How do I gain street smarts to protect myself and my children?
May 29, 2014 3:08 PM   Subscribe

How does one overcome thought processes and the resulting bad decision making from a lifetime of abuse and poor examples.

I was sexually, physically, emotionally and verbally abused as a child from as early as I can remember up until my teenage years. All of my partners and a number of friends since have been abusive. I have been taken advantage of and under definition, raped, by a few dates over my lifetime.
I have no filter for whats appropriate behavior from a relationship or any kind of sense to tell me whether someone is dangerous or has poor intentions.
I have never known a "good man" or one who has not been predatory or abusive. I'm almost inclined to say at this point in my life I don't believe it exists. I often feel embarrassed and ashamed by my poor relationship choices that have often put me into dangers way. I am tired of being told, "Well, what did you expect?" I am completely naive to it all.
I am considering not dating at all until my kids are grown and gone and potentially never, due to one of my daughters being autistic. This makes me really sad as I have a lot to offer a partner, but I can't even show my children what a good relationship looks like.

My ex(31) pursues barely legal teenagers not much older than my daughter and I feel like a complete and utter failure for not having the skills to recognize that in him to begin with or potentially protect my kids from him into the future. Is he a threat to them and their friends, was he always a threat? What did I miss? Am I overreacting? My head spins.

Some things I wonder about:
How do I gain these skills? Why don't I have them? Is there reading I can do or support groups/forums?
I think my internal programming was written incorrectly in a bad way. I don't even know what a good way would look like. How do you imagine something you've never seen?
How do I avoid having either doom-like or fantasy expectations of future relationships based on all of this?

Do you have any advice or personal experiences you feel may help my understanding?
I feel dumb for having to ask these questions. This is common sense, right? Why doesn't it click for me?

(I was in therapy for 1.5 years and it gave me the ability to recognize abuse and understand that I didn't and don't deserve it. Before that I had no clue. Unfortunately, the low income option where I live has increased their minimum fees by $25 a session and I can no longer afford to go. I have friends, but it seems wrong to burden them with heavy conversations like this. I'm looking for self-help suggestions.)
posted by tenaciousmoon to Human Relations (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
It doesn't sound to me as thought you really do understand and believe deep down that you did nothing to deserve this. You are looking for something you did wrong to make these men abuse you. You seem to be saying to yourself that if only you had more "street smarts" you could have stopped this from happening, and it's a very small step from there to believing that you should have stopped this from happening.

And now it sounds as though you are scared that bad things that other people might do to your kids are going to be your fault too.

Honey, that really isn't true.

You didn't do anything to deserve any of this.
posted by lollusc at 3:26 PM on May 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Honestly aside from massive quantities of professional help (which is what I did) one of the most helpful things was joining a healthy community(for me it was spiritual groups) and making friends not like me. They then became my 'committee' about dating partners. If my friends didn't like him he was out no questions asked. It helped.

There are so many subtle messages and attitudes that someone who had been abused may not pick up on. I was so used to extremes that smaller things were just no big deal when they were really red flags.

If you ever want to chat feel free to message me.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:42 PM on May 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

I feel dumb for having to ask these questions. This is common sense, right? Why doesn't it click for me?

I was sexually, physically, emotionally and verbally abused as a child from as early as I can remember up until my teenage years.

The latter is the answer to the former question. You had no role modeling of what healthy relationships look like, feel like, or are supposed to be like. How would you be able to draw in a man who is not predatory or abusive in some way?

I say these things to you b/c I know, from personal experience. You will have to work through your abusive childhood trauma with someone. Otherwise, you won't be able to gain the freedom you seek. After many years in therapy and 12-step programs, I have finally found a low-cost trauma therapist to work with and it is making a big difference.

This is not your fault. You can find help and a path to a awesome life. You deserve it. Hugs. :)
posted by strelitzia at 3:46 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just deleted a massive thought out post to you I'm pissed! Here's the brief version. Look up the repetition complex, Daniel Mackler vids on childhood trauma. Buy stuff on healing your inner child and Mary Ellen O'Tooles book on gut instinct. None of this is your fault - you are brave to face your patterns. Take a long time to heal if you need it, with some shit we can only learn to live with it.. fade the residue somewhat.. try to frame all thisefffort as an investment in yourself and your kids.. sometimes it will suck big (lonely, hard) sometimes it will take an empowering edge.

