How Did This Happen Again?: Navigating Feelings of Self-Blame as a Survivor of More Than One Abusive Relationship
The time following an abusive relationship is often confusing and complicated for survivors. If a survivor has been in more than one abusive relationship, healing can feel even more challenging. We often hear questions like, “How do I keep getting into these situations?” or “What is it about me that attracts abusive partners?” These feelings of self-blame or guilt are normal, and if you’re experiencing them, you’re not alone. However, you definitely don’t deserve to feel this way, because abuse is never the survivor’s fault or even caused by the survivor at all.
Abusive behavior is always a choice the abusive partner makes.
Many survivors feel they should have seen the warning signs or known better than to put up with controlling behavior, especially after having been in an abusive relationship before. However, to say someone has chosen to enter into another abusive relationship is not an accurate reflection of what goes into navigating dating and intimate relationships. Placing the expectation on victims to always recognize red flags for potential abuse and leave if they do is unfair and unrealistic. Trust is an important part of any relationship, and it wouldn’t be healthy for a survivor to go into every new relationship expecting their new partner to become abusive, especially when there aren’t yet any concerning behaviors. It can be especially hard to identify warning signs at the beginning of a relationship, when abusive partners are typically on their best behavior, hiding controlling tendencies until a bond has been established. For survivors who experienced abuse in a previous relationship, they are subject not only to this confusion, but also to the effects of their self-esteem having been torn down by their previous abusive partner(s). Someone who has had their self-worth taken away is more likely to believe they deserve what their partner chooses to do, or that they are so unlovable, no healthy partner will ever want them. Unfortunately, some abusers recognize this, and may seek out survivors of past abuse for new relationships to more easily manipulate them. If you’ve had negative feelings like these about yourself, you are not alone, but sometimes, feelings lie. Nothing a partner or anyone else chooses to do is ever reflective of your worth, efforts, or value. You are not responsible for someone else’s decision to control, hurt or manipulate you.
Unfortunately, the dominant narrative in society does place responsibility for an abusive relationship on the survivor.
Have you heard the saying “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me?” Our society tends to place a lot of individual responsibility on people to care for and protect themselves, but it implies we live in a vacuum where it’s easy to know when we’re being manipulated if we’ve been through something before and are going through it again. It is true that sometimes we can grow and learn from experiences and use that knowledge in similar situations for the future. When it comes to abuse though, “similar situation” doesn’t always apply. Abuse doesn’t look the same in every relationship, and each abusive partner is different. Abusers tend to be very manipulative, and that includes tailoring some of their controlling tactics to what they believe will most effectively give them power over their current partner. It’s neither fair nor realistic to expect survivors to identify abuse or red flags when abuse can look radically different from relationship to relationship.
Society also misses the mark when it comes to relationship education. We’re socialized to believe that unhealthy relationships and behaviors are normal, or even romantic. Love bombing (constant declarations of love and grand gestures early in the relationship) is seen as sweet rather than a possible violation of boundaries. Jealousy is conceptualized as indicating care when it can actually lead to controlling behavior. Characteristics such as brute strength, persistence in the face of rejection, and protectiveness are glamorized or thought of as ideals. It can be hard to reconcile what we think we should be excited about in a new partner with what may actually be triggering concerns about abuse. When things like open, honest communication, healthy boundaries, equality and trust are not taught as the norm, we can’t expect survivors to identify them as such, especially if they have never been in a relationship where these things existed.
The dominant narrative would have survivors and those supporting survivors believe it’s the survivor’s job to protect themselves and that it’s easy to do so. Neither are true. Given all these complicated factors, no one can realistically be expected to see the warning signs every time, think entirely clearly, and always make decisions that prioritize their well-being in the midst of a confusing situation. Abuse is always a choice the abusive partner makes, and never something a survivor should blame themselves for.
If you’ve been abused by more than one partner and are struggling with guilt, shame, or uncertainty about whether or when to try dating again, rest assured, there is hope. Some survivors find individual counseling or attending a support group at a local domestic violence agency helpful as a way to get support and validation, as well as work through these difficult questions and feelings. Whether or not you seek counseling or group support, taking time to allow yourself to heal from the impact of having been in an abusive relationship can be crucial for ensuring that your next relationship is as healthy and happy as you deserve it to be.
Of course, our advocates are always here to discuss the complicated feelings around being a survivor of multiple abusive relationships. Call us 24/7/365 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat at www.thehotline.org.