Dating after an abusive relationship.  

One of the scariest things after leaving an abusive relationship was dating again.  I knew my track record in love was bad.  After all, my ex had almost killed me!  I’d ignored all the warning signs when I met him.  I only saw what I wanted to see and denied the rest.  Look how that turned out!  So, I didn’t have huge faith in my instincts or my judgement.

But I was successful in love after that.  I remarried.  I am still with him now.  He brings out the best in me and I in him.  And I am certain we are going to grow old together.  So how did I not fall into the same trap?  How did I not go head first into the next abusive relationship? Like many people who’ve suffered abuse do.

Two things.   First, as I’ve talked in more depth about earlier, I knew I had to look deep into why my self-esteem was so low.  To understand why not all my emotional needs were met as a child.   And to learn how to fill that void of vulnerability.  To nurture my inner child.  Only once I built my self-esteem would I attract a man who would treat me as worthy.

The second thing was a revelation to me.   I want to share this as I know there are many others for whom this might help.

I’m engaging with many victims and survivors of domestic abuse online. Many are like I once was, terrified of dating again.  Or in the early stages of a new relationship.  Unsure if they can trust their judgement and scared of another abusive relationship.   I know the feeling.

One posted some text messages from a guy she has recently met online.  In them he calls her his ‘baby girl’ and his ‘princess’.   She feared, as she hardly knew him, that this might be a red flag.   Yes. Without question. This is a warning flag with bells on.   Why?  Because she hasn’t even met the guy yet.

Love-bombing is a typical narcissistic trait.  They smother you with attention at first.   Tell you that you’re the only one for them.  They promise you a wonderful life of marriage, babies and growing old together.  All within weeks of meeting.  When we are lacking self-esteem and vulnerable, this is music to our ears.  This fills that hole we feel inside.  Narcissists instinctively spot our weakness and are experts at filling it with words they know we want to hear.  My vulnerability was feeling not good enough. Unlovable.  So he told me I was the love of his life.  Better than anyone who had come before.  The one he needed.  It sucked me straight in.

Once we’re drawn in deep enough, another side appears.  Now they need to bring us down a peg or two.  They tell us we’re ugly, stupid. That no-one else would want us.  That we’re spoilt brats, sluts or bitches.  Or we’re having affairs they’ve imagined in their heads.

My ex revealed his true self early on with his actions.   He showed me warning signs.  Whilst he told me he loved me one minute, he’d erupt in anger and disappear for days the next.  He’d suggest I wear different clothes, or that he didn’t like my friends.  Get jealous if I even looked at another guy.  But I made excuses for his behaviour.   That’s because I was projecting onto him who I hoped and wanted him to be. Rather than seeing him for who he was.  The man he was revealing to me, but whom I was choosing to be blind to.

I was seeing only the things that confirmed my dream of a wonderful life with him.  Denying those that were screaming at me that this relationship was no good for me.

I have a lot of mantras that I swear and live by.  (I’ve created a whole new category for them on here).  Here’s another one:  watch not what they say, but what they do.   As I have said before, love is a verb not a noun.   You show someone you love them by treating them as loveable. By treating them with respect.  And another mantra: if it sounds to good to be true, it usually is.

Going back to those text messages.  If we do watch what this person is saying here.  Listen to his language.  My ‘baby girl’ can be beautiful in a loving relationship.  My husband often says the same to me.   But in someone you’ve never met?  Clang.  Warning bell.  It sounds more possessive to me.

‘My Princess’ – again, in the right context, those words can be lovely.  But before having even met?  Or even in the first few weeks of being with someone?  It reminds me of how narcissists put you up on a Madonna-like pedestal.   You are the one who is different to all the others (read: whores) who came before.  You are special.   In the early days I was.  I believed it too.  But then I had to live up to that. When he later cut me down and accused me of not being that perfect Madonna, I did all I could to prove I was worthy of his love.  To be that person again. If I could show him I was still that special one, then perhaps that was all he needed to change and I could fix things.

Don’t do as I do. Don’t project onto someone else who you hope they’ll be in the future.  Or the dream you are imagining in your head.  See them for who they are now.   Watch what they are doing and telling you.

