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Ask a Latter-day Saint Therapist: How Can I Overcome Past Abuse to Form New Relationships?

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Q: I am a convert to the Church. I was in an abusive relationship for 15 years before having enough courage to leave. I don’t know how to even socialize nor establish a relationship with the opposite sex. Not sure if I would even trust anyone at this point. What do you suggest?

A: Thank you so much for reaching out. Any amount of time spent being tormented emotionally, physically, or sexually by another human being is more than anyone should have to endure, and 15 years is a long time to suffer. That type of trauma can wreck your confidence in your ability to judge the character of others, lead to the feeling that your world and the people in it are unsafe, and create the understandable desire to spend the rest of your days alone rather than risk being wounded so badly again. As with everything else, there is hope through the Savior, His power, and the tools and knowledge He has made available to us.

I have great respect for the amount of courage it takes to get out of that kind of situation, where manipulation, threats, and fear can be so overwhelming. Now that you’re free from that relationship, the first thing I want to assure you of is that you are not at fault. You may already know this to be true, or there may be residual effects of the lies your abuser told which led you to harbor guilt. Elder Richard G. Scott said:

“I solemnly testify that when another’s acts of violence, perversion, or incest hurt you terribly, against your will, you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty. You may be left scarred by abuse, but those scars need not be permanent” ("Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse," April 1992 General Conference).

I’m sure you recognize that you’ve been through a literal trauma. You may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or at least exhibiting some of the symptoms. PTSD occurs when we believe our world is safe then that belief is shattered. Our foundation is shaky because we don’t know who to trust, we may not trust ourselves to accurately judge whether a person is an ally or a threat, and reminders of the abuse trigger a fear response that suggests that our world is unsafe.

If you’ve not already, I strongly encourage you to seek qualified professional help in overcoming this. Asking for help is not a weakness. Even our Savior allowed others to help Him. Several effective approaches in treating the trauma of abuse are EMDR, narrative therapy, and exposure therapy.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) affects how traumatic incidents are stored in the brain, using a combination of physical and psychological stimulation to reduce the frequency, clarity, and emotional intensity of traumatic memories.

Narrative therapy involves creating new personal meaning for traumatic events. It helps you turn them into something empowering instead of something fearful. For example, you can learn to change your mindset from “I’m a victim and my world is unsafe” to “I’m a survivor, an ally for others who suffer, and I can take measures to protect myself.”

Exposure therapy helps you learn to regulate your physical response to triggers, teaching you to identify those triggers then practice skills to self-soothe, assess your situation for safety, and create a specific plan to protect yourself and feel strong and empowered. Don’t let the name scare you. A skilled counselor will start small, with self-soothing exercises first, then mental exercises to imagine a triggering situation and walk through how you’d handle it, and gradually to confronting an actual trigger (which you’re already doing by interacting with the opposite sex, so you might as well do it with qualified support).

Beyond counseling, and more to the point of your question: socializing, establishing relationships with the opposite sex, and learning to trust again are all within your power but only as you work through the trauma with qualified support. You start there. Then, when it comes to socializing, the most important things to remember are to go a little bit outside of your comfort zone but not a lot. Stretch yourself, push yourself, but don’t overdo it. The more you socialize, the more positive experiences you have (even if minor at first), the more your brain will associate people with friendship, kindness, and support, not with danger and abuse. You’ll be able to go a little further every week, every month. Show interest in others, what they think, what they care about. Worry less about getting them to be interested in you. Show compassion, be kind, be interested.

As for learning to trust and building healthy relationships with members of the opposite sex, I highly recommend Dr. John Van Epp’s book How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk as a step-by-step resource. Trust must be earned. But how do we tell the harmless people from the wolves in sheep’s clothing? By taking the time to really get to know them. By comparing who we think they are to the evidence we’re actually seeing. By not becoming physically involved or getting into a committed relationship until we’ve taken the time to see the person in a variety of situations. By not trusting someone more than we actually know them, by exploring how strong their conscience is, what they learned from their family of origin, how compatible we are with one another, whether or not we truly share core values, and what happened in their previous relationships. All of this and more is covered in the book.  

In all of this, turn to the Redeemer. He knows all too well the pain of abuse. He was cursed at, reviled, lied about, hated, and scorned. He suffered horrific violence at the hands of others. He knows your pain by His own experience in Gethsemane and elsewhere, and that understanding makes Him the perfect ally to help you (see Alma 7:11-12). He will lighten your burdens, give you strength to carry them, help you let go of anger, fear, and bitterness through helping you forgive, and helping you to release this and not be defined by it.

I hope this helps. God bless you.

Lead image from Getty Images
Jonwe

Jonathan Decker, LMFT

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily Gospel-based relationship tips. 

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