I ended seven years of being single last week when I married a beautiful, loving, and wonderful woman who is a terrific partner. I’m sharing my journey here hoping it’s useful to those like me who have hurt their partners in the past with abuse or violence. This post is for anyone wondering if dating and relationships for a person with a history of domestic violence are possible.
If you’re single, the questions surrounding dating and relationships are important.
If you chose to be single, or it was forced upon you, the questions surrounding dating and relationships are important. How do you know you are ready, so you won’t repeat actions that hurt your loved one? What do you need to tell a new potential partner about your past, and how do you do that honestly without scaring them off? Is there any hope that you can be successful in a relationship? I had all of these questions, so let me share my experiences.
Are you a safe partner?
If you’ve decided that you don’t want to be in a relationship, that’s just fine. There is nothing wrong with being single and we are all wired with different relationship desires. I would still encourage you to do the work of determining why you were violent previously, however. Learning the causes and healing from them will benefit your friendships, work relationships, and self-satisfaction even if you avoid intimate partnerships.
For individuals with a history of domestic violence who are interested in dating and relationships, however, safety is the biggest question. I’m assuming that you know how your actions hurt your partner and you are determined not to repeat them. Remember too, each domestic violence offense not only carries escalating legal consequences, but also erodes how you view yourself.
I’m also assuming you’ve worked to determine the underlying cause of those actions. You believe you have largely healed from them so they no longer hold the power to cause you to react in big, hurtful ways. This is not about finding the right person who doesn’t set us off, but the ability to control our reactions regardless of what they do.
No self-quiz, outside evaluation, or formula magically tells you if you are ready to start dating or be in a relationship.
No self-quiz, outside evaluation, or formula magically tells you if you are ready to start dating or be in a relationship. Ask friends and family members who know you well and who spend significant amounts of time with you to give their candid opinion. Honestly evaluate yourself, your thoughts, and your reactions to stressful and hurtful situations to determine the answer.
Dating and relationships turn up the heat
Caution: when it comes to conditions that might cause us to react in controlling or abusive ways, dating and relationships really turn up the heat. We might be well-controlled with friends or at work, but intimate partners seem to have the ability to bring out our worst. Dating subjects us to the possibility of rejection, and relationships leave us vulnerable to negative reflections of our lovability, exposing us to a deeper hurt.
My advice is to go slow to allow yourself to be tested in the new circumstances and as you get closer to your new flame. Use each of your bad reactions as an opportunity to challenge distorted thoughts, then practice a different non-violent and non-controlling response. If you catch yourself thinking, feeling, or behaving in ways that led to abuse before, be prepared to back off.
Maybe your self-evaluation answer or test run says you are not ready. That’s okay, too—it just means you need more time. Rushing it creates bad outcomes for you and potential partners, so invest in yourself now to get prepared for dating and relationships later.
Rushing into dating creates bad outcomes for you and potential partners.
Spend time with all of the stages of the Change Process we talk about on the Ananias Foundation website. Make sure you know your rage warnings and have the time-out process down. Journal to discover more buttons, core hurts, and distorted thoughts that need to be corrected. Challenge yourself by working through the exercise we discuss on our Simulator 2 page.
Andy Stanley recorded a program I highly recommend for everyone starting or in the dating process: The New Rules for Love, Sex and Dating. In it, he says the best thing we can focus on is to “Be the person you are looking for is looking for.” It is wise advice—if we want to attract a great partner, we have to be one ourselves.
Disclosing a history of domestic violence
If dating and relationships aren’t hard enough, there are some special challenges for those of us with a history of domestic violence. One I encountered is when and how to tell a potential partner about my past. I don’t claim to have the perfect solution, but I will share my strategy and hope it helps you think through this issue.
I wanted my new prospect to get to know the true, current version of me first before revealing the mistakes of my former self. However, honesty was important because failure to disclose my backstory would destroy their trust later when (and not if) that fact came out. These two conflicting goals created quite a dilemma.
My policy was to allow my potential partner to get to know me over a few dates. If they saw me as consistently patient and gentle, the idea that I really had changed might be believable. After a few encounters, and assuming that we both seemed interested in continuing the relationship, I felt it was time to disclose my background.
I was transparent and honest about what I did, but also what I had done to change.
To begin, I simply asked to talk and said I wanted to tell her the worst thing there is to know about me. I was transparent and honest about what I did, but also what I had done to change. No questions about the subject were off-limits at that time or in the future. I always gave her permission to end our relationship without apology if she wanted to.
In the book The Scarlet Letter, a woman who committed adultery had to wear a red “A” to signify she was an adulteress. Since then, the term “scarlet letter” has been associated with anyone who is publicly branded for their past wrongs. Domestic violence offenders like me can easily feel like we’re wearing a scarlet letter—unable to shed the stigma, regardless of our transformation.
Domestic violence offenders can easily feel like they’re wearing a scarlet letter.
My home state hosts a website containing arrest records, so some women performed their own background check before meeting me. I know my record cost me some dating opportunities, and that’s okay. A few told me they wouldn’t go out with a man who had battered, while others made lame excuses but I suspected the real reason.
While the scarlet letter effect stinks, I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of women I told about my past did not run. They remained cautious, but I believe my honesty and consistently demonstrating non-abusive and non-violent behavior built my credibility. Here’s how I thought about it: anyone who wasn’t comfortable with my past or didn’t believe I’d changed wasn’t the right person for me anyway.
Hope for a great future relationship
I know that getting married as I did last week only partially validates my relationship readiness. The real test lies ahead in staying married and maintaining a healthy and happy relationship with my wife Lynn. But I also know that I would not be married to her today had I not worked hard to heal and change.
May I say, my wife is amazing: she’s smart, successful, sweet, and beautiful. She’s also tough and independent enough that she would’ve never married me if she thought there was any chance I was going to abuse her. Back to Andy Stanley’s principle—if we want to attract a great partner, we have to be one ourselves.
If we want to attract a great partner, we have to be one ourselves.
Here’s the bottom line for everyone who now wears the scarlet letter of a violent or abusive past. That behavior does not have to define you or condemn your ability to have a great relationship. Working to become a safe and wonderful partner now will determine your future dating and relationships success.
By the way, when I was ready to start dating, my counselor recommended a book that was fantastically helpful, so I’m recommending it to you. It is, Be Your Own Dating Service: A Step-By-Step Guide to Finding and Maintaining Healthy Relationships by Nina Atwood. I think the title is misleading as the book is really about building a successful relationship from the start.