Updated: Sep 7, 2022
I have had an abusive childhood and then an emotionally abusive marriage that lasted 7 yrs. I'm no contact now with all my family but one sibling. We grew up without aunts, uncles and grandparents as my mother cut them out one by one. I didn't have any friends either. I'm 43 now and I just am not able to let anyone in. I have good reason for distrust as I live a somewhat unconventional life in a deeply conservative society. In the 8 yrs since my divorce, I've had 2 disastrous serious relationships with commitment-phobes. I recently met another guy on a dating site who was a decent person. No drama at all. This time I ran away. I now realize that I do not feel any physical attraction to someone who is genuinely nice and kind. Someone who can respect my boundaries (might need occasional poking and prodding). Absolutely none and when the other person tries getting closer I feel creeped out and gross. How do I reverse a lifetime of abuse?
~Anonymous No. 4
Dear Anonymous No. 4,
Thank you so much for sharing this, as I know it couldn’t have been easy! As to your question, how do I reverse a lifetime of abuse….
There’s good news and bad news….much more good than bad.
The truth is, you can’t reverse a lifetime of abuse. That’s the bad news.
The good news is, you don’t have to. You don’t have to rid yourself of your past in order to have the future you want. You do, however, have to work on healing from the past. You also have to learn about healthy relationships, because you didn’t learn about those growing up.
When people grow up in an abusive home, they are often drawn to versions of those dynamics later in life for several reasons:
1. They’re drawn to toxic relationships because they are familiar. It’s not that anyone consciously wants to find an abusive relationship--quite the contrary. It’s just that the magnetic pull to the familiar is both subtle and powerful.
2. Children who didn’t learn what healthy love feels like, grow up into adults who don’t know it when they see it. They’ll see healthy partners as weird, or they’ll be suspicious of the behavior because it’s just so unfamiliar.
3. Healthy love often feels uncomfortable, even wrong, to those who grew up experiencing toxic relationships in their family of origin. Toxic love feels more comfortable in a way. It’s quite common to experience sexual attraction to toxic partners and to struggle to feel attracted to healthy partners, as you described.
4. When you grow up in an abusive home, you don’t learn what red flags are. As adults, you don’t recognize signs of danger until it’s too late and a strong attachment has formed.
5. Children who weren’t loved well grow up into adults who don’t feel very lovable. When you don’t feel lovable, you (unknowingly) go for partners who can’t love you well. You feel uncomfortable with partners who offer healthy love because some part of you doesn’t believe you deserve it (in addition to the fact that you are unfamiliar with what healthy love feels like, as described above).
So, all of this is to say that it’s very normal to be grossed out by partners who are kind, respectful, and who see that you’re worthy of being treated well. Some part of you is going, “what’s wrong with this person?” When you feel, on some level, that you’re unlovable, you feel grossed out when someone wants to love you. It’s not familiar, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t feel good.
But where you are is not a permanent state or some kind of genetic trait that you’re doomed with. It’s temporary, as long as you don’t stop working on healing and learning. Just because right now you don’t feel any attraction to the kind, respectful potential partners doesn’t mean you’re always going to feel that way. It’s important to know it’s not permanent.
There will come a day when the toxic partners become unattractive, and the people who know your worth (as much as YOU know your worth), become the sexy ones.
Here are a few suggestions to help you continue to heal and work toward getting into a healthy, loving relationship:
Learn how to truly love yourself. When you truly believe you’re worthy and lovable, you’ll be able to get close to people who believe you are too. Only the people who treat you with kindness and respect will be attractive. And toxic people will be the gross and creepy ones.
Take things very slowly. It’s ok if you’re not immediately attracted to the nice, kind, respectful person. Give yourself some time to see if things change. Maybe as you get to know the person, you’ll start to feel differently. For now, try to breathe and tolerate a little more closeness than you can now. You’re going to have to be uncomfortable in order to move forward, and discomfort looks exactly like what you’re experiencing.
Let yourself be uncomfortable. If you want something different (and better), you’re going to have to be uncomfortable until the newness becomes more familiar. Remember that all the discomfort with the kind, respectful partners is because you’re not used to it, and the traumatized parts of you don’t feel worthy of it (and likely don’t trust it). You’re not uncomfortable because being kind and respectful is bad. It’s just new for you. The more you do the uncomfortable things, the more comfortable they become. Breathe through the discomfort and approach it with curiosity.
I hope this helps to encourage you to continue working on healing and growing! You don’t need to be without trauma, without a painful past, or to be someone else. You’re enough as you are right now!
Need advice on dating, relationships, self-worth, boundaries, break-ups, or mental health? Send your questions anonymously and Caitlin will answer in an upcoming Dear Caitlin column! Fill out the application below!