C-PTSD: Developing Healthy Relationships After Abuse

I follow a lot of mental health, PTSD, abuse, recovery and positivity pages on social media, particularly Facebook. One post that’s been gaining a (perhaps unfortunately unsurprising) amount of popularity is a documentation of a Twitter thread by a user named Sam Dylan Finch (@samdylanfinch).

In this thread, Finch talks about the concept of “fawning” as an unhealthy behavior arising from abuse. Fawning, as Finch describes the idea, is when people who have suffered long-term abusive situations will, upon being triggered, “go out of their way to mirror someone’s opinions and appease them in order to deescalate [sic] situations (or potential issues).”

A person who might otherwise be very opinionated and outspoken about their feelings, thoughts and beliefs among strangers or shallow acquaintances will, according to Finch, become an “emotional chameleon” among family, close friends, partners and others for whom conflict would have a much bigger stake.

This quote in particular struck home for me, because it sums up my state of mind while I was still living with my abusive dad and directly afterward, and also the thought process that I’m still very much trying to break:

The truly unpleasant thing about this particular mindset is that even when you think you’ve escaped the worst of it, sometimes it still lurks. Even when you’ve read books on boundaries and breaking unhealthy coping habits, even when you’ve talked for years with others who have been through similar experiences and have been working on them just as much as you, even when you’ve worked so hard on cutting toxic people from your life and cultivating relationships with well-meaning individuals, and even when you’ve been to therapy for months (or even years) – sometimes the old thought patterns reveal themselves in unexpected ways.

So how do we break out of it?

The first step is to continually acknowledge that recovering from abuse (especially consistent emotional abuse) is a journey that in some ways has no end. There is ongoing healing, ongoing learning, and ongoing self-discovery. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

In discovering all the ways in which we can keep growing and healing, we can improve our communication about it – and by doing so, we can enhance the conversation about recovery and help others who need it. A relapse into an old or unhealthy way of thinking does not mean that no progress has taken place.

The second step is to recognize toxic vs. healthy behavior in others. As someone who was accustomed to abuse (especially emotional abuse), it was initially difficult for me to differentiate among the people I knew in terms of who was healthy for me and who wasn’t.

Being able to make this differentiation was key to breaking out of the habit of fawning for me. If I knew that the person was going to support me and consistently showed, through their words and their actions, that they cared and accepted me for who I was, I didn’t need to fawn.

It took a while for me to be able to recognize the healthy friendships from the unhealthy ones. In many of my friendships, I noticed that I felt drained. Often the other people simply used me for the emotional labor I was able to provide, while giving none themselves. They would talk for hours about their own interests and hobbies while giving absolutely no attention to my own, or even asking how I was doing.

My first romantic relationship was with a person who initially seemed like they would give as much emotional labor as they got – but they gradually started to exhibit some of the same behaviors that made my dad so poisonous.

They would demand more and more of my time and start getting angry when I refused, or when I couldn’t supply as much intellectual attention as they wanted, or even when I couldn’t remember certain facts about them. Their anger became more and more intense, but thankfully I had reached a point in my own growth where I realized that I wasn’t supposed to be so stressed in any sort of relationship, let alone a romantic one.

As time went on, I became better at cutting people out of my life who leeched off my emotional labor and stressed me out. Friends who didn’t show any interest in my personal life – they got cut. Friends who consistently vented about their problems without giving as much attention to my own – they got cut.

And the friends who stayed, have stayed with me for years. These are people who have listened thoughtfully to my own problems and provided just as much sympathy and advice as I do when they need to vent. These are people who go out of their way to help when I need help and who are thoughtful about doing their part of a joint effort (e.g., splitting the bill at a restaurant).

Most importantly, though, is their support, which leads to the third step: recognizing that a healthy relationship needs conflict. This goes for any relationship – with friends, with family members, with a romantic partner.

If you can’t vocalize something that’s affecting and bothering you, or voice a disagreement, the other party can’t recognize you for who you really are, and you won’t get what you need. It’s freeing to be able to disagree with my friends – whether about something as trivial as where we want to eat or something weightier, such as whether a comment or behavior was hurtful. And it’s freeing to be able to give and receive blunt advice, without fearing losing the other person’s friendship or support.

It’s still a work in progress for me, but I feel as though I’ve laid a strong enough foundation to keep improving in the areas I need to grow.

Thanks for reading.

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