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The Aftermath of Leaving a Toxic Relationship

I remember the feeling of a weight being lifted from me. Like I was finally free. When I walked out of the courthouse with a finalized divorce, I was relieved. After 5 years of an abusive marriage, I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel, but honestly I felt guilty for not being upset or mournful. But the relief was only the first stage of the aftermath of leaving that toxic relationship.

There are many ways to process through leaving an abusive or toxic relationship. We cry, we laugh, we surround ourselves with friends, we isolate, we jump into new relationships, we do anything we can to move on. But do we actually deal trauma we just went through? I know for me, I denied myself anger, sadness and grief because I refused to allow him to have any further power over me. I didn't even realize that I went through an abusive relationship until years later. It wasn't until my therapist friend told me to write a letter to myself, a letter to him and a letter to God that I realized that I hadn't processed through ANY negative emotions surrounding my divorce. I was angry, I was bitter, I was sad. It took me about 4 hours to process through all those letters and get all my suppressed feelings out in the open, not just the feelings I felt comfortable feeling or the ones I wanted people to see.

Why? Why did I feel like I couldn't express the range of emotions I was truly feeling? Well it may have something to do with what researchers are calling Post Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (PTRS).

We are made for connection, since the garden we have been told "it is not good for us to be alone". But the relationships we choose to partake in are critical for ensuring the healthy relational balance that is needed to thrive. Research has amply documented there are short- and long-term mental and physical health benefits when the relationships we partake in throughout life are positive, whereas abusive, restricting and non-nurturing relationships have been found to impair mental and physical health.

According to a medical journal "Sexual, physical or severe emotional abuse (e.g., abandonment, betrayal, malevolent intent, or repeated victimization) often has devastating effects on the victim. These effects can be long-lasting and broad ranging. Untreated trauma not only has dire effects on the individual (e.g., intense psychological distress, lost productivity, permanent disability, and increased industrial accidents), but also has broader ranging effects (e.g., social and community disorganization)."

So how can you tell if you or a loved one is experiencing PTRS? Below are some behaviors to look for. These are behaviors which were not present before the trauma:

  • When speaking of the abuser, the person's response involves intense fear/terror or horror and rage at the perpetrator.

  • Persistent re-experiencing of the event(s) in images, thoughts, recollections, daydreams, nightmares, and/or night terrors;

  • Extreme psychological distress in the presence of the perpetrator or symbolic reminders of the perpetrator (e.g., uncontrollable shaking).

  • Hyper vigilance (which may be the result of not feeling safe in the world)

  • Sleep disturbances (insomnia)

  • Persistent feelings of rage at the perpetrator

  • Restlessness

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Weight loss

  • Not feeling safe in the world

  • Mistrust and fear of intimate relationships (or a particular type of intimate relationship)

  • Sexual dysfunction, especially for those who have been sexually abused

  • Disruption in the victim's social support network, isolation

I went through 7 years of abuse which lead to my PTRS, and it took me 18 months to even see breakthrough, it's important to remember that if you have trauma from a toxic relationship, it's going to take time to heal. But you can begin healing. Some of the strategies to focus on during the healing process can include:

  • Write a letter where you can safely express all your suppressed feelings (this one was really helpful for me)

  • Cultivating an environment that feels emotionally and physically safe

  • Identifying and establishing boundaries

  • Building a support system with trusted individuals

  • Communicating your needs

  • Engaging in activities that help you feel calm and safe

  • Self-care through balanced meals, regular sleep, and movement

  • Seeking professional help from a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist

Remember, having PTRS doesn't mean your broken or damaged, it just means we need to be more conscious of triggers with people we are close to. If you think you may have PTRS be aware of potential triggers, these are ones I have experienced:

  • Direct involvement (or the fear of direct involvement) with the abuser, whether or not you are still actually experiencing the abuse

  • Intense emotions in the context of an emotionally intimate relationship

  • Common phrases that are associated with your abuser

  • Not feeling safe in a conversation and shutting down

  • Wanting to suppress all negatives feelings so as not to become vulnerable to hurt again

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