There is a hell of a lot of pain in too many lives but there are good people in the world and lots of good in you - vast bravery for a start.
posted by tanktop at 3:55 PM on May 29, 2014

Oh and think about joining co counselling international - is a few dicks everywhere but mostly good people there working hard to heal.
posted by tanktop at 3:56 PM on May 29, 2014

I'm in the same boat. I have found that most people who have a lot of experience with abusive people and tell me it's really easy to decipher which guys are which are either married or committed to being single for life. Because it's not that easy, and charismatic people can often turn on you the worst.

I don't think it's bad to take a break from dating to focus on your kids, and maybe wait to come back to it until after you get more therapy. EMDR or CBT (I don't like CBT as much myself but some people love it) can help rework patterns set by trauma.

There is some reading that maybe could help you, The gift of Fear, and Why Does He Do That, by Lundy Bancroft (exerpt of signs of abuse)

It might be good to focus on building friendships and community that aren't related to dating men for a while so you have a stronger base to reject people when you sense something is off. Sometimes when you NEED someone, you're low income, raising kids, under-supported, don't have a lot of intimacy or closeness with others-- your judgement doesn't work as well because you're trying to fill legitimate human needs and you kind of need to ignore those signs.

I know people who were never abused that are also terrible at this, so people don't worry, some of us are just people pleasers, want to see the best in others and want to make everything work out, or have higher level of need for intimacy and support. Just remember you don't even have to think badly of someone to decide they aren't healthy to be around kids.

You SHOULD build some standards about behaviors that are totally unacceptable around kids, I'll give you a list of mine but you can make your own: insulting you, commanding you to do things, treating you in ways that make you feel bad, being disrespectful to the kids, yelling to resolve arguments, heavy drinking, drug use, lack of showing compassion about human beings in general or people who are having a hard time, lack of peaceful problem solving skills, lack of interest in learning about child development or healthy parenting techniques....

Basically when you choose not to bring emotionally underdeveloped people around your kids you're showing them they deserve to be protected and treated well by the adults in their lives. Also SEEK OUT communities where good values are practiced, such as a church community, healing communities, family yoga places, etc. Actively practicing compassionate values with other people will give you a comparison when you meet guys who just don't do those kinds of things. I have gotten to see the existence of real life decent men who care about human rights, treating women well, community values, helping those in need. Yeah, men can actually be awesome people! Probably it's a good idea to get some non dating positive experiences with men so you not dating with the expectation there's no such thing as men who are good human beings. That's not a good base to start from or to set your expectations at.

But just to say, I haven't really started dating much again after about 7 years (although I've had a few nice dates here are there). I really REALLY like Alexiasky's suggestion. Actually a lot of us DO need to bounce around our experiences to figure out if things with dates feel off or not! There is nothing wrong with that especially if you don't have much comparison. Sorry you're going through it. I am guessing you might not have had many female friends because when I've had female friends especially single or dating new partners it's been very common to spend a lot of time talking about those experiences and being confused or working through thoughts about it. More often than not, if you're thinking a whole lot about the things that are difficult the answer is, it's probably not great but sometimes we have to let things drag on a bit.
posted by xarnop at 3:59 PM on May 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

*I got distracted writing that last sentence... ideally you get better at ending it right away because the dragging on and dwelling on it is very unpleasant for everyone! And if potentially abusive statement or crappy treatment is involved, make it a quick end!
posted by xarnop at 4:02 PM on May 29, 2014

I was emotionally abused and sometimes bullied by my family members growing up and for years I only had "friends" who would do the same thing to me and would cheat me and take advantage of me. I too would look back and wonder how I could miss clear and obvious signs that they were not real friends, but since I didn't have any healthy relationships to compare it to, I couldn't see the signs for what they were back then. I'm still not perfect at it, but I'd like to think I've gotten pretty good at knowing what people to run from now. Unfortunately it took a lot of learning the hard way.