The same is true for when you meet someone who is good for you, like I did with the man I am married to now.  At first I was so scared of my track record.  I started seeing signs that weren’t there.  I was projecting onto him my fears that he was another abusive man.  Not just sitting back and observing the man he was showing himself to be.   I pushed him away.  I caused drama.  I was trying to end it before he left me, which I was convinced was going to happen.   I am lucky he stuck around!

Once I started to let go.  Once I stopped projecting onto him and watched not what he said but what he did.  Then I saw he was a good man.  He showed me he cared for me.  He didn’t smother me with possessiveness.  He treated me kindly.  He didn’t swing from adoration to abuse.  His actions complemented his words.  Both showed me respect and treated me as worthy, not worthless.

It is possible to break the cycle and find a healthy long-term relationship after an abusive one.  Just don’t project onto them.  Stay still and read the signs. Watch what they do.  Listen to the language they use.  And if it is all too good, too full on, too fast.  If their actions don’t match their words.  Then for me, that’s a huge red flag.   I’d steer well away from that one.  Trust me, it’s better to walk away sooner, rather than later.  The further down the road you go with a narcissist, the harder it is to get away from them.

Are you back on the dating scene again?  Seeing red flags?  Let me know in the comments below.

Are your relationships – past or present – good enough for you?  Do you deserve better?  Try my FREE QUIZ to find out!

Written by Vivian McGrath

Vivian McGrath is a TV Executive Producer who makes documentaries for major US, UK and Australian broadcasters.  She is also a survivor of domestic violence.  Her book ‘Unbeatable (How I Left a Violent Man)’ – her story of surviving abuse to finding success in love and life – will be published soon.  She hopes this blog will help others to become strong, fearless and successful too.  Find out more about Vivian Here.

20 thoughts on “Dating after an abusive relationship? Watch not what they say, but what they do

  1. I am back on the dating scene but with the same guy who I kicked out of my life 3 years ago for unacceptable behavior. I felt that I even needed an order of protection to feel safe. He has since gotten sober and cleaned up his life and started a company and made amends with his children. It’s amazing how fruitful his life is. We’ve been seeing each other now for 6 months. There are still signs that indicate he has some addictive traits (over spending, over planning, over working) but they all seem just part of his personality. He sees a shrink for medication and goes to AA. So why can’t Iet my guard down? I feel like will go on to live a successful life but I also feel that we are an addictive combination. I change my mind about him every other day!

    1. Quite often people who are abusive also have addictions to alcohol and/or drugs. It is not the cause of the abuse, but they can go hand in hand. I can imagine you will be on guard, as even sober the addiction remains and it can often transfer to something else, as you say. Let go of trying to control them and focus on you. Remember to put your needs and wellbeing first (this is not selfish, because if we can be the best we can be then we are the best for another person and the relationship). Your self-esteem is paramount. Just trust your gut and heed any warning signs and don’t deny them. And then try to relax in the knowledge that if it’s meant to be it will be and enjoy it if it is working for you and bringing out the best in you. If you self-esteem is high then you’ll be okay. Because if you find it’s not good enough for you and your wellbeing, then you’ll have the strength to say this isn’t good enough for me.

  2. I am so con-fn-fused. I was beat all winter with every abuse but physical, as even tho we were split, we cudnt move apart. So he just continued the abuse, altho escalated. I left emotionally in July, moved into the kids rm in Oct.
    After getting my head back together, in Feb, I met someone. Took it very slow, took a break for awhile of a few wks even, back in March. This guys sweet, spent money on me, did not push me in any way physically, didnt attempt seducing me, wasnt saying ILY like a stupid crazy person, etc. We talked ALOT mostly. Went on dates but mostly talked n talked.
    When I had a free nite, I would ask him to meet up with me N He Would.
    We got somewhat sexual, mostly just heavy kissing.
    The past few weeks tho, hes backed way off. Never available (he wks third shift, cares for his crazy dad n crippled mom, has bad insomnia). When we do meet up, hes all ily, ily. I want a relationship with you, yes. Affectionate.
    He used to txt me that he missed me. No more.
    No more gm txts.
    No more im thinking of you txts.
    Doesnt keep his word. Japped out on me Wed nite, which is the only nite i have a sitter n he well knows. P.r.o.m.i.s.e.d. to see me Thurs, japped out again. Flipped out when i tried to rationally talk with him. I think hes ignoring me??
    Um yes, you ARE. I dont think it.
    Today he was actually gonna come see me before wk tonite. Its too late to go do anything before he has to go cuz he once again, didnt go to bed n has to sleep some before wk. It would just be a make out session, sick of that. I told him Im busy today n wont be back till too late.
    We’re supposed to go to a park tmrw with my kids.
    I know he wont show. He ll jap out again. I truly know this.
    Is even this guy a narc? Somehow I missed it again??
    In case ur wondering, we havent been intimate yet becuz of a couple reasons, hes not punishing me for no sex.
    I wonder if hes married. No shyt. Even tho I know damn well hes not. He ACTS like it now tho.
    I hate men.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear what you have been through Jamilla. I think the most important thing is to watch what they do… If there is a big disconnect between what they say and do it is a big red flag for me. So, if they say ILY yet constantly avoid you etc. then that to me is a warning sign. Your confusion is because what he is saying is not aligned with what he is doing.

