Q: I just escaped a four-year relationship with an abusive boyfriend. I was traumatized, but I’m beginning to heal, and it’d be nice to have a friend again that whom I could hang out with. I used to have a wide circle of friends, but you know how abusers shut that down quickly. I’m just wondering if you have any advice about making friends after trauma. It feels really intimidating to put myself out there and trust again. ~Anonymous
A: Ahhh, yes, making friends as an adult. Why does this feel so scary and awkward? As kids, we’d simply plop down next to someone in the sandbox, offer to share our bucket, and a minute later, we’re bonded for life. Those were the days.
As an adult, it’s a different story. We all come into relationships—whether they’re platonic or not—with baggage. We carry past hurts, trauma, and maybe some distrust. This can make an opening to a stranger a challenge, much less getting to that point where we feel comfortable enough being our true selves around someone.
Especially after escaping domestic violence—a trauma that likely involved an abuser controlling, intimidating, and gaslighting you—trusting after that is going to feel like a formidable task. Sometimes, it’s likely just easier to get a bunch of cats and give up on the whole friends’ thing.
Except, here’s the deal: friendships do more than give us someone to text silly memes too. According to medical science, having friends can improve our overall health and help us live longer. Strong social connections can reduce our risk of depression, high blood pressure, and an unhealthy BMI, or body mass index. Finding friendships can also boost our happiness level, improve our self-confidence and self-worth, and help us cope with traumas. (Yes, cats might also do this, but how good are they at giving advice?)
The reason many survivors like yourself can’t just jump back into former friendships you once had before your relationship with an abuser is likely due to the abuser isolating you. This is a power and control tactic, and one you may not have even realized was happening at the time. Did the abuser ever say things like, don’t go out with your friends tonight—I really want to spend time with you? Or maybe they tried to tell you things like, that friend isn’t good for you. They don’t understand you as I do. It may have been even more overt—I don’t want you seeing them anymore. If you truly loved me, I would be the only one you needed.
Without friends, the abuser knows you won’t have anyone who can point out what they’re doing is wrong, or that you deserve better. Abusers also employ something called “toxic triangulation” where they share harmful mistruths with someone outside the relationship, usually a friend of the survivor’s, to turn that person against the survivor and isolate them further.
So now that you’re free from this abuser’s control, you’d like to form friendships again. But how do you go about doing that without it feeling like the most intimidating task possible? First off, you can always try to reach out to your former friends and ask if they’d be willing to talk. Being vulnerable isn’t easy, but if they’re a true friend, they’ll want to listen to what happened to you. It is possible to rebuild the bridge that the abuser tore down.
As for trusting someone new, I asked Omar A. Ruiz, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of TalkThinkThrive in Massachusetts for some advice.
First, know your triggers. “After coming out of a traumatic situation, it is normal to feel closed off due to worries or concerns of relieving a painful situation. If not already enrolled, get a therapist to help you sift through the situations, events, locations, people, behaviors, and responses that may trigger your emotions,” says Ruiz. An emotional safety plan can help you plan for what to do if you experience one of these triggers, so you’re not caught off guard.
Secondly, don’t feel pressure to share your life story. Ruiz reminds us, “There is more to you than just the trauma. Allow yourself to share parts of you that you feel the most comfortable sharing. It is up to you to decide what you want to disclose if anything.” There’s also something to be said about making sure the person you’re entrusting to hear your story is deserving of your vulnerability and is someone you can trust.
On that note, go slow. “It is best to take things slow when meeting new people where a platonic relationship could form,” says Ruiz. “You need time to get to know them as a person. Go out to places that may showcase how they are with others, i.e., are they the life of the party and require lots of attention from others, more of a homebody and wants to hang out in the comfort of their home, etc.” And remember to listen to your gut. Even where friendships are concerned, if something doesn’t feel right, it’s OK to choose not to continue that relationship.
As far as how you might meet new people, here are a few places to start:
And remember, even attempting one of these avenues, regardless of whether you make a new BFF right away, is a huge milestone toward healing. Says Ruiz, “The scariest thing to do is to put yourself out there because it involves vulnerability. Being vulnerable is the biggest step anyone can do that brings them closer to being in control of the effects of trauma.
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Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to Martha’s House at 863-763-0202 for the guidance of a trained advocate.