by Dawn Ferrera, LPC
Your first healthy relationship is often the hardest; you’re entering unknown territory and learning to navigate a new way of connecting with someone. A new relationship can be an exciting and overwhelming time, and you may be distracted by self-doubt or even shame. If you’re wondering if you can have a healthy relationship, the answer is yes, and you can learn how without having to endure the same toxic patterns.
Are You Ready for a New Relationship?
If you’ve been in a toxic relationship before, you may have written them off, promising, “Never again!” And that makes sense – you’ve been through a lot. You probably thought you’d never be ready to take another chance on love, open your heart, and be vulnerable around someone new.
Leaving is hard. Looking back is even harder. You probably developed some pretty intense feelings for that person from your past. You may look back with hurt or anger, but you may also look back still with love and loss, not just for the relationship but for your former partner. Others might find your feelings confusing – however, these feelings don’t mean you want to go back or should go back. The fact is, you have a history with your ex. Letting go of those feelings and the past takes time.
Yet here you are. The possibility of a new relationship came at a time when you were least expecting it. To say you’re a little nervous would be an understatement.
You’ve traveled a long and sometimes hard road to healing from your abusive past. You’ve worked through a lot of painful emotions. Now, you find yourself feeling ready to start dating again and maybe even open to the possibility of something new, but you want your next relationship to look nothing like what you’ve experienced in the past.
So, how can you lay a healthy foundation, and what can you do to protect yourself without putting up too many walls? First, we have to start by confronting a very important question.
Why Are Healthy Relationships So Hard?
Even the most toxic relationships don’t start that way. Relationships usually begin with those giddy, butterflies-in-the-stomach, can’t-wait-to-see-each other feelings. But somewhere along the way, relationships can go wrong – very wrong. And we don’t always see it coming.
An abusive relationship can change who you are in some ways: you may doubt your own thoughts and feelings or struggle with self-confidence. You may find it hard to trust not only yourself but anyone who might come into your life. Many of us have never experienced or witnessed a healthy relationship – how can we participate in a healthy relationship if we don’t know what it looks like?
Healthy relationships can seem intimidating because they’re unfamiliar, but they’re not impossible.
Luckily, there is a path forward. As tempting as it might be to just jump into something new, you must give yourself time to heal and learn to love yourself again. As you do, you’ll reclaim your confidence and learn how to have a healthy, fulfilling relationship.
Laying the Foundation for a Healthy Relationship
Even if you’ve only ever experienced toxic relationships, there is hope for happier, more supportive, fulfilling connections. Here are nine steps you can take to lay the foundation for a healthy relationship.
1: Take Care
There’s an old saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Put more simply: you can’t give what you don’t have. An abusive relationship takes its toll on you physically and emotionally. It can leave you emotionally drained, trusting no one, and wondering if a healthy relationship is even possible. Your cup is empty.
Leaving was the first step. Next is healing the emotional wounds and learning what a healthy relationship looks like. When the trauma is left unresolved, it can leave you vulnerable to repeating the past. Seeing a therapist who specializes in relationship trauma can help you understand what happened and how to heal in healthy ways. You’ll have the emotional capacity and skills to move forward confidently.
2: Give Yourself Time
Taking time for yourself can be lonely, and the temptation to jump right back into the dating pool might be overwhelming. Of course, we all want companionship, but what are you jumping into? We, as humans, tend to gravitate to what we know because familiarity feels comfortable … but what’s familiar isn’t always what’s best for us. It’s important to give yourself time to heal, grow, and learn.
One of the ways you can make your time count is by focusing on deepening your self-love so that you’re less likely to seek that energy from someone else. When you create your own happiness, you can move forward from a healthier space, armed with the skills you need to build a relationship that feels safe, loving, and supportive.
3: Forgive Yourself
Forgiveness is one of those words that carries a lot of weight – sometimes, we get caught up because we misconstrue forgiveness as accepting that what happened was somehow justified or okay. But forgiveness is actually a powerful way to help you heal and move on: it has nothing to do with your ex and everything to do with you.
Forgiveness means letting go of the pain of the past and compassionately giving yourself permission to be happy – it’s a process focused on you and your healing, and it doesn’t need to involve anyone else. You’ve been through a lot and it’s natural to feel shame or blame yourself for not seeing the red flags and staying in an abusive situation. But just because this feeling is natural doesn’t mean it’s true.
We can’t always see the signs of an abusive relationship, and we may not know how to get out or even have the immediate ability to leave. Self-compassion can help you see the situation objectively and understand the patterns you need to break. Not surprisingly, people who practice self-compassion cultivate healthier relationships. Counseling can help you through this process.
4: Decide What You Want in A Relationship
Coming out of an unhealthy relationship, you know what you don’t want. You’ve been there, done that, and don’t repeat the same mistakes. The list of what you’re not looking for is probably pretty long.
