This February The Huffington Post UK is running Making Modern Love, a fortnight-long focus on what love means to Britons in the 21st Century. Built on the three themes of finding love, building love and losing love, HuffPost will feature human stories that explore exactly what it is to be in love in modern times
Lots of things after domestic abuse stink. Dating is one of them.
Yes I know. There will be many of you in the Over-40's Club (of which I am a fully paid up member) saying it stinks regardless, not to mention plenty of other causes waving their hands up in the air stating that it's not the only group that is suffering out there. I'm not making that claim. I'm simply speaking out for this one because it's the only one that I have my own ingrained experience of.
Anyone who has come through domestic abuse understands the insurmountable battle that we face to reclaim ourselves, our lives, our belief in the world. For the lucky few, it's a mountain they seem to climb very quickly, (or so it would appear to the onlooker. Whether they are still standing, with flag in hand, claiming their victory a few years later, I honestly don't know). But for the majority of us, rebuilding that ability to trust, not only other people but also ourselves, is a mammoth task and one that really only begins to become apparent once the initial fall-out has settled.
I personally chose to take the long route. The one that involved keeping my head down for years, determined to work on the self-healing and now I've done as much of that as I can alone, I find myself wondering about future, potential relationships and whether such a thing is doable.
Many women label themselves as 'damaged goods'. I prefer to think of us as 'different'. Like a valuable, china ornament that has been smashed on the floor and painstakingly put back together. There are scars that will never go, but there is still beauty. And use. Albeit in a form that requires some understanding and gentleness. The history lying behind it, adding to its character.
"Would you date someone you knew had previously been subjected to domestic abuse?"
I put this question out to a large number of male acquaintances and friends. The responses I got back covered a vast range, all of them somewhat expected.
Many had tried and failed. Unable to cope with the defensive walls those girlfriends had built around them, leaving them to conclude that it wasn't something that they would be prepared to attempt again. For them, historical domestic abuse was a deal breaker. These responses saddened me, but I understood. Knowing what I know, from the other side, about how the mind of a survivor can work, I'm not so sure I would be able to cope with it either. But it left me with a quandary.
How the hell do we know when to speak up or if to speak up at all?
Some said that they would consider it providing they were told all. From the off. Is a survivor really supposed to lay their cards on the table at the mere mention of a possible date? Or on the first date? It's not the easiest subject to broach even in the most ideal of circumstances - with a trusted counsellor, working through multiple appointments in order to extract the story without causing deeper trauma. But on a first date? And let's be honest here. Meeting someone for the first time and declaring "Hi, my name is Anna. Please don't ever shout at me, or make any sudden movements; or keep anything secret (including birthday surprises), or expect me to believe much of what you say without being asked to verify it... and yes I would like some ice with my diet coke thank you very much"; isn't likely to bag a second date. Or do we wait? Until we feel more comfortable but run the risk not only of being rejected having invested emotions, trust and time, but also perhaps being rejected alongside accusations of being dishonest, when in fact, the lack of disclosure was simply self preservation.
So, we have to take as much of a gamble as the other person, who is hoping that their new interest doesn't come with a level of baggage that is unwanted. Unacceptable.
Learning to trust again.
At the other end of the scale were the ones who launched straight into 'protecting and fixing' mode. In theory, having someone who, finally, cossets rather than attacks, sounds idyllic, but it's not. Healthy relationships are built on healthy foundations. One strong and sorted person joining with another strong and sorted person. This brought me to a second quandary. Part of the journey to becoming that strong and sorted person is learning to trust. Allowing someone to become close. Making mistakes; falling down and brushing yourself off and trying again. Taking that gamble that I previously mentioned. But how can you do that without risking yet more internal damage? Thus leaving a potentially bigger mess for the next lucky suitor. It's a catch 22 situation.
But there is still hope.
Somewhere in the middle sat the responses that gave me a glimmer.
"It wouldn't be a deal-breaker, and I honestly don't know if I could handle it, but for the right person, I would want to try." "I know I would have to be incredibly supportive and patient." "I'd want to know what happened but in her own time." "Understanding that what she had been through wouldn't define her but that it was part of her."
Where we can find these potential partners, only Cupid knows. And this doesn't account for all the other elements needed for successful dating, i.e. being attracted to one another physically and mentally; being compatible, finding enough time in this crazily busy world; being able to outlast those endearing qualities that slowly morph into something more grating than fingernails down a blackboard ... or is that me displaying how I see the world of long term relationships? Something that at best is an almost unachievable recipe of elements, or at worst something that will eventually develop into a situation that has to be tolerated.
A single life with too many cats is appealing.
This conversation highlighted something I and many others have said repeatedly when discussing domestic abuse. Resources are lacking across the spectrum but as far as 'after-care' is concerned, there is even less. Beyond the Freedom Program (which is an amazing course, helping people to understand and recognise in its early stages, abusive behaviour) and counselling on the NHS (another incredible organisation which is also buckling under financial cuts, making access to specialised counsellors difficult), help is scarce. If you are fortunate enough to have the money available, you can pay for private support and help. Whether that be counselling, psychotherapy, life coaching, empowerment workshops, even self defence classes. But many women run from abusive relationships with little more than the clothes on their backs, having to leave jobs and careers in order to find safety. Any money is often needed to set up new homes, replace clothing, pay for court fees and solicitors etc.
Shattered esteems often remain so, slowly rotting over time until in some cases, they reach a state of no-repair. Each dip in self-worth leaving that person just a little bit more vulnerable and at risk of being targeted by another abuser; who is often a little bit worse than the last one.
It's no wonder that for many, it is a cycle that goes around and around.
Thankfully, there are additional support groups popping up that have been formed by individuals who have come out the other side. Lived to tell the tale. Decided to make something positive come out of their negative and I shall be looking at these in future posts. But for now, along with all the other worthy causes, I shall be wishing for a huge pot of gold to be found at the end of the rainbow so that the established organisations out there can do what they need to do without having to worry about cutting services, and putting lives at risk.
I know we can not rescue everyone, but this is 2016! Shouldn't we at least be able to help everyone rescue themselves?
If you or anyone you know, is affected by domestic abuse please call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline 0808 2000 247
For information about The Freedom Program http://www.freedomprogramme.co.uk/
If you would like to make a donation to Women's Aid, Anna J has a fund raising page. https://www.justgiving.com/Anna-J-Lawrence/