Have you struggled to leave an abusive relationship, or have difficulty letting go? You are not alone. It is the very things that make a relationship abusive, that make it so hard to leave or move on.
Your grief is normal no matter how unhealthy the relationship was.
Feelings of loss and grief are common, at the end of any relationship. With abusive relationships, you are also dealing with the dynamics of the relationship that have affected your self-esteem and feelings of betrayal, which occurred on a regular basis.
You may have difficulty putting together the feelings of grief and sadness, and your decision to leave. Your sadness does not mean your decision to leave is wrong.
Dynamics that make it hard for you to move on.
There are many methods someone may use to control you. These include
ignoring and dismissing
These methods of control can go back and forth between partners, and are unhealthy and damaging. You can recover from the occasional occurrence if both of you repair the hurt, and work together to have better communication. What makes your relationship abusive, is when these methods of communicating become commonplace, and employed by one person over another in a dominant/submissive dynamic that escalates. There may be times that the ‘submissive’ person tries to fight back but will often end up giving up.
Other important signs that your relationship is abusive, is when one partner in particular is;
feeling intimidated and afraid
trying to manage your partner’s feelings
isolated from friends and family
Threats become commonplace, where a partner uses your fear of something to control you. The kinds of threat that are used include; leaving the relationship, withholding affection, physical harm or anger, betraying you in some way, invading your privacy or making a scene in public. Of course, following through on any of these threats reinforces that fear.
When the relationship ends
There is often an overwhelming feeling of being lost and confused. Your connection was fused, that is, your partner’s experience and perspective is the only one that mattered. So as the person in the subordinate position, you lose the ability to think for yourself, or feel that your experience is valid. Also, a strong sense of right and wrong permeates your interactions, and if you are often in the position of being wrong, it is hard to maintain confidence in yourself.
When the relationship ends, you are responsible for yourself and making decisions can bring up a lot of fear and doubt. Although consciously you may recognize that being out of the relationship is a good thing, the fear of making your decisions can cause you to hold on to the relationship, or look for others to tell you what to do.
During the relationship, you have been made to feel responsible for the way your partner has treated you. Criticism, judgment, blame, intimidation and expressions of contempt instill a sense of shame and that you are doing something to cause their reactions, and therefore, are responsible for the abuse.
The feelings of responsibility lead to you trying to fix the relationship and manage your partner’s reactions and behaviour. You get caught in a vicious cycle where you feel to blame for the relationship not working, and try to make your partner feel better so they will be more loving. When that doesn’t happen, you feel worse because the relationship continues to be abusive, and you keep trying harder.
When the relationship ends
You are very likely to feel that you have failed. You might hang on to the relationship because your self-worth is dependent on the relationship working. You may obsess about what you could have done differently.
On the other hand, this can lead you to want to make your ex take responsibility for their actions. It is easy to get into the blame game back and forth making it hard to move on.
We enter relationships because we want to feel connected and important to someone. To be in a relationship that is loving and where you take care of each other is a natural desire when entering into an intimate relationship. You carry these desires, and so when the person you love hurts you, you feel betrayed. The important thing is not that we are never going to hurt one another but that we can repair these breaches. In relationships that are abusive, that repair does not happen. Instead, you are met with blame and denial. The feelings of betrayal deepen, one injury on top of another erodes any trust that was in the relationship.
When The Relationship Ends
Betrayal creates a loss on a deep level. It shatters your belief in relationships and your sense of safety with others. Trust in others can take a long time to recover. Beliefs about yourself can also become entangled with making sense of the betrayal, such as taking on the belief that you deserve bad treatment. You might be drawn to others who treat you this way, or expectations that people will let you down and hurt you.
In an abusive relationship, the control and betrayal that you experienced leave you unable to express the pain and anger it caused. So this can also lead to that emotional reactivity exploding once you end the relationship.
Here are some of the most important aspects to focus on as you heal from an abusive relationship.
- Gaining a sense of self
Start by identifying the things that are unique to you.
What do you enjoy doing?
Write down opinions you have about things, even if you don’t want to tell anyone.
What are your favourite clothes, food, TV shows?
What do you admire about people? These are the things you are strengthening within yourself.
- It is OK to make mistakes
In abusive relationships, the fear of doing something that is going to bring your partner’s wrath down on you is constant. This fear and tension can follow you after leaving the relationship, making it hard to make decisions and take action in your life. Taking time to notice the difference between being punished and blamed for your actions, and people just having a response of their own, will be crucial to healing this fear. Particularly noticing the times that people are accepting, encouraging and supportive of you, even when you make mistakes, is healing.
- Realize you could not change your partner’s behaviour
This can be hard because there are always things that you didn’t do very well in the relationship. However, when you were the focus of blame, failure, and not good enough, it can leave you obsessing over what you could have done differently.
- Learning to trust again
This is related to coming to understand and accept what happened, that it was a result of this relationship, and noticing experiences with others that have a different quality and behaviour.
- Learning to express your emotions safely
Emotions can feel like all or nothing. Finding a safe place such as with a therapist can be important in learning to regulate and feel your emotions. Emotional expression is one of the central mechanisms you have to integrate your experience and heal trauma. Through a safe and supportive relationship, you can release the shame you carry from your experience.