But deciding what you do want can be harder. It’s a question you’ve maybe never asked before: just what do you want in a relationship? Knowing what a healthy relationship looks like for you will help you be able to recognize it more easily and spot the red flags before you get in too deep.
Spend some time brainstorming or journaling, exploring your thoughts about what a healthy relationship might look like. What has to be there for you to feel comfortable and safe? While everyone’s needs will differ, you can probably find a few at the top of the list, like trust, honesty, and respect. But it doesn’t end there. Were there other specific things in your last relationship that you won’t tolerate again? What does it look like if you imagine the opposite of those behaviors?
5: Take Baby Steps
In the beginning, everything and everyone looks shiny and new. It feels good to connect in a healthy way, and we want to lean into that feeling. The problem is, going from “nice to meet you” to “I love you” at light speed is risky; all that glitter and excitement can act like rose-colored glasses and make it difficult to see the truth.
So what’s the right speed? There isn’t a simple answer here: you have to take off those rose-colored glasses to really evaluate how the relationship is progressing. Slow down and try to notice the small details and nuances that show who your potential partner is over time. Move too fast, and you’ll get swept up in the magic of a new beginning, missing the honesty that comes with staying rooted in reality.
6: Know the Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship
When you’re smitten with a new partner, everything looks perfect, doesn’t it? It’s easy to miss red flags when you’re focused on all the shiny things.
Your new love interest might not be a carbon copy of your ex, which can be a relief! But unfortunately, there are many ways to be a toxic partner. That’s why you have to slow down and see things as they are, not what you want them to be.
At the beginning of a new relationship, you might feel worried that you’ll miss the signs. Familiarizing yourself with relationship red flags can help. Here are some behaviors you’ll want to steer clear of:
- Yelling, blaming, or shaming
- Making insults or name-calling
- Using the silent treatment
- Threatening to leave
- Withholding affection
- Isolating you from your family, friends, and other supportive relationships
- Getting physically aggressive
These are signs you might be headed down a dangerous path. Red flags shouldn’t operate on a three-strike system: if you spot one, step back, take care of yourself, and distance yourself until you get some clarity.
7: Build a Support System
We all need a support system; we’re wired for community and connection, and not just from romantic relationships. Everyone needs someone in their corner – people willing to hold space and give you perspective when you feel lost.
At the beginning of a new relationship, you may have a lot of doubts and fears because you’re navigating uncharted territory. Your support system can serve as a sounding board to sort it all out. Starting a new relationship doesn’t mean you should put your friends and family on the back burner. Remember: they want the best for you, and they’ll help you figure out what that looks like, even if it’s not always fun or comfortable.
8: Trust Your Instincts
You know the old saying, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is? Well, the same thing applies to relationships. Of course, a shiny new relationship can feel exhilarating! You don’t want to even think about the possibility that it isn’t all that.
It’s essential to pay attention to your intuition. Everything might look picture-perfect on the outside, but if something doesn’t feel right, don’t ignore it. Trust your feelings and talk to your partner. A healthy partner will be willing to listen and help ease your worries.
Remind yourself of all you’ve accomplished when you feel doubt creeping in. You’ve done your work. You’ve built a new way of thinking and took the time to develop a strong sense of what you want and need in a partner. Trust that you can be in a healthy relationship and know that you have support.
9: Know When to Seek Help
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, getting over the past can seem impossible. The good news is you don’t have to do it alone. You can heal, learn to trust yourself again, and have the healthy relationship you desire. An expert trauma therapist can help.
If you have trouble assessing your need for support, this could be a sign that you need some help reconnecting with yourself. Toxic relationships are extremely dysregulating by design, and it makes sense that you might need some help finding your inner voice again. A therapist can help you sort through your feelings and discover what feels authentic (versus what’s rooted in toxic dynamics).
Support for Navigating Relationships
At All Points North, we understand that relational trauma can take an emotional toll on your well-being. Our team of expert clinicians is ready to help you take the next step towards healing and recovery.
We can support you in person at All Points North Lodge with a luxury rehab experience that offers the perfect environment for healing, personal growth, and recovery. With multiple in-person locations across the US, we can provide support across the full continuum of care.
Our telehealth team is available to help you navigate new life challenges in your home environment with virtual individual, group, couples, and family therapy sessions.
All of our programs employ an evidence-based approach customized to your unique needs. To learn more about our treatment offerings, fill out our contact form or call 855.235.9792. Let us help you reclaim your voice and find your way forward.
- “People with Self-Compassion Make Better Relationship Partners.” UT News, The University of Texas at Austin, 8 Oct. 2012, https://news.utexas.edu/2012/10/08/people-with-self-compassion-make-better-relationship-partners/.
- Brenner, Abigail. “10 Relationship Red Flags.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 29 July 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-flux/201407/10-relationship-red-flags.