    Please put yourself first. You and your wellbeing are what matters most. Ask yourself: is this behaviour good enough for me? Is he treating me with kindness and respect? Is this relationship bringing out the best in me? Set healthy boundaries. And if he breaks them, then question whether it is a healthy relationship. One that will give you long-term happiness.

  4. When I was 18, I married an abuser (he was 30). We were only together a year and a half, but we have a child, so his controlling and threatening behaviors followed me until she turned 18 a few months ago. I remarried at 24 for the wrong reasons (my child was diagnosed with a serious illness and I wanted to be able to stay home with her. Husband #2 was abuser light, as I like to call it. His abuse was far more insidious because everyone liked him, so it felt like I was the crazy one. Anyway, after 10 years of marriage I walked away. I also spent time in domestic violence counseling, reading books, educating myself, etc. I dated a few men that just didn’t really work out, no big drama, just not a good match. Then I met my current boyfriend. I had no idea such closeness and healthy communication existed. It’s been a true revelation. However, there are things he does that remind me of my first husband and I can’t get away from it. We’ve been together 2 years, we’ve spoken openly about it, and it has decreased in frequency a lot. Most other men don’t remind me of him at all, but because of the way they’re both very sensitive (the ex used it to play the victim and manipulate me, my new boyfriend shares his feelings and we work through it), I am really struggling. We’re taking a break right now because I can’t get it under control. We’ve done a few counseling sessions and definitely need more, but sometimes I truly wonder if I shouldn’t cut my losses and find someone who doesn’t trigger this reaction in me. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Kate, I am so sorry you are struggling and that you’ve experienced abuse in your relationships. But you should be proud of yourself for the courage and strength you found to say it wasn’t good enough. That is a really big first step. Yes, healthy communication and closeness do exist, I felt the same as you when I found it the first time. It’s incredible. I think the reason you are struggling is that you are focussing on him and his behaviour and how it makes you feel. And on the relationship itself and not where you need to be. Which is on you. I have a series of online video courses that I call START WITH ME for this reason. For us to understand it we are in a healthy relationship or not. Why we attract those who hurt us, or dysfunctional relationships in the first place. How not to have our happiness depend on others, we have to really look at ourselves. Why we have low self-esteem (because when we do we attract those who treat us as worthless or go into dysfunctional relationships), where it comes from in our childhoods and how it manifests in our relationships. It’s a complex process and it took me years of working on me, which then allowed me to have a healthy relationship. I suggest that you need to start with you, irrespective of any relationship. I’m not trying to do a sell job on you, but I do think my courses will help you as I walk you through step by step how I changed my mindset from victim to survivor and then went on from survivor to staying strong. The first one (Victim to Survivor) really helps you understand if the relationship you are in is a healthy one or not. The second one (Survivor to Staying strong – which I am launching soon) digs deep into why we go into these types of relationships and why it’s so painful to leave them. How to break the cycle and not repeat the negative patterns, that impact on us having healthy relationships. And why we still struggle and find it hard in new relationships that are healthier. If you want to find out more, this is the Victim to Survivor course – If you’d like to join the waiting list then you will automatically here more about the second course, when it comes out. If not, keep reading through more of my posts and watch my videos as I go into this in various ones of these as well. I hope that helps. (Sorry, it’s quite a complex answer, so I’m not sure if I’ve been able to make it make sense when simplifying it).