I would recommend you date people who you do NOT find attractive. I don't mean physically repulsive or anything. I mean that feeling of "sparks" you often get with a man is often your subconscious finding something familiar in them. In your case familiar = bad because of your family history. After a couple of years of dating good men that you are not attracted to, you will eventually begin to find them attractive. At least that was my experience. As for your kids, I wouldn't introduce them to your date until you've been seeing him regularly for at least 8 months to a year. That way you'll have time to end it with anyone potentially bad for you before they ever meet him.
posted by olivetree at 4:11 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Reading Captain Awkward may help. In addition to reading about how others articulate their problems (dating, family problems, etc. -- the Captain advises on all, and well), you might be interested in how the forum's participants see situations and frame answers. It might help you to clarify your thinking about appropriate v. inappropriate behavior across a wide swath of life. Have a look through the archives and see if anything speaks to you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:34 PM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Support groups for survivors of abuse can be extraordinarily helpful with helping group members learn to "read the signs," even more so than individual therapy, in my experience. You might see if a local women's shelter or rape crisis shelter runs any such support groups.
posted by jaguar at 4:59 PM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Gift of Fear author Gavin DeBecker has another book Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) which covers a lot of the same ground as the first book, but with more child-specific practical advice. Both books are terrific, but if money is tight you may want to start with this book and get Gift of Fear later.
posted by oh yeah! at 5:17 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Man. I understand where you're coming from at many levels, and I'm sorry you've had such shitty experiences.

Something that helped me is to understand that people who are worth trusting will be okay with you not trusting them until they've earned it. There are people who let me sit and colour in their family room with their kids for hours, and kept inviting me over for dinner, even when I had nothing to say. There are people who loved me, even through all the mess. Those people taught me what it meant to trust and be trusted.

That was critical in changing how I do romantic relationships. I took two years off of dating after my awful marriage collapsed and as I have started again, I now have a much better idea of what is okay and what isn't. And I also would push you to focus on building friendships instead of just looking for a romantic partner. The best relationships are founded on the best friendships.

And it's much easier to see what someone is like when you see them platonically for a while.

Feel free to memail me if you want to talk. I've been there and I know how much it sucks.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:19 PM on May 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

"How do I gain these skills? Why don't I have them? Is there reading I can do or support groups/forums?"

Practice. Advice from good people. It is a learned skill. Some people get it from family, some get it from friends, some have to learn the hard way. Faith in yourself, and the ability to follow through on uncomfortable feelings and situations.

"I think my internal programming was written incorrectly in a bad way. I don't even know what a good way would look like. How do you imagine something you've never seen?"

You are right about the bad programming. My coder wife sometimes uses the phrase 'garbage in, garbage out' (not that YOU are bad! You are NOT bad.) But you got terrible, terrible programming as a child. Your foundation is therefore shaky and needs some re-construction. Some things you (and your children) deserve: Love. Safety. Respect. Having your opinions listened to and valued. Not being insulted or degraded. Having boundaries respected. Some people find it helpful to imagine a guardian angel- Say, an ideal big sister type who 100% unselfishly has your best interests at heart. What advice would she give? Or what advice would you give to your daughters? I know it can be hard, but you can do it.

"Do you have any advice or personal experiences you feel may help my understanding?
I feel dumb for having to ask these questions. This is common sense, right? Why doesn't it click for me?"

Love yourself. Always, always, always always! Bad things happened to you. This does not make you a bad or broken person. Try not to beat yourself up... be as gentle as possible on yourself. You are worth good things, and I am sorry you had such a bad childhood that led to such bad things. You are not dumb! You were taught poorly- wrongly and badly, in fact- but this, again, does not make you a bad person, or incapable.

therapy... Is really good. Call around your area and see who has a sliding scale. Lots and lots of therapists that charge $300+ to the people who can afford it will offer low to no cost therapy for those who need it. Or ask your local women's and abuse shelters. They have resources! Also possible are churches. But, do look into something... groups, online discussions, books. Anything is better than none.

Now, for my specific recommendation: I think most of this you are discussing falls under boundaries. People modeled terrible boundaries- and told you you didn't deserve to have or set good boundaries- so you don't know how to set them now. People who are used to ignoring boundaries don't like when people set boundaries. Step 1: come up with your boundary. IE, no yelling at me, ever. Step 2: State the boundary clearly, in a non-confrontational situation and manner. Step 3: Enforce that boundary. If they yell, it has consequences. This consequence is up to you, depending on the person, but it can involve cutting them out of your life entirely. Again, people might not like you having boundaries, but you are worth setting and enforcing boundaries. Protect yourself!

Some good news: You are breaking a cycle of violence and abuse inflicted upon you. Your daughters do not have to be raised the way you were, nor their daughters. The healthier you get, the healthier people you will attract. As long as you are taking care of yourself, each day will get better than the one before it. But don't beat yourself up if you have bad days/make bad decisions, etc.... this is one of the hardest things people can do!

