Warning: This story is about experiences of intimate partner violence.
Part of dating someone new is learning about their past relationships.
If your partner discloses a history of intimate partner violence, you may wonder how you can best support them.
“I suspect that many men who are in relationships with women who have experienced violence are against it and would never use violence, but they don’t realize that they need to change their behavior to ensure that their partner is not dragged back into this place.” says Emily Maguire, Chief Executive of Respect Victoria.
We spoke with Ms. Maguire and Australian Psychological Society President Catriona Davis-McCabe for their advice on how to help survivors of domestic violence feel more secure in new relationships.
Family and domestic violence support services:
Other resources that may help:
Understand that survivors are not “broken”
A common myth about survivors of domestic violence is that “they are broken and can never be mended,” Ms Maguire explains.
“Survivors of victims have an incredible amount of resilience,” he says.
If they’re in a new relationship, it means they’ve “made it out of a horribly violent situation with limited support” and reached a point where they’re ready to share their life with someone again, says Ms. Maguire.
“This is massive.”
She says that while the trauma for women will last a lifetime, they don’t need someone to “fix them”.
“It’s not your job to be their counselor,” he says.
With that in mind, Dr. Davis-McCabe says it’s helpful to know that domestic violence can have chronic consequences for mental and physical health.
Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, for example, can be health problems experienced by survivors.
And staying safe can be a decades-long struggle.
Believe and listen
Learning about the impact of someone’s trauma can lead to a more compassionate and understanding relationship, says Dr. Davis-McCabe.
When a partner discloses a history of domestic violence, it’s important for them to know you’re open to hearing about it.
“Tell them, ‘I want you to feel safe,'” Ms. Maguire says.
“Be clear that you will listen to what they are willing to tell you, and listen again when they are ready to add more. This will be an ongoing conversation.”
She says it’s important to show that you believe what they’re saying. Part of doing this means not asking detailed questions.
Remember: it is a privilege that this person has shared this trauma with you and a sign of trust.
Setting clear boundaries is an important part of any relationship, says Dr. Davis-McCabe.
When there’s a history of trauma, knowing how to “recognize and respond to cues” will help build a safe partnership, she explains.
And Ms Maguire says it’s also important to consider your own needs.
“Talk about what you both need, what makes you feel safe, how you communicate, are there any triggers?” she says.
They will need to talk about intimacy, especially if sexual trauma is part of their history.
Ms Maguire says that sometimes the triggers of trauma won’t look like what you might expect.
A situation in which someone does not feel in control of their environment can trigger an activated response.
Ms Maguire uses the example of someone going to the dentist, where they are pulled into a chair and unable to get up. Or the non-sexual touch of a dentist’s finger to the mouth. These types of “everyday” scenarios can trigger a trauma response.
A partner can also be sensitive to the things you say.
“Perpetrators try to break you down in every possible way – they isolate you, they make you feel worthless,” Ms Maguire says.
“Some things can be taken as criticism because they have been socialized through this relationship to look for criticism as it has always been in the past.
“Be aware of this and be positive and affirming with your partner.”
It’s important to note that these are just examples. Each person’s experience and needs will vary.
That’s why you need to have an open conversation about what your one-on-one relationship is like.
Educate yourself (and support yourself too)
Doing your own research on domestic violence will strengthen your ability to support your new partner.
It can be hard to hear that something horrible has happened to someone you care about, and it can be triggering if you have trauma of your own.
To avoid ending up in a situation where the survivor feels responsible for your emotional well-being after difficult conversations, you may want to seek support elsewhere.
This may look like seeing a psychologist or counsellor, a support group or talking to your GP as an initial step.
This article contains general information only. You should consider obtaining independent professional advice in relation to your particular circumstances.
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