Maybe you’ve just re-downloaded a couple of dating apps out of curiosity, or you’re already excitedly chatting up a match who’s sparked your interest. Maybe you're not sure you're 100% ready to start dating yet. Regardless of what stage you’re in, dating again after an abusive relationship can make you feel super vulnerable — and perhaps even stressed. The good news? Experts say there are a number of steps you can take to ensure you're emotionally ready to start another relationship, rebuild your confidence and sense of self, and help you distinguish a healthy bond from an unhealthy one.
“Dating after being in an abusive relationship can be nerve-wracking and complicated,” says Angela Lee, director of LoveIsRespect, a project of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. “It can be, understandably, harder to connect emotionally. You may also have a harder time trusting people. These are all very normal feelings and it is important to be gentle with yourself moving forward.”
Experts agree that there is no "right" timeline on which to start dating again, so it's crucial to honor your gut instincts about what feels comfortable to you. Here are some of their other recommendations as you embark on a new chapter of your love life post-healing.
Focus on healing.
According to experts, it’s imperative to get some kind of support in coping with the fallout from your painful experiences before you begin a new relationship — for example, by seeing a counselor or therapist who specializes in trauma.
“It’s tremendously important to take a timeout before dating to recover and heal,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. “Otherwise, the damage caused by the abusive relationship can unconsciously affect new relationships. In fact, many people find that one abusive relationship leads to a cycle — this often occurs as a result of unresolved psychological damage that occurred.”
Whether you decide to seek the support of a psychotherapist or opt to heal in another way, Manly emphasizes that having a safe space to process your pain can be key to moving forward and finding healthier, happier relationships.
“It’s important to be able to understand (without judgment) such issues such as how the abuser came into your life, why you stayed, and what tactics the abuser employed,” she explains. “This will help you heal and also minimize the chances of another abuser making his or her way into your life again.”
Not only that, but licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus notes that a therapist can help you with both setting boundaries and identifying red flags (more on that later).
Define what a healthy relationship means to you.
“Dating after an abusive relationship will look different for every survivor,” Lee tells Elite Daily. “However, understanding the key ingredients of a healthy relationship is critical for all.”
While everyone’s priorities in relationships can vary, Lee notes that the hallmarks of a healthy relationship are having a safe space for open and honest communication, setting healthy boundaries, and treating each other with respect and equality.
As you begin dating again, it may be helpful to write out a list of what a healthy relationship looks like to you. Can you think of any examples you’ve witnessed in your own life? What do you find admirable about those relationships? What makes you feel seen, heard, loved, and appreciated? Daramus, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma, suggests identifying the red flags you may have witnessed in your abusive relationship — whether that includes manipulation, gaslighting, verbal or emotional abuse, or controlling behaviors. While you’re at it, figure out what your boundaries are and list those out as well.
“Plan ahead how you'll respond if a future partner tries to violate your boundaries,” Daramus adds.
For example, if you decide to pay for your own meals in the beginning because your ex used money as a form of controlling you, your date may offer to cover the bill but should respect your choice if you adamantly decline.
"If your date insists on paying when you've said no, start watching for other places where your 'no' isn't being respected," says Daramus. "That may be a red flag."
Trust your instincts.
As you begin dating again, experts say that your gut instinct is your most powerful tool in evaluating whether or not a particular relationship will be good for you.
Manly points out that unfortunately an abusive relationship can wreak havoc on your "psychological radar" — in other words, your ability to trust your own instincts — either by causing you to doubt your thoughts and feelings or by making you overly suspicious toward and guarded around others. Remember: This is not your fault.
"An abusive relationship can be so damaging to a person’s psychological radar that it can be difficult to differentiate between really good people and toxic people masking as good people," she explains. "It’s important to check in with yourself to ensure that you’re on the right track. It’s often helpful to have a trusted friend, family member, or psychotherapist who can help with the unraveling of thoughts, feelings, and reactions during the new dating period."
If your date ever does anything that makes you uncomfortable, Lee warns to never ignore those feelings or minimize their questionable behaviors.
"If you feel like something is not right, it probably is not," she explains.
Self-care is important for anyone who's starting to date again, but especially for those who have experienced abuse in the past. According to Lee, journaling is one of the top self-care activities that advocates recommend at LoveIsRespect.
"This journal can be a safe, healing place to nonjudgmentally offload any thoughts and feelings about the process," adds Manly. "As healing from an abusive relationship takes time and devoted mindfulness, it can also be very helpful to engage in healing self-care that includes meditation and yoga."
If you don’t enjoy writing, there are lots of other ways to take care of yourself — like enjoying family QT, getting lost in a good book, taking a warm bath, or spending time in nature.
“Start thinking about what brings you joy and peace,” says Lee. “Experts recommend anything creative, like art, music, cooking, or learning a new language as a different way to express yourself.”
Lee adds that it’s crucial to take care of your physical needs, too, as you rely on our body even more to help you move forward from stressful experiences. According to Daramus, the idea here is to “reinforce that your body is yours” and deserves love and respect.
"It's the attitude of self-love that you bring that makes the difference," she explains. "Massages, baths, and things like that are fantastic, but do them in a spirit of getting used to good treatment."
While exercise is a great form of self-care, Daramus advises only doing physical activity that feels good to you — it’s important to be kind to your body and respect your limits after experiencing abuse.
"If you've always hated exercise, experiment with out-of-the-box options like rock climbing, sword-fighting, or something else that actually sounds like fun," she adds.
As you start thinking about what your ideal love life looks like going forward, Manly also suggests creating a “new relationship” vision board with tender images, affirming words, and healing energy.
Go at your own pace.
Across the board, experts agree that the most important thing to remember as you start dating again is that you should never feel pressure to move more quickly than you feel ready to.
“When you move slowly, you are allowing yourself time to process, heal, recover, and recalibrate,” explains Manly.
As Lee points out, only you know what pace feels right, so keep checking in with yourself as a new relationship progresses to make sure you’re staying in your comfort zone.
"If they seem eager to rush things or get very serious very quickly, that can be a red flag," she says. "If you don't feel ready, that's OK, too. Just because a relationship ends doesn’t mean anyone failed, or that you don’t deserve to be happy. Your well-being is your first priority."
Know your support system.
While diving into dating again after leaving an abusive relationship may feel overwhelming at times, you’re not alone in coping with all of these challenges. To remind yourself of this, make a list of all the people you can turn to for support, advice, and even just a nonjudgmental ear.
“Building a support system of trusted family, friends, teachers or others in your community can help you get through difficult times,” Lee tells Elite Daily. “Having someone you can confide in about how you are feeling — about both the past and present — can ensure that you feel safe moving forward.”
Above all, be patient with yourself. Dating again will be a learning process, and there may be times when you need to take a step back or re-assess what you're ready for.
"Remember that you are lovable and worthy," says Manly. "And remember that with time and healing work, you will move forward to find and embrace the deep love you so truly deserve."
Without a doubt, the most profound aspect of dating after leaving an abusive relationship is re-harnessing your power over your own life. That means figuring out what you want from a partner, what kind of physical touch feels good to you, what makes you feel safe, and what you're willing to put up with. You're in the driver's seat, and your journey back to love is completely and uniquely your own — and that is a beautiful thing.
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. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist
Angela Lee, Director of LoveisRespect
Aimee Daramus, clinical psychologist