This is part three in a series on how it felt to be in an abusive relationship; see parts one and two.
In another journal entry from many years ago, I wrote:
I’m afraid of so many things, I might as well be afraid of my own shadow.
For a long time, I was too scared to read The Gift of Fear because I thought it would only give me more things to be afraid of.
Perhaps you’ve been hesitant to read it too, so let me assure you: It did not. I feel much less afraid now.
To paraphrase, “When you can hear the quiet windchimes of alarm, you don’t need sirens.”
In the same journal entry, I also wrote:
Part of the problem is I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I’m too muddled in too many areas: Friends, family, boyfriend, work (what?), and home (where?)!!
As Steve Pavlina says, “If you’re in denial about one area of your life, you’re in denial about all areas of your life.”
No wonder I couldn’t think clearly. I was deeply in denial about the fact that I did not want to be with this person.
And, no wonder I couldn’t hear myself think: The key trait of an abuser is that they’re always telling their partner what to think.
When I finally got out and started doing what I wanted to do, my life turned to color. Only then could I see I had been living in black and white.
More things I’ve learned
Quotes below are from Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft, unless otherwise noted. I didn’t understand abuse until I read this book. I consider it essential reading.
“Abusers almost never seem like the type.”
Abusers can be soft-spoken academics who call themselves feminists; “successful business-people”; “sailing instructors”; anyone.
“The good times made the bad times possible.”
If there were no good times, you wouldn’t have been together in the first place.
“Almost no abuser is mean or frightening all the time. At least occasionally he is loving, gentle, and humorous and perhaps even capable of compassion and empathy.”
It’s okay to go back and forth between mourning the loss, and acknowledging that perhaps the good times were never really that good.
Nice does not equal good.
“‘He was so nice’ is a comment I often hear from people describing the man who, moments or months after his niceness, attacked them. We must learn and then teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.”
—Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear
Abusers have an abuse problem. You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t fix it. All you can do is walk away.
“Move out as soon as you can manage it. Abusers do not change as long as they have easy access to their targets.”
Although abusive people are often also alcoholic, mentally ill, and/or were themselves abused as children, these are separate issues. It is possible to have all these issues without being abusive.
What causes someone to be abusive is an underlying attitude: one of entitlement, superiority, control, and “above all,” the “belief that controlling or abusing his partner is justifiable.”
Quick rant: A lot of resources on dealing with people with alcoholism, depression, etc., are like “This person has a disease. When they say hurtful things to you, understand that it’s the disease talking, not the person.”
Except NO, A PATTERN OF ABUSIVE COMMENTS IS ABUSE, and it IS the person talking—there’s no disease where a symptom is “hurls abuse at loved ones”—and even if there were, I DON’T HAVE TO PUT UP WITH IT.
“People have choices about how they treat you. People can be ‘doing their best;’ their best can be not what you need. Not all help is helpful, intentions aren’t magic, people can mean well and do not so great. ‘I meant well’ and ‘I did my best’ can be true, that doesn’t mean it was okay and that nothing has to change.”
The abuser might have told you they loved you, but love (or their idea of it) is not enough. The antidote to this form of guilt-tripping (“I love you, therefore you owe me”) is to tell yourself, “I was loved, but not in a way that was healthy for me.”
Reflections on family
Update—Nov. 19, 2022: Some people mentioned they liked part two (in this series) the most. This post is more like a collection of odds and ends. Feel free to skip the rest of it. And also, to people who don’t get this next part…
(Video: “Read Between the Lines” by Tom Cardy.)
/end of update
If you’re in this situation, you probably come from a dysfunctional family. Your relatives probably share the same distorted thinking you were raised with.
(Remember how in part two, I said to talk to someone, but not one of your relatives? Obviously, you can talk to anyone you want, but this is why I said it. Again, I’m speaking to my younger self here.)
From the same Captain Awkward post I quoted above:
“If someone tells you they aren’t in touch with a parent anymore, before you tell them they’ll regret it or ‘you only get one mother!’ or open your mouth to say anything about ‘forgiveness’ or reconciliation, consider just how bad something would have to get for this to be the safest decision. Estranged parents like to pretend they get ignored and abandoned willy-nilly, my inbox tells the story of adult kids who have been auditioning for basic love and kindness for decades and not getting it and who still want desperately to connect.”
This Captain Awkward post also features a link to “Down the Rabbit Hole: The World of Estranged Parents’ Forums” on a website called Issendai.
…For which I am tremendously grateful. Here’s what I learned from it.
Quotes below are from “Why Are the Members of Estranged Parents’ Forums Different?”
“It’s impossible to be estranged ‘for no good reason’ without criticism avoidance.”
In cases where estranged parents “were better than their own parents”:
“They raised their children to have a little more self-esteem, a little less enmeshment, better defenses that let the children make healthier friends and see a way to a wider, kinder world. That, combined with a greater understanding of abuse and more support for victims, meant that children were healthy enough to recognize their situation as abusive and escape their parents’ orbit.”
