Valentine's Day is a holiday about love in its many forms. Whether that's honoring romance, friendships, family, or just the concept of love, there are many ways to celebrate. For some Valentine's Day after leaving an abusive relationship can feel very different. There are numerous reasons a holiday centered around celebrating romance can be triggering for survivors of intimate partner violence or abuse. "[For survivors of abuse,] Valentine's Day can either trigger memories of direct abusive events that happened on the holiday in the past or trigger memories of their abusive relationship as a whole," says Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show.
Abusive relationships can be physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual, Klapow says, and they can have long-lasting impacts on the way you love and trust others. Unfortunately, intimate partner violence is pervasive in the United States. According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 77 percent of women ages 18 to 24 and 76 percent of women 25 to 34 have experienced it. Additionally, nearly 29 percent of women and 10 percent of men in the U. S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner, says the NDVH. Being a survivor of abuse can be devastatingly isolating, but consider the fact that you are not alone in this experience, and however you feel in response to your memories is valid.
"While some individuals learn to gain the trust of a new partner, learn to find romantic, caring, loving, and meaning in Valentine's Day, for others, it is a permanent reminder of the abuse from an intimate partner," says Dr. Klapow. Even though you may have taken the step to leave the relationship, it's still possible that this time of the year can bring up memories that are hard to ignore.
Even if the relationship was a long time ago, trauma can spring from the depths of your memory if you feel triggered. The biggest thing to keep in mind when processing these emotions, memories, and experiences is that it's OK to feel the way you do. There's no one "right" way to feel in the wake of an abusive relationship, no matter how much time has passed.
Klapow recommends opening up to trusted loved ones you know will support you through the experience. Finding someone who will meet you where you're at in your healing is important, according to Klapow. Whether you confide in a current romantic partner, friend, family member, or therapist, they should let you dictate what feels safe and good and what doesn’t, and not try to force a mood or feeling upon you.
If the person you're speaking with uses language like, "Don't let your ex have this power over you," or, "They're gone from your life, try to forget them," Klapow recommends redirecting the conversation. Even if people mean well, these statements place the responsibility on the survivor, rather than the abuser.
Speaking with a licensed therapist or medical professional can be very beneficial. If you have to interact with law enforcement as a result of this relationship, consider asking a friend, partner, or loved one to accompany you during what could be a re-traumatizing experience. If you are currently in an abusive relationship or struggling with the aftermath of one and need to talk, there are numerous hotlines available to you to call including the NDVH at 1−800−799−7233. The NDVH also has an online chat line available 24/7.
When it comes to celebrating Valentine's Day after experiencing abuse, Klapow encourages survivors to broaden their concept of what the holiday means. "A reframing of the holiday as a holiday of giving and receiving love will help. By moving away from romantic love and looking at ways that you can feel love and give love to people in your life can be healing," says Klapow. This could be done by visiting friends or family, or volunteering in some way or visiting a nursing home. "Embracing the love and security of those you trust all can help turn traumatic anniversaries into traditions that focus on love but in a safe way," he adds.
This not to say that you shouldn't think about the trauma, though, because it's valid to have memories and triggers come up for you around Valentine's Day. Thinking about difficult things you've experienced is not "weak" or "dwelling," or proof that you haven't moved on. Healing from trauma is different for everyone, according to Klapow, and if you need to talk through your feelings, or you aren't looking forward to celebrating the holiday in the "traditional" way, then that's OK.
If you're nervous about this upcoming Valentine's Day as a survivor of trauma, Klapow wants to reassure you that you can get through it. "How you define it, how you live it, how you experience it is never “right” or “wrong.” He suggests engaging with people or in activities that make you feel emotions of love, kindness, and connection with others is a way to know that the abuse you suffered does not dictate how you live your life.
If Valentine's Day feels different after experiencing an abusive relationship, you can make the holiday about other forms of love, trust, or safety in your life. Klapow recommends allowing yourself to feel the array of emotions through out the holiday while also trying to remember the people, places, and/or passions that you do love and trust. Hopefully, your Valentine's Day reminds you of your inner strength this year and how worthy you are of safety, kindness, and care.
If you or a loved one is experiencing an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or chat online 24/7.