Ask Erin: How Do I Move Forward After An Abusive Marriage?

Artwork: Tess Emily Rodriguez

Artwork: Tess Emily Rodriguez

She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to… Ask Erin is a weekly advice column, in which Erin answers your burning questions about anything at all.


Q.

Hi Erin,

I don’t know how to move forward and allow myself to love after an abusive marriage.

I began dating my now ex-husband when I was 18. We got married when I was 21. He was extremely manipulative and emotionally abusive, and occasionally physically abusive as well. I was so twisted around the narrative he built for our relationship that I didn't realize how WRONG things were until the day someone genuinely complimented me, and my instinctive, unthinking response was to cover my face with both hands and ask what was wrong. 

Our divorce was finalized the day before my 25th birthday. He has not been a part of my life at all since then, and I have spent years rebuilding my confidence, my finances, and my sense of self. 

I am now 32 and want to have a partner, someone to share life and love and have kids with, but a friend pointed out recently that every relationship I've had since the divorce has been with people who don't . . . Engage me? Excite me? 

The people I date tend to be very nice people who I enjoy spending time with but are never people I would be serious about building a life with. 

My friend thinks that I am repeatedly choosing people I will feel able to walk away from and that I am probably doing it because I am afraid of being hurt again in the same way. I don't know if I can really argue the point. 

Any advice is appreciated.

 

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A.

I am so sorry you went through that abuse. And so happy you got out!

Your friend is probably right. Maybe you have been dating people with whom you don’t see a real future. But don’t discount the purpose it’s served. It’s healthy to date casually and not dive in headfirst when we are getting over a toxic relationship. I don’t think that’s been a bad thing for you at all. 

It’s also important to recognize when a behavior no longer serves us well.

When I first began dating in recovery, after the drugs were gone for good, after I’d stepped away from a toxic marriage, I realized that I did have a pattern in relationships. I had been aware of it on some level but pushed it aside. 

As I surveyed my years of dating, I finally understood how I often chose relationships that I could walk away from or ones whose endings seemed inevitable. I had affairs. I dated emotionally unavailable people. I walked away from people I could fall in love with and stayed with ones for whom I felt ambivalence. I had multiple long-distance relationships. And I dovetailed when people got too close. 

You may not be going to those extremes, but it’s clear that you recognize that you may have wanted to keep things light. 

You are now at a point where you are feeling open to something more, a relationship with a future. This is yet another step forward. 

It’s not a bad thing to be picky about choosing a long-term partner.

What you can do is pay attention to what’s happening in your gut. Are you discounting people before opening up to getting to know them first? You might be afraid that you will pick a partner like your ex-husband. But I want you to remember something — you are not the same person now at 32 as you were at 18 or 21 or 25. You were so very young. You have done the work to rebuild your life. Trust the woman you have become today. 

I understand it may still feel scary. You may feel frustrated that it’s taken this long to get to the place you’re at. But healing doesn’t happen right when we want it to. 

Healing is not linear. 

Healing is a process, one that is both circular and cyclical. For me, healing has been a lot like turning in a circle inward, shedding the outside layers of protection I’d built for myself. Much of that protection did more harm than good. That’s okay, too. 

As you proceed with dating and looking for a potential partner, remember to continue treating yourself with compassion. You didn’t mention if you are still in therapy, but it’s a great idea to check in with a therapist as you begin to move into considering a more serious relationship. When my husband and I were first dating, I went back to therapy, because I recognized my old behaviors that were creeping in, ones designed to push him away. 

You’re doing great, and you have come so far. Allow yourself to enjoy this part. You’ve got this. 


The information within Ask Erin should in no way be interpreted as medical advice because I’m not a medical professional. But I am here to help — to share with you the wisdom I’ve gained after years of making mistakes. If you have a question for me about relationships, addiction, dating, friendships, depression, parenting, sex, consent, what I’m watchingwhat I’m readingPink Tourmaline, or anything at all, use the contact form below or email me: askerin@ravishly.com. As always, your anonymity is golden. Lastly, I’m so excited to share with you my Ask Erin Self-Care Guide, free when you sign up for my weekly newsletter. xoxo

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