I really do recommend trying to love yourself as unconditionally as possible.... After all, you deserve it :)

And you have a metafilter worth of people who believe in you!
posted by Jacen at 5:36 PM on May 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was sexually abused as a child. I married a guy who was, in many ways, good to me but was also basically a sociopath who cared about no one but himself. Some things that helped me which perhaps might help you (other than therapy):

1) I kept a journal for a long-ish time. I still blog and write in various forums and what not. I find that helps me.

2) I learned to do some dream interpretation and kept a dream journal for a time. I still do a bit of this. Recording my dreams and wondering what I might be saying to myself when no one is listening has been enormously helpful.

3) I set some career goals. Anyone who is in the way of those goals is not the man for me. Too bad, so sad.

In a nutshell, I think the thing you need to learn to recognize is respectful versus disrespectful behavior. Abusive people are fundamentally disrespectful. They may not even specifically intend to abuse you but if someone gets away with disrespecting you consistently, bad things are very likely to follow (in other words, it escalates, no matter how "nice" the person thinks they are or usually is). Sexual abuse/assault generally does not begin with rape. It generally begins with boundary violation (ie disrespect) and culminates in rape.

I sometimes write about this topic. I struggle with writing about it. I am often accused of "blaming the victim" for trying to talk about how women can more effectively cope, self protect and self advocate in an inherently dangerous world. I comment on it here on Metafilter and elsewhere. One thing I wrote recent-ish that might be of interest to you: Living Safely is Not Mere Luck
posted by Michele in California at 5:42 PM on May 29, 2014

"How do I gain these skills? Why don't I have them? Is there reading I can do or support groups/forums?

There are a lot of great support groups online, but you may want to lurk on a few before you commit to sharing your stories. For instance, I found some great support groups on Reddit and I find a lot of comfort reading the experiences of people here, but you might prefer one of the many groups housed at Yahoogroups, or a more self-contained site like, Talk About Marriage (which has a very active "Life After Divorce" board - with people who have had all kinds of negative experiences.)

Barbara DeAngelis' books, while written for a very broad audience, can provide an epiphany with simple advice. In the midst of a bad relationship, I read Are You The One For Me?, and when I got to the section where it asks, "Do you want to be more like this partner?" and "If you were going to have a child with your present partner, and this child was exactly like your present partner, would you be OK with that?" - well, I asked myself that. And then I realized I had to cut ties with the guy I was involved with. Wow. Simple advice, right? But someone has to put it down on paper for it to be real, for some of us.

I think my internal programming was written incorrectly in a bad way.

Well, you could arguably say that you're rewriting your programming, and it's just taking a while. You know, the language we use for our growth, or recovery, or whatever you want to call it - it does count. I would intentionally think of a positive way to reform that idea. Maybe instead of a computer, you might compare yourself to a plant that is receiving water, sun, and nurturing, and growing. Corny, or helpful visualization? Up to you.

I don't even know what a good way would look like. How do you imagine something you've never seen?

Maybe the thing you want to imagine first, is a solid friendship. Not necessarily with the opposite sex, but with anyone. It could be your elderly next door neighbor or a friend you make in book club. And in wanting that, maybe you should just be alert to the many friendly exchanges you can have with strangers. Maybe it's someone in the checkout lane who chats with you about the weather.

As you keep growing, you'll read people better, and you'll get a sense that, yeah, there are some jerks out there, and sometimes people are in bad moods - but there are also lots of lovely people out there, and they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and they are around you right now.

You don't have to give them blind faith or trust but just enjoy the pleasure of a stranger holding a door open or smiling sincerely at you - a pleasure that will help you recognize that yes, there ARE decent, great people.

Work on developing a sense of trust in your own opinions of people - Gavin de Becker's "The Gift of Fear" will definitely help you justify why you might feel unsafe walking into an elevator with someone who seems "normal".

Over time, though, you will have to separate "normal" from "familiar", and really understand what cues mean. We often "recognize" people who remind us of other people in our lives. Unfortunately, if we've grown up with abuse, we might select someone who will enact out the abuse that is familiar to us.

How do I avoid having either doom-like or fantasy expectations of future relationships based on all of this?

You could write down what you do want from future relationships - romantic or platonic - qualities like respect, empathy, a sense of humor, a willingness to admit fault and resolve problems.

I did actually write a laundry list of what was absolutely crucial for me in a partner. As I wrote them down, I realized the things that were actually kind of ridiculous - and the things that weren't. But being intentional about it, I do think helped me find what I wanted and needed in a partner.

Do you have any advice or personal experiences you feel may help my understanding?
I feel dumb for having to ask these questions. This is common sense, right? Why doesn't it click for me?