  5. Hi I was in an abusive relationship with for three and a half years, he was emotionally abusive and physical a couple of times. I took the necessary time to heal and also to seek counselling. Unfortunately the aftermath of this relationship was horrific and caused major tension with one brother and my grown son. They held a lot of anger with me over staying in this relationship.

    Recently I met a mutual friend and we started dating. We got on well had a lot in common and he was very attentive. He was keen, always texting and wanting to met and treated me well. He knew my ex I felt I could trust him and I told him on the second and third date just a brief outline of the stuff that went on. Needless to say he finished it saying that I was not ready for a relationship and that he was not ready to hear these things. He said he also was not ready for this himself and he did not need the pressure of making me happy.

    Now I really liked him, he made me laugh and I felt comfortable in myself but I always had this fear of been hurt. I am ready for a relationship but I know I should not have to explain my past. I have decided to go back to counselling after this because it threw me for six and it knocked my confidence a lot.

    Did I make a mistake confiding in him? Was it too soon? could we have gone on if i had left these details out. But another voice in my head keeps saying if he was a strong person he should have been able to deal with it and accept this is the person i was. I was perfectly happy before I met him, I was in a good place and I felt good about myself. I know my happiness is down to me not him. I just feel that my judgement and trusting nature let me down and I should have known better than to divulge this information.

    1. Hi Julia, please do not blame yourself for his reaction. We are not responsible for other people’s behaviour. The voice in your head is correct. A strong and healthy person should be able to deal with this and accept you for who you are. Trust your instincts at all times, that is what that voice in your head is. Try not to analyse it in the form of ‘if I did this differently, then he would have reacted differently’… we should not change who we are or our behaviour to try and keep another person happy. I am so glad that you were in a good place and able to be happy within yourself. And that you’ve gone back to counselling to get that confidence back. That is the most important thing… to focus on you and your wellbeing, not on someone else. Once you are strong in yourself and have good self esteem, the rest follows. It will come. You will find someone you can trust in the future, I am sure of it. You are taking the right steps.

  6. It’s been six months since I left my ex. We were in a lesbian relationship. She was emotionally and physically abusive, at one point she tried to kill me. I lied and covered it all up. I’m seeing a therapist now but I still haven’t been able to tell my family and only a select friends. I kept going back to the relationship, even though she abused me and my daughter, and even begged at one point, seeing her happy online with a new job with an ex girlfriend. I felt ashamed of myself for reacting and going back when I was moving on. My ex has threatened me not to tell anyone what she did to me. Today I saw her in the village I live with another woman. I felt safe here that she would have no reason to come to the village but she has. I’m terrified and can’t move on

    1. I’m so sorry Steph to hear your story. As you say, domestic abuse crosses all lines – gender, religion, sexuality etc. I am glad to hear you are seeing a therapist and hope he/she are helping you. Please don’t feel ashamed. You are not to blame for this. No one deserves abuse. But I know how hard it is too. Having someone you love almost kill you is such a shock and it takes time to process and recover. I don’t believe cover things up are is necessarily the way to go. Particularly if she starts stalking you. If this escalates I would report it. Record all dates and times etc. Even photograph it. Stalking needs to be taken seriously. No one should live in fear like that. If she does keep turning up to intimidate you, you can also speak to the Paladin National Staling Advocacy Service. They are brilliant at helping those affected. I have their number listed on my DV resources page of this blog. It was set up by a woman who has been instrumental in changing the laws in the UK to make emotional abuse or coercive control deemed a crime. Surround yourself with family and friends who love you and validate your self esteem. Stay safe x

  7. Vivian,

    I got out of an abusive relationship earlier this year back in May. It was hard. Aside from it being long distance, it weighed very heavily on top of the abuse. I was physically, mentally, and sometimes sexually abused by my partner. It feels like he never left. Like he won. I still struggle with memories of how amazing it was in the beginning and slowly started to get worse later on in the relationship. I wonder, how can someone that has hurt someone so bad, be able to move on without any guilt or resentment? My ex was divorced, unhappy with himself, insecure, jealous, and very controlling. Every through miles away, he still had a way to keep me from seeing friends, family, and miss out on events. I sometimes hate myself for never leaving earlier. I wanted to give it a chance in hopes that he would change, as he said he would. But it just got progressively worse. He was much older than I was, 6 years to be exact. Had plans to get married and have kids, but I didn’t want to be with someone that I was scared to be around because that’s not love.

