Trigger warning: This piece discusses sexual assault, rape, and abuse.
At the age of 16, I entered my first romantic relationship. He was my first kiss, my first boyfriend, and the one that I eventually lost my virginity to. Our blossoming relationship soon gave way to a new experience, one that I never planned on going through: becoming a survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV) and experiencing sexual, physical, and psychological abuse.
In crafting this piece, I had the opportunity to speak with relationship expert Emily Avagliano: dedicated wife, founder of the Dating to Get Married program, author of Dating After Trauma, and proud mother to a beautiful son. After experiencing sexual assault in her 20s, Avagliano spent years studying love and relationships, discovering strategies to help individuals find their soulmate and foster the skills necessary to maintain a healthy working relationship.
“I am a living testament to finding my soulmate, falling in love, and creating a family … things that I never thought possible in my 20s,” Avagliano explains as her young son’s face pops up in the background of our Zoom call.
Before even attempting to date again, I had to consciously acknowledge the extent of the trauma I’d faced. Despite the abuse being far away chronologically, its effects were still very much alive during my college years. “After facing trauma, an individual’s first reaction is most likely going to be denial,” Avagliano explains. IPV may leave victims especially confused, wondering “how someone can say they love us, yet satisfy their need for love and simultaneously harm us all at the same time.”
Looking back, I’m not quite sure how or why I stayed in my abusive relationship as long as I did. Although my friends and family did not know exactly what was going on, they could sense the dynamics of the relationship were unhealthy and urged me to leave for quite some time. As a young teenager, I couldn’t seem to understand that, yes — your boyfriend can rape you, hit you and hurt you. And no, that’s never OK. Even he himself told me numerous times that he was afraid he was hurting me, yet I returned to him time and time again. Every time I came back, his abuse worsened. It was only when I left the state to go to college that I was able to leave him and our on/off relationship.
Becoming sexually active again
For years, sexual activity of any sort felt like some form of self-harm. Even small, healthy physical acts such as consensual touching and hugging had the ability to fling me into fight, flight or freeze mode. The confusing thing was, I often wanted and was even the one initiating these behaviors myself.
“The secret to every rape victim,” Avagliano reminds me, “is feeling numb.” For a period of time, I even questioned my own sexuality because the prospect of being both comfortable and intimate sounded impossible. I knew I was attracted to males, but the only way I felt comfortable and safe was by maintaining physical distance or numbing myself in some fashion. For a while, I could only handle sexual activity while drunk. That way of life not only grew exceptionally tiresome, but also felt extremely inauthentic to the person I knew I was and the longing I had for true, meaningful connection.
Taking a step back from dating
During my first two years of college, most of my attempts at relationships ended with me reaching my breaking point. Either being romantically intimate felt so painful that I sabotaged the relationship, or my hesitancy miscommunicated the message that I was uninterested in them. I desperately feared that I was disrespecting prospective partners and what I knew were their authentic attempts at connection and healthily communicating love.
I never wanted to explain what was actually going on, and even if I did want to, I couldn’t even figure out what I was experiencing myself. “Love” felt like a hopeless game of whack-a-mole in which I either hurt myself or someone else. I figured it was in everyone’s best interest for me to remain single.
“The first thing you feel again is fear,” Avagliano shares. “You go from numb to fear, from numb to fear.” Constantly scanning the environment feels more comfortable to victims than actually living in it. She adds, “Feeling joy and happiness become even scarier than fear. Perhaps more importantly is that the fear can be so overpowering that it diminishes our personal sense of identity.”
I took a period of about six months in which I refrained from physical intimacy and dating. During that time, I made a promise that I would stop hurting myself. I spent time actively reflecting and becoming clear on what I actually wanted from life. Eventually, I entered a relationship and found myself in a place where I felt comfortable with physical intimacy. I trusted him and, perhaps more importantly, I trusted myself. Although I don’t believe we were a particularly good fit, he taught me that both my boundaries and me deserve to be respected.
What to look for in a healthy relationship
In order to develop the capacity to create true, lasting romantic relationships, Avagliano shares that we must first debunk our cognitive distortions and limiting beliefs. She highlights the importance of engaging in mindfulness so that we can remain aware of our internal body signals. We can then make a rational decision that is in alignment with our values, rather than living in constant, hyperreactive autopilot mode.
For college students who may have experienced IPV, Avagliano stresses the importance of seeking help from books, community centers, and going to both individual and group therapy. “One therapist might not be enough,” she warns. “You’re probably going to have to go through multiple people, multiple books, multiple ways and modalities to heal yourself. And not give up.” It is extremely important to realize that your true identity is not disturbed by the negative energy of your abuser. “If you have had toxic relationships in the past … you aren’t used to setting boundaries or understanding your own self-worth.”
Avagliano highlights three important attributes of a healthy partnership: “Empathy, maturity, and appropriateness.” Empathy is identified through showing an active interest in learning about our deeper identity — our behavior, core values, goals, etc. Maturity can be seen in how an individual responds to unexpected situations or when they don’t get their way. Appropriateness, she explains, is probably the most applicable attribute for rape victims to monitor for. “If they can go next door, knock on the door and tell that person the same story, it’s probably fake. Because it’s not based on you or your personality, it’s based on a false idea of commitment and romance.”
“If someone is empathetic, if they’re mature, they’re not toxic,” Avagliano shares. A toxic person can only manipulate those variables for about a month in order to develop a relationship, but no longer. She advises that if someone is confused about the health of their relationship or their partner, to seek the help of a therapist. “If your partner is doing an obvious lie in order to see if you can keep the peace, if they never take responsibility for their own, if they leave you with a weird feeling … you need to get out because you can’t fix or heal them.”
Avagliano explains that certain people may have toxic behaviors, such as being passive aggressive, that can change over time and do not mean they are toxic themselves. “A mature partner will respond to your boundaries with empathy, because they do not want to hurt you. If your partner lacks an interest in understanding what’s harming or hurting you, they’re not ready for soulmate love, and you’ve got to get out.”
Although I have been out of my abusive relationship for four years, there’s no denying that my past experiences have shaped the lens with which I view the world. Over these past four years, I have dated a couple of men who have met me with patience, respect, and kindness. I’m currently in the process of developing a romantic relationship with my first college friend. Although I’ve always had feelings for him, the timing of our lives haven’t aligned for that form of relationship until recently. The fact that it feels like he knows me better than anyone else and respects every part of who I am gives me hope in Avagliano’s message — that my history of abuse does not hold me back from finding my soulmate or experiencing true love.
Additional resources for abuse survivors:
National Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673