Leaving an abusive relationship is the first step toward ensuring you can lead a happy, healthy life. But once you've walked away, you may be left with a rollercoaster of confusing and potentially overwhelming emotions to cope with. Fortunately, you don't have to experience them alone. After an abusive relationship, therapy can help you on the road to cultivating self-compassion and self-love, building up your self-esteem, eradicating shame, learning how to trust others again, and understanding what constitutes a healthy relationship.
"Contrary to popular opinion, asking for help does not make you helpless or powerless," says Peggy Whilde, director of programs at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. "It is in fact, a strong recognition of your own power to be able to seek help and be open to receiving it."
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., seeking therapy is one of the most effective avenues to healing because having a safe space to untangle your painful thoughts and feelings is key to preventing them from contributing to larger, more destructive issues.
"Abusive relationships can deeply damage emotions, emotional responses, and patterns of thinking," he explains. "It can wreak havoc on a person’s psychophysiology and their body’s response to other stressors. Therapy with a qualified professional can help reduce all of this and get a person back on track with a healthy life."
Ready to start a new chapter? Here are some of the top reasons you might want to consider therapy after leaving an abusive relationship.
A therapist can provide extra support.
The reality is, sometimes friends and family simply are not capable of providing all the support you need. Dr. Patti Feuereisen, a psychotherapist specializing in sexual abuse and author of Invisible Girls: Speaking The Truth About Sexual Abuse, points out that you may feel guarded in what you tell your loved ones because you're afraid it will change their opinion of you or your ex. Additionally, as Whilde points out, your abusive ex might have isolated you from friends and family in order to gain more power and control over you — thus making it harder for you to reach out to them. Even if you do feel comfortable sharing with them, they might not always be able to offer the validating words or helpful advice you're looking for.
"Not all survivors of domestic violence have the ability to lean on loved ones," Whilde tells Elite Daily. "Therapists can provide nonjudgmental support for survivors to work through the feelings they are experiencing about the abusive relationship — including feelings that friends and family may not want to hear or understand." Even if they have the best of intentions, your loved ones probably aren't trained professionals who can help you process your relationship and begin to move on.
Therapy can help you to seek healthy relationships in the future.
Even if you're not ready to start dating again quite yet, experts say it's important to re-clarify your expectations for a healthy, happy relationship while also learning to recognize red flags in any future dating situations.
"Understating how and why the abuse happened, how the experiences change views of relationships, what the post-relationship fears and concerns and how to think about and approach relationships moving forward all has to be 'reconfigured' in the mind of a person who has suffered abuse," explains Dr. Klapow.
Dr. Klapow notes that this kind of work needs to be done in a space that's emotionally safe, and a trusted therapist can help to guide you through the process.
It’s an act of self-care and self-love.
After leaving an abusive relationship, it's imperative to prioritize self-care — and Whilde tells Elite Daily that seeking therapy is a powerful way to accomplish this.
"It begins with understanding that the abuse that happened wasn’t your fault," she explains. "Taking all the time you need to explore the past and think about the future can help you see all the strength you have."
Therapy could also be considered an act of self-love, because talking to a trusted professional can help you to rebuild your sense of self after an abusive relationship.
“Usually, after an abusive relationship, your vision of yourself is totally distorted,” explains Dr. Feuereisen. “Therapy’s job is to help you to understand your worth, and help you understand your beauty and what you deserve.”
Therapy can help you understand — and break down — your defense mechanisms.
Dealing with abuse can cause you to develop certain learned behaviors — which, while they may have been key to your survival during the relationship, no longer serve you. The important thing to remember is that it's not your fault that you have formed these mechanisms. However, in order to move forward, it's well worth trying to dismantle those potentially harmful responses and habits and replacing them with healthier ones.
"Defense mechanisms are the way we protect ourselves from trauma," says Dr. Klapow. "They are important during a traumatic event. However, when the event is over, most often the defense mechanism (denial, guilt, inability to trust, etc.) is still in play. Learning how to let those defenses down takes practice, guidance and trust. Therapy can do that."
It can help you to identify — and learn to cope with — your triggers.
Ever felt like you're still re-experiencing symptoms of the original trauma? Emotional memories of past abuse can be triggered by anything from specific locations or movies to even physical sensations in your body.
"Some survivors of domestic violence find that certain sights, sounds, tastes, or smells can trigger painful, intrusive memories of their trauma," says Whilde.
The good news is, a therapist can help you to identify what your triggers are — as well as ways to manage your emotional responses to them and self-soothe when they come up.
Clearly, there is a multitude of benefits to pursuing therapy after an abusive relationship — but doing so isn't always financially feasible for everyone. If that's the case for you, experts say there are a number of ways you can go about getting the support you need and deserve.
Dr. Feuereisen recommends calling local clinics to find out if they offer sliding scale services. You have nothing to lose by contacting therapists who specialize in trauma and abusive relationships, and asking them if they offer income-based rates or do pro-bono work — in fact, mental health professionals are strongly encouraged to take on at least a few pro bono clients for ethical reasons. Dr. Feuereisen also notes that many universities have clinics where graduate students are learning to be psychologists, and the sliding scale fees are often as low as $1 per session. Even though you'll be seeing a therapist-in-training, there's typically excellent supervision in those situations, according to Dr. Feuereisen.
Many community centers, hospitals, and places of worship also sometimes have free or low-cost counseling services, and some organizations host peer-support groups for people who are facing similar issues.
Another thing worth looking into is whether or not your company has an employee assistance program. If it does, you may qualify for a certain number of free counseling sessions.
Whether you need help exploring low-cost therapy options or creating a self-care plan that works for you, advocates at The Hotline are available 24/7 via phone (1-800-799-7233) and online chat to offer support. They may be able to connect you with free services for you in your community, including individual professional counseling specifically for survivors of abuse. The Hotline also has a directory of other organizations that may be able to refer you to free or low-cost therapy, such as domestic violence coalitions.
If you to decide to seek out therapy, Dr. Klapow, Whilde, and Dr. Feuereisen highly recommend looking specifically for a provider with experience and training in treating abuse. Experts agree, though, that the most important thing is finding a therapist who you trust, and who makes you feel safe, heard, and understood.
There are many reasons why therapy can be a game-changing next step in moving forward from your abusive relationship. Most importantly, it's a step that signals a powerful shift toward taking your life back. Of course, only you can know when you feel prepared to begin the journey of untangling your experiences with a therapist — but just know that once you do feel ready, there are endless opportunities for healing, regaining hope, and rediscovering yourself on the other side.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org. You can also text "loveis" to 866-331-9474, or call LoveisRespect at 1-866-331-9474.
Dr. Patti Feuereisen, psychotherapist
Peggy Whilde, director of programs at the National Domestic Violence Hotline
Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist