Feeling Unsafe When you're the Safest you've Ever Been
So many of us know what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship. Intimate partner abuse is an equal opportunity trauma; it penetrates the lives of the least and most privileged among us. Living within an abusive relationship can destabilize your sense of self, others, and the world around you. Someone once told me that while the physical abuse caused her to hate her partner, the emotional abuse had made her hate herself. This is just one of the several hidden scars that remain well after an abusive relationship ends.
My own journey to become a relationship abuse therapist began as a volunteer for a domestic violence shelter in 2010. Around the same time, I was studying to get my master’s degree in social work and interning at a clinic at the University of Michigan where I worked with families impacted by physical and sexual abuse and neglect. In 2011, I began working as a therapist for a NYC domestic violence program, for which I still work on a part-time basis today. These experiences, combined with my training in trauma at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy and in other evidence-based trauma treatment modalities, have inspired me to share a conglomerate of several people’s experiences to highlight the traumatizing nature of relationship abuse, and, as such, the imperative of good trauma treatment. So whether you are someone who has been in an abusive relationship, dating someone who has been in an abusive relationship, or know someone who is or has been in an abusive relationship, I’m hoping to offer a new and clarifying perspective on trauma and important next steps to heal.
Let’s take a moment now to imagine a scene…
You were young, your partner was maybe a bit older. The details don’t matter, and maybe they’re hard to remember, but you definitely remember the look in your partner’s eyes when they yelled at you. You can actually still feel the strain in your throat as if you were screaming right now, again, pleading with them to see how much they are hurting you. But it doesn’t stop. They keep yelling. Calling you crazy. Blaming you for their shitty mood. You leave, a couple of times, even. Each time, they crawl back to you, vulnerable, nurturing the very part of your heart they’ve been stabbing all this time. And you believe them when they say it’ll be different. And you really want to believe that your partner will change because then this will all have been worth it. And, actually, they do change, for a little while. Until they start snapping at you again, this time in front of your friends. Maybe they start to use silence against you, ignoring you until you start to feel that you only exist when they want you to. So you try lots of things. You surprise them, buy them gifts, try so hard to make them happy, to make you both happy. But it’s never quite right. You always do something wrong. You’re so stupid. After hearing it so many times, it starts to make sense. I am stupid. When your partner is actually in a good mood, you try to take it all in, seep in as much of it as possible because a part of you knows it won’t last. And it doesn’t. It never does. And one day, it gets so bad, it’s the worst it’s ever been. So you decide that nothing is worth staying for, and you leave. For good. Note: If you currently identify with parts of this narrative, here are some resources you might want to consider.
Now let’s fast forward a few years, perhaps several years: you’re long out of that toxic relationship. Maybe there’s finally a sense of freedom. You start having fun again and remember what it’s like to only have to answer to yourself. You explore what it’s like to do things on your own, unattached. Maybe you go to a movie by yourself. And maybe you’re finally feeling kind of stellar about yourself again. You start meeting new people, maybe go on a few dates. But waaay in the back of your mind, you’re not ready to let just anyone in. No one has seemed quite up to par for a while. And that’s okay, because maybe it’s just that you have higher standards now and a healthier sense of self-worth. Besides, you figure that it’s 100% better to be alone than to be trapped with in a toxic relationship for the rest of your life. But then love creeps up on you, and someone actually figures out how to pass through that pin-sized hole in the armor you’ve been wearing, and it feels. so. good.
Until that one day when your new love says something that sounds kind of disrespectful, and in a moment you’re right back in your abusive relationship. Except that you’re not. But it really feels like you are and there is no way in hell you’re going to allow yourself to be treated like that again. So you yell, or threaten to leave, or maybe a few times you actually do leave. But you go back because there’s a big part of you that recognizes that this new relationship is not your old relationship. But even knowing this, you still find yourself ready to jump on anything that has even a sliver of itty-bitty-pre-warning-sign of abusive behavior. You react to the smallest most insignificant things that in the moment feel as threatening as the original abuse. You have never been safer with a partner in your life but your body still feels so unsafe.
At this point, if you’re wondering why you wouldn’t just feel relieved knowing that you’re safe, you’re not alone. People who have lived through abuse are often acutely aware of this contradiction but are still caught in the middle of knowing they are currently safe and feeling as though they are as unsafe as they once were. This push/pull of perceived/real danger is exactly what it’s like to be hyper-vigilant and re-live trauma. It comes from our brain’s very important, normal and adaptive reaction to what we perceive as danger. When we sense a threat, our fight/flight/freeze response kicks in to protect us. But in your case, the case of someone who had been constantly bombarded with stressful and threatening stimuli for a significant period of time, your threshold for flight/flight/freeze may now be significantly lower. This means that you may need less danger before your body gears up to fight/run away/shut down than, say, someone who hasn’t had their nervous system traumatized by intimate partner abuse. Not only that, you may actually believe in the moment that you are being abused again even when in this case, your current partner only disagreed with you about [insert one of several potential meaningless topics here].
To reframe, trauma disrupts a person’s sense of time, safety and meaning. This means that a traumatized person may (1) have experiences of feeling as though the trauma was happening again, (2) perceive danger when they are safe, and/or (3) misinterpret the meaning of their everyday experiences. It’s as if the thinking, rational part of your brain knows that you are safe and that your new partner is not abusive but the visceral reactive part of your brain is constantly on alert and so when it smells a whiff of danger-like substance, it reacts before that rational part of your brain can catch up. Before you know it, you’re gearing up to fight a threat that exists only in your viscera.
So what can you do? You get it now. You understand you’ve been reacting this way, and maybe all along you have known on that rational level you were safe, so now what? How do you catch up the visceral side of your brain? How can you integrate what you know to be true with what your body feels to be true? You can seek out therapy with a psychotherapist specifically trained in trauma treatment. If you had a lump in your breast, you wouldn’t see your general practitioner, so why should your mental health be any different? Trauma treatment is distinct from other types of talk therapy because it serves to bring what we know up to speed with how we feel. Trauma treatment links body with brain, left with right hemispheres, thought with feeling, what you know with how you feel, and when it works, and there’s nothing quite like it.
Maryam Sajed, LCSW, works in private practice as a therapist in Manhattan, NY. To reach her or find out more information about trauma therapy, you can email MaryamSajedLCSW@gmail.com, call or text 646-926-3406, or explore her website: MaryamSajedLCSW.com.