the fact that I did nothing wrong. In this relationship, the ex was extremely manipulative and focused only on his own issues. He wanted me to he the “reason” he improved, and never acknowledged any issues of my own except those I wasn’t ready to talk about yet. He tried to force me to talk about these particular issues at times, which only resulted in panic attacks. He was also my first and so far only kiss, which actually was somewhat nonconsensual and also caused a panic attack and is still a source of panic today.
So, I guess my question comes in two parts:
1) How can I keep him off my mind, and stop feeling ashamed or guilty about the relationship? I know I did nothing wrong and that I did eventually recognize that he was a negative part of my life, but I feel stupid for not seeing it sooner.
2) How can I reacquaint myself with the idea of intimacy, and be open to trying to find a partner? I am mostly attracted to women these days (as I’ve improved my mental health, my attraction to men has gone down, interestingly enough) and I would love a girlfriend (or more than one) but I’m scared. I want love and intimacy, but I can’t stop feeling panicked about it actually being part of my life.
Thanks for reading this,
Scared But Lonely
Healing from abuse can be a journey and it sounds like so far you’re doing great. Having a therapist you trust who guides you through themes of fear, guilt, and navigating panic attacks can be an excellent help so I’m glad you have that resource!
Here’s my two cents about your two questions:
1) Feeling stupid for not “seeing it sooner,” getting out fast enough, or defending yourself more ferociously is a very common, lurking feeling for folks who’ve been in abusive, and/or unhealthy relationships. This form of internalized victim-blaming can be thought of as lingering echoes of your abuse popping up out of ritualized habit. Patterns and repetition are powerful reinforcements utilized by manipulative people and it can be tough to shake them for good.
The hopeful news is that “positive” patterns and repetitions can also be powerful reinforcements utilized by yourself, your trusted friends, and professionals like your therapist to counteract your internalized belief that you should be held responsible for wrongdoings done against you by someone else (you shouldn’t!).
The reality is you did nothing wrong and that sometimes laying low or (usually subconsciously) protecting ourselves from “seeing it sooner” are savvy adaptive traits that kept you safe in the moment. You got out as soon as it was safest and most possible for you — so, good work!
2) Trust is built via experience over time. To trust that intimacy can play a safe and welcome role in your life, regardless of the gender of the people you choose to date, make sure to move at your own pace. Keep things consensual with yourself first by not forcing a connection or moving too quickly with the goal of feeling “healed.”
Instead, start slowly with low-pressure coffee dates and trust your gut instincts about the trustworthiness of new folks. If/when you feel afraid, even if it’s with someone you otherwise feel is trustworthy, listen to your body and come back to practicing your self-soothing techniques. Whatever you do, don’t rush your own process — that kind of pressure has been applied onto you enough by your ex and now it’s time to slow down and honor yourself first.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.