Why do estranged parents remain confused? Because they avoid criticism at all costs.
“[Their stories are] often related with a timeline so mangled it might have been run through a blender. Estrangement comes at them like a punch in the dark.”
It’s like they can’t hear a word their children say.
“[When] criticism-avoidant people cry that their children cut them off suddenly for no reason… As far as they’re concerned, there was no reason. (At least, no reason they can remember, apart from all the abuse their children screamed at them, and something petty about eating their Halloween candy.)
[Criticism avoidance] guarantees that if the solution to a problem is ‘See what you’re doing wrong and fix it,’ the problem will never be solved.”
“[They] resist criticism so strongly that it alters their perceptions, making it impossible for them to absorb and act on the issues their children have with them. Unconsciously, it’s easier for them to bear the pain of estrangement—pain so intense that some estranged parents commit suicide—than to bear the pain of being wrong.
What can be done? I don’t know. […] But what I do know is: Change can still happen, a link further down the chain.”
You can break the cycle for yourself and your children. You have the power to change yourself.
Although “they suffered abuse as children” provides some answer as to “why” certain people are abusive, it does not excuse their behavior. There is no “why.” They’re abusive because they have an abuse problem. (The Issendai author knows this; she’s just explaining the dynamics at work here.)
You can understand their background; you can have compassion for them; you can even forgive them—but that doesn’t mean you have to keep going back for more pain.
I now understand that forgiveness is “a kind of inner letting go” (from Will I Ever Be Good Enough).
It’s “giving up the hope that the past could have been any different” (to paraphrase Oprah Winfrey).
For a long time, I felt like Simba in The Lion King, howling at an empty sky.
Now, I feel more like the heroine of The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeanette Walls:
When we got to the station, Dad turned to me. […]
“If things don’t work out, you can always come home,” he said. “I’ll be here for you. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know.” I knew that in his own way, he would be. I also knew I’d never be coming back.
One of the most helpful things I read was the second-last chapter of Why Does He Do That, “The Process of Change.” It contains this story:
There once was a man whose neighbors had a large and beautiful maple tree growing behind their house. It gave shade in the hot summers, turned stunning colors of fire in the fall as it dropped its leaves, and stood against the winter snow as a magnificent wooden sculpture. But the man hated his neighbors’ tree, because the shade that it cast into his yard made his grass grow poorly and stunted his vegetable garden, which was his passion. He pressured the neighbors repeatedly to either cut the tree down or prune it drastically, and their response was always the same: “You are free to cut any branches that stick out over your property, but beyond that we are going to leave the tree alone, because it is beautiful and we love it. We are sorry about the shade it casts on your side, but that is what trees do.”
One summer the neighbors went away on vacation for a week, and the man decided to rid himself of his aggravation. He took a chainsaw and cut their tree to the ground, making careful cuts so the tree would not fall on the neighbor’s house and destroy it but also directing it away from his own yard, so he wouldn’t have to clean it up. Then he walked home, fully satisfied if perhaps a little afraid. The next day he took his chainsaw, threw it in the dump, and prepared himself to deny having any idea who had brought the giant down, even though the truth would be obvious.
There was only one hole in his plan: He didn’t realize how popular his neighbors were, and he didn’t know how unbearable it would be to have the entire local population turn against him, to the point where no one would even look at him or talk to him. So the day finally came when the man realized his life would be wrecked for good unless he dealt with his destructive and selfish act. What steps did he have to take in order to set things right?
Bancroft goes through the steps in detail, once using the tree metaphor and then again in the context of “a man who has abused his partner.” I wish I could quote the entire thing.
Reading it was incredibly cleansing. For example, here’s why saying “I’m sorry” is not enough to earn forgiveness.
“An abuser may weave ‘I’m sorry’ into his pattern of abuse, so that when he says ‘I’m sorry,’ it becomes another weapon in his hand. His unspoken rule may be that once he has apologized, no matter how cursorily or devoid of sincerity, his partner must be satisfied; she is not to make any further effort to show her feelings about his mistreatment, nor may she demand that he fix anything. If she tries to say anything more about the incident, he jumps right back into abuse mode, yelling such things as, ‘I already told you I was sorry! Now shut up about it!'”
There is only one way to change: He must “stop his abusiveness completely and for good.”
You (I) will not accept anything less. And knowing that, we are free to walk away.
…Which reminds me of another Captain Awkward post:
If someone has a lot of words and feelings for you about what family obligations are supposed to be like but they only ever mean YOUR obligations to them, that’s a red flag. If your arguments with them constantly involve time traveling as a way to avoid accountability, that’s a red flag. ([…] Ever meet people where “the past doesn’t matter”, unless it’s things you did wrong in the past, which they can always bring up, but it’s extremely Not Fair for you to consider things they did in the past? And where, if you agree to that rule, so you try to focus on their behavior in the present, they immediately jump to a time in the past when you were in the wrong, and then you never actually get around to addressing the thing that’s bothering you here and now, because the argument always moves to a time when you’re wrong? Yeah, that’s a red flag). If someone is demanding “more closeness” with you and a) the only claim they have on you is faaaaaaaaaaamily b/c there isn’t anything enjoyable or kind in y’all’s history that would make you want to be around them AND b) they’re willing to do everything under the sun nowadays except be a minimum amount of kind and considerate to you and/or respect the basic things you asked them to do, who’s the one making things in your relationship weird and difficult? Consider that it’s not you?
