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"Every time they sigh, I ask, what's up?"... learning to leave abuse behind in new loving relationships.

How to STOP abuse-learned reactions, when they appear in a new healthy relationship.



Many survivors of abusive relationships have talked to me about a specific challenge within a new healthy relationship. This being the arrival or habit of defensive behaviours, emotions or thoughts in response to innocent behaviours seen in their new partner...


"if she sighs, I instantly become tense and ask her what's up, repeatedly!. Nothing is up, she tells me, people sigh"


"when he's quiet, I go on the attack. I think I've learned that the best defence is an offence... but it turns out he was just thinking"


"I can't sleep until he's asleep. I've learned to wait for him to snore before I can relax and accept that I'm not getting attacked anymore. But it's mad, as he never attacks me and I just want to sleep"


Although these may sound brief and fleeting, in reality many people experience them as adding up over time - to a sustained tension, pulling away from their new partner or entering into rows about non-issues that feel imagined to the new partner. Numerous new partners can feel as if they are being abusive or being accused of it, without any evidence. Some will go so far as to say they are gaslit.


So, what's going on here and how can we grow out of these habits? Let's discuss and share some practical ideas.



When the past bites our new relationship


Let's accept that we leave abusive relationships shaped to expect abuse and to be hyper-aware of any micro signal that might show us it is coming.


Our partner is silent, they slam a door, they are still awake at midnight in the bed, they are pacing the room, they tut, they sigh.... they move slower. Any survivor will know, we can become almost Jedi sensitive to the slightest shift in behaviour in an abusive partner to let us know - an attack is looming.


In these moments, we learned to do a range of things:


  • check in repeatedly: 'how are you?', 'what's up?' etc

  • attempt a repair: 'I love you', offer hugs, offer affection etc.

  • be compliant: 'shall I run you a bath?', 'do you want me to make you a meal?'

  • retreat: say nothing in fear of escalating the situation, go to bed early claiming tiredness.

  • provoke: get it over with and push for the issue, 'what have I done wrong this time?', 'come on then, let's just hear it'.


These are all acts of resistance in the relationship - an attempt to avoid the attack, disarm the situation or empower ourselves in the context of knowing what is coming. They are ineffective, as we know - or perhaps just occasionally effective, enough to reinforce them. We learn to rely on them, our only experience of power in a disempowered situation.


Fast forward to a new relationship - a new partner, no abuse, healthy dynamics... but guess what?... we carry with us these abilities to notice micro-behaviours and to resist what might follow. Without realising it we look out for and react when...


  • our partner sighs

  • our partner is irritated by the mess in the kitchen

  • our partner is stressed when they lose their keys

  • our partner is quiet because they are tired

  • our partner wants some alone time

  • our partner doesn't think a particular outfit suits our look

All of these behaviours are occasionally common in a healthy partner and common to us too! But in the context of our super-monitoring powers, we can be triggered by any or all of these to react in a way that disarms or provokes the situation.


Our new partner is bedazzled by these repeated behaviours. They may know that we experienced an abusive ex, but that doesn't explain how their being their normal self triggers us to react. They are reacting to the world they live in, but we frequently expect / perceive that they are reacting to us - as abusers make most of their pains the fault of their partner, and we've forgotten that others can live in the world and experience distress that is not about us at all.


This is not a comfortable reality for either party. One is wrongly expecting abuse, the other is feeling that they are behaving incorrectly or being accused of it. It can lead to relationship issues. We can find ourselves apologising for something that feels outside of our control.


So... let's fix this.


The STOP method


Let's be clear here. I've supported others with this and I've experienced this myself - it's a total pain in the backside and quite frankly annoying - to find a new partner and realise the echoes of your past relationship have followed you into this relationship.


We can see these behavioural responses in us, as learned and reinforced by our past abusive relationship.

They have become impulsive,reactive and emotional.


One area of Psychological therapy where the management of such reactions is supported, is a therapy model called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). I took from DBT an intervention called STOP, which is often trained into people who are having emotional or thought reactions to events or situations, when they are not needed or are sabotaging to them. I applied this to myself and have supported others too - to use it when our defences rise... and yes, it turns out to be quite effective.


STOP is an acronym for the 4 steps we can activate when we realise that we reacting in such ways and we would in fact, like to stop these reactions.




The 4 steps:


  • STOP

  • Take a breath

  • Observe

  • Proceed mindfully


Let's break each down. I'll do this by looking at a simple situation I have heard a lot - becoming tense when a new partner becomes silent.


STOP


We have already decided that we want to stop being tense in response to our silent partner and we've learned the STOP steps ahead of the event. Perhaps we even have it written down on our phone for quick reference.


The event arrives. Our partner is silent. We feel that tension arising and the urge to respond (to ask 'what's up', 'to do something nice for them').. a response that is driven by our fear not a positive emotion.


At this very point - it's a microsecond. We stop for a pause before we think, feel or act further.


Take a breath & a step back


At this point we take a deliberately slow and soothing breath, observing the air filling our lungs slowly and then noticing it slowly leave our body. We create a space between our feelings and thoughts - and what we were going to do next.


Observe


Notice right now what we are feeling, thinking and wanting to do. Watch it. Don't judge it. Just watch how these have all arrived in a flash, when we observed that our partner is quiet. Feel the power they bring - the difficulty we have in resisting our urge to act in response to them.


Observe is the key word. See them, but don't try to change, critique or shift. We are letting our body and mind be heard by us - we are seeing our inner turmoil rather than immediately trying to fix the world around us... which doesn't need fixing in this situation.


Proceed Mindfully


Now choose. Choose what you want to do next. Remember that you both wanted to react to the silence but also committed earlier to stop this pattern. So, what to do that could be different?


Perhaps sit with their silence and distract yourself with a task.

Perhaps give them space and take a walk or a bath.

Perhaps hug them because you love them, not fear them - choose the emotion. Then walk away.

Perhaps write about this experience and offer celebration that you took power in how you respond.


Really, it's up to you.

Choose a response that feels loving to you, loving to them and empowering. Notice yourself and notice how eventually the fear of the silence will fade. It can take a while - but it will - as, with a healthy partner, no abuse is going to come.


Summary


STOP is a powerful exercise that I use myself and teach to others. It is best practised in your mind ahead of the event - so that you can see yourself doing it when you need to. Don't be angry or upset if you fail to initiate STOP, just agree to try again.


The goal isn't to STOP yourself being you - it's to STOP echoes of a past relationship so that you can be more of yourself in this one. Choosing how you relate, not being on autopilot. Good luck!











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