    I left him and moved on. I’m seeing somebody new and he is amazing. I haven’t felt butterflies in a long time and lives within my city instead long distance. I still have reoccurring thoughts of my past because it hurts and I want to heal. I have trust issues because my ex made me nuts and insecure. However, this man is someone I want to hold on to and see what comes out of it. I just don’t want to reciprocate old behavior from my past because of what my ex did. I’m worried because I don’t want to scare him away. He’s aware of what I went through. I just want to be happy.

    1. Hi Cindy, sorry to hear what you have been through. The most important thing is you recognise that this is not love. It is about control. They can move on like that, usually with a new ‘supply’ – the next person whom they can control and abuse. As awful as that means a new victim, be thankful it is no longer you. I am so happy you have found someone who sounds like they may be good for you instead. Just take one day at a time, trust your instincts and as long as what he does aligns with what he says you’ll be okay. I tried to push my new partner away as emotional availability scared me. So, I know how scary it is at first. But little by little, with my wellbeing at the forefront, I was able to trust again and build a lasting, loving relationship. It is possible. Just be you. Don’t modify your behaviour to anticipate him and his reactions. If he accepts you the way you are, with your past and all, then that’s great. A healthy man won’t be scared by that. But, if you start to see the red flags, don’t ignore them. You deserve to be happy and will be if you put you first and trust your gut always.

  8. I have been in a relationship, it was LDR, so not physically abuse but emotionally. Always took me for granted, not appreciating my efforts. Even didnt show any efforts towards our relationship. I just walked away without saying anything

      1. Hello Vivian, I have not long come out of an “abusive relationship” we have a young daughter together too , I keep going through phases of feeling it never happened like I’m the one that caused it all to thinking I’m making it all up in my head to thinking it’s real,

        We were together 2 years..I should of noticed really when we found out I was pregnant he was quick to try and get me to move where he lived give up my flat leave my family behind .. missed that sign , like an idiot .
        But I noticed when I moved over to where he was from things changed,

        Like hed totally switch emotions , one minute he’d be cuddling kissing me looking after me and next he’d be totally ignoring me or talking to me like I mean nothing , me f try talk to him and he’d punch walls and get shouty,

        It got worse after I had my daughter , he started losing it more , didn’t like me sitting with my freinds , kept saying they were lying to me they were fake my mum didn’t care that’s why she was happy I moved away, I said something he didn’t like he’d say “if you don’t fucking shut up! I’m gonna flip” then he’d try kick me out of out house with our daughter – “I’m not fucking going it’s ook r homeyou can’t get rid of me , it would get to the point where I’d have to leave because he’d start smashing my daughters stuff up throwing her bag at me with her in my arms , it got so bad on 3 occasions, 1) where he was belittling me to our daughter calling me pathetic I was good at the door and I told him he can’t say things like that to her , he said oh fuck off” and slammed my arm in the door and mimicked my actions , 2nd left my daughter with my freind had to go get some things for her , he ended up getting right in my face put his arms on my shoulders screamed in my face , shoved me and started smashing everything up . I don’t see what went so wrong ? What did I do ?

        3rd one- is got up one morning and my next door neighbour (close freind) asked me if I wanted to go out , I felt like I had to always ask him if I could go see my freinds( but at the time I thought it was normal) so he said yeah whatever but As soon as I went he locked me out of my flat went out and because he had seen my freinds male freind he instantly accused me of doing something with him, I ended up staying with my freind because the texts were coming thick and fast and I didn’t. Want to go back to it , I asked him to leave the next day , he said can he say good bye to my daughter I said yes just not in the house cos I don’t wanna argue , next min I know his mums ringing me saying can she see her o took my daughter down she instantly took her out of the car seat with out permission , wouldn’t let me touch her hold her, his mum or him , he was going to take her he tried to take my baby girl , paraded me in the street begging for my baby, trying to grab me and screaming st me when I finally got her out of the car,

        My anxiety is so high now ,
        Still feel like I caused it all ,
        Still feel icolated,
        Can’t sleep
        Keep replaying and zoning out to memories of things that have happened mainly to do with him trying to take my angel ,
        I now live in a refuge .
        Stupid thing is I miss him and feel like he’s the only person that understands me yet I’m petrified too .