First, there's nothing dumb about asking these questions... the saying is "Fools rush in," not "Fools ask questions"! Take heart.

My mother was verbally and physically abusive, and the shit ran down hill - as the youngest, my older siblings often bullied me in turn. I was sexually assaulted when I was 12, 13, and 22. I fortunately got help when I was very young, but it took a long time for me to feel, first of all, better about walking away from abusive friends, most of them other women (an area that I think, until recently, wasn't written much about).

In my early twenties, I split with a former close friend, for example, who was verbally abusive. Walking away, I was surprised to find our mutual friends excusing her loathsome behavior, even the fact that she had been physically abusive to her own sister. When I tried to tell my closest friend how betrayed and hurt I felt, she told me I was overreacting. This person still gets invited to major holidays and so on, which makes me want to puke a little, but that's not uncommon. You will see other Metafilter posters talking about the family pedophile who is still invited to Thanksgiving, sadly, and that the family members make it the abuse victim's "problem". Don't buy into the cognitive dissonance. When the family - or group of friends - encircles around a predator or abuser, they're the ones who are sick, or who have a stake in keeping things "just as they are".

I mean, these discussions we've had all over the web in the light of the Rodger mass murder, have pointed out how blind some people are to violent misogyny, and very serious threats of violence aimed at the general public. I wouldn't lose your faith in humanity over it, though; it's just objective proof that people can create their own implacable blindness, because the fear of the unknown - things changing - is far scarier to them.

So, be proud of yourself. You are brave enough to want to change, and to HAVE changed.

I had to learn over time to both trust and respect my own boundaries, even if other people I cared about didn't understand them -- this can be hard when you've endured abuse, and your close friends or family do not acknowledge or understand what that's like. I also had to learn not to turn my need to turn away from shitty people into a black and white issue. How many people around the world have lost a friendship because their friend liked the wrong politician, or because someone said something racist - and instead of trying to resolve the conflict and educate, it became a "Agree with me or fuck off" issue.

Let's say your mom starts dating a guy named Roy, and you think Roy is a smack-talking POS, and not respectful to you. You can say, "Mom, I am not going to spend time with you and Roy," mean it, and draw that line - amen, that's what you need, and Mom can't tell you otherwise. But - that doesn't mean you have to forgo continuing to love your mother, and taking her out to lunch on just the two of you adventures.

I think this black and white, ultra protective thinking ("Agree with me, support me 100% or fuck off") can be very helpful at first for boundary drawing and is very, very common for people who are coping with the aftermath of abuse, addiction, codependency, and other challenges. But over a lifetime, it's not sustainable (and it's jerky) so just be aware of that path. If you develop all your strength from the position of being a victim and needing to protect yourself, that's not sustainable either.

Do what you have to do for yourself first, and then be compassionate towards other people as you can. If you need to skip Thanksgiving because the family abuser is there, do it. But you can still send the host a nice holiday card and mean it - but only if you want. If you need to go no contact with Mom for a little while, because she insists on bringing Roy everywhere with her, so be it. You'd be surprised how often Mom will come around.

My way of coping with my fear of being betrayed or hurt by a romantic partner was to avoid relationships with truly available men. I did get involved with a couple of men who didn't treat me with the respect I deserved, though quite frankly none of them hurt me the way that my abusive girlfriends had! But today I am married to a really wonderful man, and even though we have our rough spots, I feel supported and loved.

In addition to some older friends who I have grown up with, I have made many great friends, including two women friends I've met in the last five years who have been incredibly supportive and returned every trust I've put in them many times over. I mean, I would leave these women my money or children when I kick off, and I only met them in the last five years.

There are good people out there. Have faith that you will not only get better, but find these people and spend some of your precious time with them - and that your kids will be able to do the same.
posted by mitschlag at 5:44 PM on May 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

I say it now and again but Pandora Aquarium is an amazing amazing resource (and they have a lending library). Online reaching out is for you to decide. I personally gleaned and learned so much about myself through that site. And the people were wonderfully supportive.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:42 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is nothing wrong with being a single adult focusing on raising her children, and in my experience, my kids were much better off for it. Your worth does not revolve around a partner, though in many ways, how successfully you raise healthy, happy, well-rounded and educated children does display your value for all to see.
posted by stormyteal at 12:31 AM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you all so much for your kind and thoughtful replies. There is so much offered here that I can't possibly mark any one as best answer, it's all very helpful.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 5:43 PM on May 30, 2014

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