real life

After an abusive relationship, I lost all my confidence. Here's how I found myself again.

This post discusses domestic abuse and sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers.

‘I don’t blame him at all. I still feel like I could have stopped things from going further.’ 

It’s hard to articulate the mindset you can find yourself in after living with an abusive partner for years. You feel worn-down, small, insignificant, powerless. 

You don’t even quite realise that it’s happening at first, because the process is so gradual. 

Watch: Women And Violence: The Hidden Numbers. Post continues below. 


Video via Mamamia

You begin to feel a sense that something is wrong. You blame yourself initially. 

You try harder and harder to be a supportive partner, because maybe that’s the problem. But when emotionally manipulative behaviours progressively turn into repeated sexual assault, the problem ceases to be whether or not you’re being a ‘good enough’ partner. 

It’s difficult these days to read back over journal entries I had written during the course of that three-and-a-half year relationship. 

It almost sounds like a different person talking. 

Although I’d had my difficulties before that time with body image and self-esteem, that relationship completely transformed who I was as a person. 

Fundamentally, I began to view myself as an object without worth.

If my partner didn’t respect it when I told him ‘no’, if the person I loved could so easily and repeatedly push past my boundaries and tell me he ‘just couldn’t help himself’, what worth could I possibly have? I lost touch with myself - with my body, as well as my identity as a strong person. 

A common question that gets asked regarding domestic violence is what types of people find themselves in abusive relationships.

Well, I was working as a domestic violence and sexual assault counsellor at the time, and yet, it took years for me to leave that relationship myself. 

While I credit leaving to some amazing support services and a lot of therapy, that was only the beginning - the journey that came afterwards was an infinitely harder one. 

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I needed to rebuild what I had lost, and I had no idea where to even start. 

I’d forgotten what it was like to feel confident. To feel at peace with (or at the very least, not at war with) myself. And above all, to feel safe and at home in my own body.

I’d spent so much time switching off and disconnecting in order to survive, and I’d become an expert at it. 

When I began dating the man who has since gone on to become my husband, his experience as a professional photographer wasn’t something I paid too much mind to initially. 

I had always been a highly photo-phobic person after having struggled with disordered eating for many years. But after living with an abusive partner, my view of myself as inadequate had become more pervasive than ever. 

It was to my own complete surprise when one day while dating; I asked him whether he might be open to taking some photos of me in lingerie. 

It was possibly the most insane thing I had ever suggested (and not a type of photography he had ever done before), but something about it felt… empowering. 

Anything related to sex and intimacy had been causing incredible anxiety for me up to that point, and we went through periods of intentionally avoiding sex and physical contact because of how triggering it felt. 

But he was a person I trusted, and it felt like a way of taking back ownership over my body and sexuality. 

There was no going back after that first quasi-photoshoot we did in my little apartment bedroom with the first proper lingerie set I had ever purchased!

I felt unbelievably nervous at first, but after a while, it began to feel amazing. It was liberating to explore that side of myself and to feel ‘sexy’ in a safe way. 

My first photoshoot. Image: Supplied.

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For me, taking those photos wasn’t about doing it for anyone else - it wasn’t for the man I was seeing, it wasn’t to show my friends or to post on social media; it was for me. 

It meant making an active decision not to hide away anymore, and to not feel ashamed and threatened by sensuality. Above all else, it reminded me I had control over my body, no one else. 

That single afternoon went on to become the beginning of an entirely new career for myself and my husband. 

Despite having done an Honours degree and a Masters IN Clinical Psychology (about nine years in total of part-time study), I decided that I wanted to support people in a different way. 

My husband and I started Heartfire Boudoir, an inclusive boudoir studio that offers empowering and body positive photoshoot experiences to people of all genders, ages, sexualities, and sizes. 

Image: Supplied.

People often hear the term ‘boudoir photography’ and either have no idea what it is (understandable!), or they think of tacky/cringey 80s style glamour portraits. 

But boudoir photography is so much more than that these days. I’m proud that what we try to provide clients is a healing and trauma-informed experience, and a space to embrace everything they are as a person. 

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We’ve had the privilege of working with people who have struggled with health conditions like fibromyalgia and endometriosis, clients with ostomy bags, those who have lived through domestic violence and sexual assault themselves… each on their own journey of struggling with self-acceptance, body image, and difficulties feeling at home within themselves physically and emotionally.

There are also plenty of people who sign up for a boudoir photoshoot just for fun, or simply to get lovely photos as a gift for a partner, but we’ve found that even for those clients, the experience ends up being far more transformative. 

People tell us they carry themselves differently afterwards. 

That the power and strength they felt from doing something so outside of their comfort zone has had flow-on effects into the rest of their life.

They now truly believe their partner when they tell them they’re beautiful. They wear clothes they always wanted to wear but felt too self-conscious to try.

They asked for a promotion at work, or decided to step back from a relationship with a cheating partner who no longer deserved their time. 

Boudoir photography has completely transformed my life, both personally and professionally.

I’ve seen firsthand that the insecurities I’ve felt are shared by so many others, and I’ve learned that self-worth isn’t determined by a few kilos, a few grey hairs, or even by the way that other people have treated you in the past. 

Boudoir is a genre of photography that helps people to walk back out into their life knowing that they’re empowered to do anything they want to. 

For more information about Heartfire Boudoir, click here.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

The Men’s Referral Service is also available on 1300 766 491 or via online chat at www.ntv.org.au. 

You can also access the Are You Safe At Home's website service directory.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. 

Feature Image: Supplied.