And 5 other things you need to remember about being in a relationship with an abuser.
It’s hard to admit you’re being abused, but it’s even harder to admit you’re being abusive, because the conversation about abuse, as it currently stands, focuses too much on people and too little on behavior.
When we speak of hypothetical emotional abuse, we imagine that the abuser is in complete control, and we imagine not only that they know how much power they have over their victim, but that they delight in it. We imagine pawns in the hands of a person who knows exactly how to manipulate others into following their will.
Yet most abusers have been abused themselves, and they have been conditioned to believe their behavior is normal. They were once emotionally manipulated by a scared and insecure person they trusted, and so now, when they become scared and insecure in future relationships, they imitate the same behaviors that their own abusers used on them.
If they were abused by a previous romantic partner, they see that abusive behavior as normal when forming future romantic relationships. If they were abused by a parent, they see that abusive behavior as normal when having children of their own. If they were abused by a teacher, priest, camp counselor, or any other authority figure, they see that abusive behavior as normal when they become authority figures themselves.
On the other hand, attempting to rationalize abusive behavior is often what keeps us in abusive relationships, and when the relationships end, we dismiss any sympathy for our abuser as a byproduct of their mind games. They do deserve our sympathy, but we deserve better than to let our sympathy compel us into sacrificing our own well-being for theirs.
Whether you find yourself defending an abusive partner or condemning them, here are five things to remember after you end the relationship:
#1 — All abuse is emotional abuse.
We often talk about emotional abuse like a lesser category of abuse, when in reality, it’s the centerpiece of all abuse. A survivor of physical abuse remembers the pain of being hit, but it’s the humiliation, the powerlessness, and the feeling that the abuse was somehow deserved, that cause the real trauma. A victim of emotional abuse feels all of these things, too.
When male victims are abused by a female partner, they feel the additional shame of “not being man enough.” Their partner will usually be smaller, so any allegations of physical or sexual abuse will likely be mocked. Strength and sexual dominance are qualities by which we measure masculinity, and if a woman uses abuse to make a man feel week and sexually passive, the subsequent shame will bolster the effects of the abuse. With physical abuse, we worry about what our partner would do if we fought back; with sexual abuse, we worry about what would happen if we ever dared to reject sex.
In the end, it’s all the same: we feel we deserve the abuse we’re enduring and fear that we will never find a happier relationship with someone more stable. We worry that we might be the unstable ones, after all, or that we might be the ones making the relationship unhappy. So whether we’re being hit, raped, verbally attacked or manipulated, we decide to stay.
#2 — Your abuser thinks you have all the power.
The scariest thing about abusive relationships is the mind of the abuser, revealed by the convoluted way they rationalize their actions. When they scream, throw objects, destroy property, slam doors, or stomp around the room, they always rationalize it by declaring, “You’re making me this crazy!” It’s not normal for an adult to throw tantrums like this, and your abuser agrees, but they see you as the abnormal one for daring to provoke such a tantrum.
When a significant other sends fourteen unanswered texts within an hour and then proceeds to call your phone at three A.M., they view this domineering behavior as your fault, too. “How could you scare me like that?” they say. “I was worried about you. If I’m worried about you, I’m going to call you no matter what time of the night it is. If you don’t want me to, then don’t ignore my texts!” In their mind, their need to communicate with you is a genuine emergency, but are they really afraid for your safety, or are they threatened by the idea of you having a life independent from them?
We all have insecurities, but an abusive person has extreme insecurities that keep them from ever fully trusting you. They will feel jealous of the time you want to spend away from them and paranoid that you’re secretly using that time in a way that betrays the relationship. It starts with Platonic friends, but eventually all of your friends become a threat in some way, and eventually, even your career is taking a backseat to a relationship that has no sustainable future.
#3 — Your abuser genuinely believes they are helping you by taking control of your life.
When your abuser isn’t flying off the handle with tantrums, late-night phone calls, and random accusations of cheating, they are most likely giving you level-headed pep talks about all the flaws you need to work on improving. In some instances, they might be right. You are flawed. We all are, and we all need improvement. However, in these types of relationships, your partner is only interested in “fixing your flaws” when it serves their interests.
The concept of pulling you away from other friends is a perfect example: maybe you do have some toxic friends, and maybe they do need to go, but that’s for you to decide, not your partner. If your partner is overly concerned with getting rid of your “toxic” friends, it’s only a matter of time before all your friends are fair game. Then, when you try to leave, they’ll throw it back in your face, reminding you that you have no friends and that you’re going to be alone now…never acknowledging that they are the reason you (allegedly) have no friends, which is now the only thing keeping you trapped in this relationship.
Your abuser is scared that they will never find the person they’re actually looking for, and even more scared that they won’t be worthy of such a person when they find them. So instead, they try to change you into the person they want to be with, and they tell you (and themselves) that it’s for your own good.
#4 — When making you dependent on them doesn’t work, your abuser will become dependent on you.
Another common behavior of abusive people is asking for favors they know you can’t grant them, thereby setting you up to fail. If your abuser has abandonment issues (as many do), they will view any unexpected change of plans as “abandonment” and throw your insensitivity back in your face to regain control.
Once you realize that you deserve better, you will likely start making moves to leave the abusive relationship. At this point, there will be likely be some crying, as is sometimes appropriate at the end of a relationship, but chances are you’ll be impervious to it, because your abuser has been subjecting you to over-the-top crying since the beginning. Just like the violent tantrums, these crying episodes are seen as your fault. After all, normal adults don’t cry that way, so like any victim of an abusive relationship, you wonder what you did to cause this.
When you leave, the crying will be accompanied by desperation. It’s not enough to say you’re leaving; they have to say you’re “abandoning” them, or “betraying” them, or that they “can’t live without you” and they “want to die.” None of these things are a reflection on you in any way. They are the last-ditch effort of an abusive person trying to regain the control they’ve lost.
And if you’re in too deep, there’s a chance this might work on you. There’s a chance that you’ll stick around and console your abuser because you hate seeing them in pain. Then they’ll go back to shaming you, isolating you, trying to “fix” you, and whatever else it takes to make you the dependent one again.
#5 — You don’t owe your abuser anything, but you owe it to yourself to let go of your anger and grow from the horrific experience.
When you look at your abuser, you see a good, albeit extremely flawed, person deep down. Your hope is that communication will heal the relationship and bring you the life you want. It won’t. If you feel abused, it’s your responsibility to leave. By staying, you’re not only doing yourself a disservice; you’re giving your abuser yet another excuse to rationalize their own actions. Yes, they can change, but it isn’t your responsibility to change them, and they are far less likely to stay if they have you around to abuse.
Calling a partner abusive (even if it’s the truth) serves no purpose other than to gain control over them. You’re deliberately making them feel guilty, which in turn either exacerbates their abusive behavior or compels them to give you what you want. That is its own form of emotional abuse, and two wrongs don’t make a right. Stop trying to gain control over your abusive ex-partner. Cut all ties with them and gain control over yourself.
Our inability to do this is the main reason we feel stuck in abusive relationships. We don’t want to admit that we’re powerless, so we instead lie to ourselves and futilely try to regain the power, whether our motivation is blind optimism or revenge. Either way, by sticking around, we will simply find ourselves being abused again until we leave, and in the end, all we wish is that we had left sooner.
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