        Just feel like all I do is let my daughter and everyone down . What do I do ?

        Feel totally drained .

        Hope I get a response but I doubt it ,

        . S .

        1. I’m sorry to hear what you have been through Susie. The first thing is you are NOT to blame for any of his behaviour. We are not responsible for other people’s actions and behaviour, only they are. Nothing you said or did differently would have changed him either. His actions are abusive and he alone is responsible for that.

          This is the most difficult time, when we first leave an abusive relationship. What you are going through is like withdrawing from an addictive drug. You will feel anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness and all number of emotions that have been suppressed for so long. Especially as you’ve numbed yourself for so long to survive. It is a painful and confusing time.

          What happens in these relationships is we develop what is known as a codependency on them. That one minute having them being loving towards us, the next seeing their abusive side, starts to wear our self-esteem down. We get to the point where the only person who can make us feel good about ourselves is the same person who is hurting us, which is what you describe.

          I am so glad you out of this relationship. No one deserves violence or emotional abuse. It is not a healthy relationship and it is no good for you or your wellbeing. The most important thing now is for you not to play over all the tapes in your head as to what he said or did, or what you might have done differently. You need to take your focus off him and your relationship and put it where it belongs, which is on YOU.

          You also need emotional support and help to get through this difficult time, not just physical refuge. I urge you to contact one of the FREE domestic violence helplines I have listed here:

          They will be able to point you to the right counselling or support group. You can’t do this alone. I did this and it was invaluable to me.

          These posts might also help you to understand his behaviour and codependency:

          Please get help and support and take one day at a time. Stay strong.

  9. Thank you so much for posting this.. I have broken up with a guy and lately I began to wonder if he was emotionally abusive but I brushed it off because didn’t want to believe it. After reading this, I realize he did exactly the things you described.. told me to wear different clothes, didn’t like my friends, called me names that made me feel awful, and imagined affairs I was having. Thank you for helping me realize this and now I can avoid getting into another relationship like this by watching for early warning signs.

    1. Ian so glad it is helpful to you. The red flags are all there. We just have to be still and observe them. Also trust your gut instincts. They are there for a reason. I am happy you are part of my Unbeatable community. I also have closed Facebook support group you can join if you like. There are others in there who have been through what you have all supporting each other. Stay strong. You deserve better.

  10. So, I just left a very emotionally abusive marriage with a personality disordered person and addict. I recently went on a date with a former old friend and felt hyper aware of what she was saying. She’s really fun to be around but made a few remarks about me being the “most girly man” and laughed jokingly. She also made a few small comments about my appearance. It felt and appeared to be jokingly and she later got close and said I was “extremely handsome” and she really wants to get to know me. These signs seem similar to my ex but idk…

    She explained that she usually dedicated into relationships and lives spending a lot of time together and staying connected. I mean, I’m okay with this cause I’d rather that then “I’ll talk to you next week” kind of stuff, but I feel very unedge. Her demeanor was to cuddle, be affectionate, and very passionate but those words made me feel triggered…should I just better explain my history with her and attempt to get a better understanding?

    1. I would absolutely trust your gut instincts and that feeling of being triggered. Our instincts are there to give us warnings. We need to always heed them. If you know her well and feel comfortable enough to share your past relationship with her, then you could possibly do that. But make sure if you do so, you set clear boundaries as to what is acceptable to you or not. If there is any sense she uses this knowledge against you or her actions are not aligned with what she says, then ask yourself is this person good for you and your wellbeing? Perhaps consider some time alone too. Sometimes rushing from one relationship to the next without time to focus on ourselves and healing leads us to repeat the same negative patterns. Focus on you, build your self esteem and date only when you feel strong in your sense of self worth and are able to maintain strong boundaries. I hope that helps?

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