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navigating relationships as a survivor of abuse

Trying to navigate relationships as a survivor

by Matt Pappas

One of the things that I struggle with as a 40 something single guy, is being in the dating world. Trust me, it’s not fun. Dating isn’t like it used to be back in day. As an adult it’s frustrating, exhausting, and mentally debilitating on almost every level. That’s the God’s honest truth of how trying to navigate relationships makes me feel.

To that point, for many of us, dating was never fun to begin with. Maybe we were never the popular guy or girl; we didn’t date the captain of the football team or the head cheer leader. We weren’t spending our Saturday nights with the class president, we might have spent them alone more often than not.

So is it any wonder that those of us navigating the dating world as more experienced adults, find it just as difficult now as it was back then? Or so much harder than it was back then? Notice I didn’t say “older”, cuz I’m old! Even though I feel like it sometimes. 

Let me see if I can fit this into an analogy…I find myself smashing the accelerator to the floor and stepping on the break at the same time. I’m full speed ahead and then “WAIT”, something isn’t right…time to stop again! That’s the relationship scenario that I’m finding myself reliving over and over. Reminds me of the Groundhog Day movie. 

So why is that? Well, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a son whose mother was emotionally unavailable, it makes sense. At least it’s starting too.

As a child I should have been able to smash the accelerator to the floor and run to my mother for support whenever I needed it. I did that, and she wasn’t available in the way I needed her to be. As that continued to happen I began to realize at a very young age that I needed to put the brakes on.

When we realize we aren’t getting what we need from our parents, support and protection, it can start a learned pattern of distrust and future relationship struggles.

Then you add in being sexually abused…I had the accelerator floored going full speed into the coolest guy I’d have ever seen. He had the minibike, the cool friends, cool hair, you name it. I wanted to belong so bad that trusted him and ran right smack into a situation that would further reinforce what I was already beginning to experience.

Even after the abuse happened that first time, I was already starting to spin my wheels. I was running full speed ahead and then putting the brakes on as best I could. I kept going back to feel the acceptance and love from him, even in spite of the physical and emotional pain he was putting me through. The putting the brakes on came in the form of dissociation, and doing all I could to stop him from hurting me.

Yet I continued to go back time after time and not able to realize I was emotionally shutting down more and more. I was young and vulnerable, and getting the life sucked out of me at the same time.  I’m going nowhere good, fast.

Next was the bullying. I was rushing full speed ahead to try and fit in, yet getting knocked backwards by the physical and emotional abuse. Spinning my wheels and going nowhere yet again. I’m seeking validation and friendship from people that I perceived to be cool, only to be their whipping boy at any given time.

Fast forward to being an adult. I’m entering into relationships trying to be vulnerable because that’s what I know, and then putting on the brakes as soon as things start to move in a positive direction. I’m not going to let them do to me what my abuser did, what my mom did, what those who bullied me did. I’m not going to get sucked into feeling all warm and cozy in a relationship only to have it yanked out from under me again.

It’s all I know though, it’s what I was groomed to do, what I was trained to be like. I yearn for an emotional connection in a relationship so much but I’m all too weary of the potential outcome based on past experience. Here I am again spinning my wheels. It’s just not supposed to be this way in your 40s, but life ain’t always what we want it to be. 

All of this goes for friendships too. I keep my friends at arm’s length and don’t let them get too close. I only share so much, because it’s been steady that way for a long time and they are still here. If I don’t let them in, they won’t have the chance to hurt me as much.

That’s how my mind works. Decades of invalidation and failed relationships time after time have led to this. Now it’s up to me to change it.

Nobody is going to do it for me, I have to take back my life. You can take back your life too! If you have ever felt any of this, we have to know there is hope out there! We aren’t doomed to spin our wheels.

Reaching out for support and accepting the love of others is a great start. Also being able to rationally decide to enter into relationships with an open mind is key. Just because the first 40 years have gone bad, doesn’t mean the next 40 are going to be like “groundhog day”.