After I got out, these books lit the path to recovery.
Codependent No More by Melody Beattie
“You must deal with your feelings before your feelings deal with you.”
“The only way to deal with feelings is to feel them.”
Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride
“Your grieving may take the form of intense sadness, anger, and even rage. Don’t act on these feelings other than to write them down. Don’t be destructive to yourself or others, but let yourself feel these emotions. Grieve until you can’t stand yourself anymore. I know I’m done with grieving something when I am sick of myself! Eventually you will go from feeling like you are carrying huge luggage with you every day of your life to being a light traveler who has discarded her baggage and is now feeling only intense relief.”
“I have never seen myself as a raging, angry person. […] I see now that I had to be this raging, bitchy victim to get to the other side.”
In short, you must feel all the ways it feels to be human.
Relevant (warning, song lyrics NSFW):
Video: “Artificial Intelligence” by Tom Cardy.
Eventually, you’ll get to a place where:
“You have stepped out of the shadows of a childhood filled with anxiety into the sunshine of confidence and competence.”
Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood
“If you choose to begin the process of recovery, you will change from a woman who loves someone else so much it hurts into a woman who loves herself enough to stop the pain.”
Note: Although I got some helpful things from this book, it’s quite victim-blame-y. You can see that from the title alone (as if “it’s the woman’s fault for loving too much”). So, only read it if you’ve read The Gift of Fear and Why Does He Do That first.
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson
“People who engage in self-discovery and emotional development get to have a second life; [they get] to start over.”
“How many people get to be awake and aware for the emergence of the person they were always meant to be? How many people get to have two lifetimes in one?”
Speaking emotionally (and at risk of sounding like a cult member): I dealt with the feelings, felt them, grieved, whined, raged, and grieved some more; got to the other side, transformed, and was born again.
You may cry an ocean of tears, but one day, they’ll run dry.
And you’ll know that you are done. You are out. You are free.
Video: “No Tears Left To Cry” by Ariana Grande.
Disclaimer (added Aug. 15, 2022): When I say “done,” I don’t mean I’m done grieving and recovering, once and for all, forever. This is a lifelong process. There is no before and after—only during. But I am done enough.
 From chapter 15:
“True fear is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of danger. […] When you accept the survival signal as a welcome message, […] fear stops. Thus, trusting intuition is the exact opposite of living in fear. In fact, the role of fear in your life lessens as your body and mind come to know that you will listen to the quiet wind-chime, and have no need for Klaxons.”
 I can’t remember exactly where I read this. Here’s a quote expressing a similar concept:
“You can’t cheat in one area of your life without suffering the consequences in ALL areas. [For example,] if you cheat your health, then in the long run this will hurt your career, your relationships, your finances, your emotional state, and your sense of spiritual connectedness.”
From “Living Congruently,” stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/02/living-congruently/.
 I couldn’t allow that thought to surface, because then I’d be overwhelmed by the vast unknowns spreading out before me. (Confronting them turned out to be both the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and easier than continuing the way things were.)
 From Why Does He Do That?, introduction:
“One of the prevalent features of life with an angry or controlling partner is that he frequently tells you what you should think and tries to get you to doubt or devalue your own perceptions and beliefs.”
 From Why Does He Do That, chapter three:
“[As a counselor for abusive men], among my clients I have had: numerous doctors, including two surgeons; many successful businesspeople, including owners and directors of large companies; about a dozen college professors; several lawyers; a prominent—and very mellow-sounding—radio personality; clergypeople; and two well-known professional athletes. One of my violent clients had spent every Thanksgiving for the past ten years volunteering at his local soup kitchen. Another was a publicly visible staff member of a major international human rights organization. The cruelty and destructiveness that these men were capable of would have stunned their communities had they known.”
 “‘We Are Spartacus!’: Open Thread & Resources On Family Estrangement And Adult Relationships With Difficult Parents.” Captainawkward.com/2019/10/29/we-are-spartacus-open-thread-resources-on-family-estrangement-and-adult-relationships-with-difficult-parents/.
 “Why Are the Members of Estranged Parents’ Forums Different?” Issendai.com/psychology/estrangement/summary.html.
 “#1182, #1183, #1184: ‘Do I have to be friends with my sibling?’ or, Advice For Relationships You Don’t Want to Lose But Don’t Want To Work At.” Captainawkward.com/2019/03/04/1182-1183-1184-do-i-have-to-be-friends-with-my-sibling-or-advice-for-relationships-you-dont-want-to-lose-but-dont-want-to-work-at/.
Leave a Reply