Recovering from an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Reader’s Question

When I was in college, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship with an alcoholic for about a year (the Stockholm Syndrome symptoms you described rang disturbingly true). I am now 26 and feel I have moved on for the most part — I am a successful graduate student, and I believe I have regained my self-confidence, at least professionally and socially. I have noticed however, that in the almost six years since this relationship, I have dated very few men, never beyond about three dates, and almost none in the last two years. I have recently had a few first dates and have had overwhelming pre-date (and post-date) anxiety each time.

I’m nervous that although I think I want to start dating again, I am subconsciously sabotaging myself out of fear of another painful and disastrous relationship. I am afraid I am hurting myself by my almost visceral distaste for preparing for a date, and that the reason that I am getting so few date invitations is that I am unconsciously sending discouraging signals to men. How can I overcome this and begin to enjoy dating once again?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your situation is very common. In the USA there was recently an airplane that crashed at the airport. While the aircraft caught fire, all passengers were evacuated successfully and no one was killed. What do you think those passengers will emotionally experience the next time they think about flying, or enter an airport, or begin walking toward the door of an airplane? They will emotionally relive the trauma of their crash experience — the same “gut” feelings, the same smells, the sense of terror, and all the other emotions they experienced at the time of the crash. The neurological mechanism is called “Emotional Memory” which I’ve described in a separate article on this website. A single trauma or prolonged exposure to a traumatic environment/situation (as in your case) creates thousands of intense emotional memories — memories that contain the details of the event/experience and the emotions we felt at the time. From that point, those memories are triggered by any current or recent event that is similar.

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Your emotionally abusive relationship created thousands of Emotional Memories about “relationships” and dating. Those memories would be rarely triggered by graduate school or routine social activities, just as airplane crash survivors would not experience “traumatic recollection” (our word for triggering emotional memories) on their job or with their families. In your situation, your traumatic memories are linked to dating and relationships to such a degree that you have pre-panic before dates, on-going emotional/physical discomfort during dates, and post-date anxiety as well. If we think about it, your brain has very few other dating memories to substitute due to your age and limited dating experience. I’ve had one very rough air flight that was upsetting, but I’ve diminished that Emotional Memory by adding another 100 relaxed and pleasurable flights.

Here’s some suggestions:

  • Read my Emotional Memory article on this website. It offers strategies and techniques to manage those memories when they become intrusive.
  • Recognize that this is a function of your memory system. Your brain thinks it is protecting you. It’s also an automatic function. When activating inappropriately (as in this case), we must take manual control until it becomes manageable.
  • Recognize that your multiple Emotional Memories are related to a single abusive person — not all potential dates and not all relationships. It’s also not something you caused to happen, although most abusers blame their victims for their abusive behavior.
  • Rather than review traumatic memories prior to a date, prepare a checklist that makes you feel safe on those first dates. The checklist might include such things as:
    • Meeting the date at a restaurant so you can escape more easily if needed,
    • Having extra cash,
    • A Cellphone,
    • Notifying a friend where you’ll be,
    • Arranging a call from a friend in the middle of the date — just in case,
    • Mace, etc.

    Use a sense of humor when developing your checklist. You can even develop a humorous post-date checklist with items such as:

    • Was he polite?
    • Was he able to talk intelligently?
    • Did he mention his exes?
    • Does he have a sense of humor?
    • Did he mention prison time?

    Overall, take a humorous view of those first dates — while at the same time protecting yourself.

  • Recognize that abusers are still out there. I’d read my article on “Identifying Losers in Relationships” to help identify those dates who might be potential abusers.

A word of caution… As you’ll read in the Emotional Memory (EM) article, traumatic memories can suddenly surface at any time, even as a dating relationship is going well. Be prepared for such events and use techniques I offer to place those memories back in the memory archives. Those traumatic memories are a record of where you’ve been in your life — not where you are now. This is probably the last part of your recovery. If you need additional help, counseling should be considered.

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