Relationships don’t have to be a spike of vulnerability right out of the gate and then an instant pulling back and applying the brakes just when things start to grow. A slow, steady, trend in both vulnerability and length of time in a relationship can lead to finally finding the companionship, validation, and love we seek in a partner.

This is what I’m trying to work through and embrace. I would love to hear your comments!



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Kathy June 24, 2016 - 10:23 am

You are so right! I’ve always been an all in, or all out! Makes bonding with another human being impossible! What had to come to??? Is that people are going to hurt me, they will not always mean to. And intent counts! I have to really become my own analyst, and questions my immediate feelings. Sometimes my feelings lie to me, because they are often filtered thru the eyes of a trauma survivor. It’s exhausting at times. Little by little I am learning new ways to seek, interpret, and master my emotions. So the healing continues and so that I can be a whole person who know their own value.

Thanks for this Matt!

Matt June 24, 2016 - 10:29 am

Thank you for sharing this Kathy! It is just so exhausting and so frustrating, the constant back and forth, start and stop, emotional roller coaster. It does indeed take time, so much so that there is no timetable, which is also frustrating. I’m so glad you can say that you are seeking and learning new ways to help you in relationships. That’s inspiring to me and gives me hope!!


Kelley McElreath June 24, 2016 - 11:31 am

OMG…being sexually abused myself sent me on a lifetime journey that still exists today of trying to trust people. You know, you truly want to try and trust someone but then you don’t want to be stupid either! Finding that balance while trying to protect yourself is one hell of a job Matt.

jaklumen June 24, 2016 - 8:03 pm

Y’know, even though I’m still in the marriage game- the trauma and pain that Cimmy and I faced separately (and then even together) makes many days a battle. Many, many days. As I said on Twitter- I can’t even imagine trying to start dating afresh. I’d be very, very lost- I think for the reasons you’ve stated. Things have changed drastically, and I can’t afford a mobile device- how could I hope to keep up? Not likely…

How to love yourself, as a survivor - Surviving My Past June 29, 2016 - 9:01 am

[…] abuse, bullying, and narcissistic parenting, I’ve learned to not trust people. Throw in the failed marriages and the loss of a good friend to suicide a long time ago and it’s a recipe for the most […]

Nisi June 30, 2016 - 9:57 am

After my csa I spent the rest of childhood with the all in or all out cycle. Then married (too early) for nearly 30 years to someone I never should have. Now I just turned 47, single now over two years, and I feel fear of going back into childhood cycle so I will not date at all. I applaud you for not giving up and wish you much luck and love!

Matt June 30, 2016 - 10:18 am

Thank you Nisi for sharing some of your thoughts! I can so relate to what you wrote, I have been down that path and now am like you in being single. I struggle daily with trying to put myself out there, but I still go into it fully expecting it to fail. I’m hoping with time and work to heal I can break that feeling but man is it difficult! I’m in your corner as a survivor!


Serena Bradshaw June 30, 2016 - 2:27 pm

Thank you I can really relate to this. By chance I’ve just posted on the same subject (as a survivor too!) https://talkingofincest.com/2016/06/30/brexit-lies-and-trust/

Joy Richardson July 3, 2016 - 10:40 pm

The Borderline in me sabotages my relationships. I feel the need to test the people I love, to pick fights over nothing, just to see how much it will take for them to leave me because, in the end, that’s what they always do. I am caught in the repeated cycle of watching all my loved ones walk away with my heart and it is partly my fault…I am Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down and the process must be repeated again and again.

Maybe it's ok to let our guard down, in relationships. - Surviving My Past November 28, 2016 - 10:27 am

[…] So…relationships, what a scary situation that can be.  Have you been hurt in the past, not just from abuse (which is bad enough) but also from perhaps divorce/break up, being double crossed by a friend or family member, or any other situation where you gave and gave and ended up feeling like you have nothing in the end? […]


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