Why Moving On From an Abusive Relationship is Hard

Delyse Ledgard, RCCRelationships

Letting Go of an Abusive Relationship.

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 from.

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 occur regularly.

Feelings of grief and sadness can be confusing when it is clear that the relationship is hurtful. Your sadness does not mean your decision to leave is wrong.

Common dynamics in an abusive relationship that make it hard to move on.

1 – Control

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, or 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.

There are many methods someone may use to control you.  These include
emotional manipulation
ignoring and dismissing
physical violence

Other important signs that your relationship is abusive when one partner in particular is;

feeling intimidated and afraid
feeling hopeless
being silenced
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 threats 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 were the only ones 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.

It can be difficult to take care of 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 own decisions can cause you to hold on to the relationship, or look for others to tell you what to do.

2 – Responsibility

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. 

Being blamed can lead to 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 can feel that you have failed.  Your self-worth has been dependent on the relationship working and we can get caught in needing to fix it even though we are no longer in it.

On the other hand, the hurt and resentment that you feel can cause you to want your ex to take responsibility for their actions.  It is reasonable to want someone to take accountability for their actions. However, holding on to an unrealistic expectation and fantasy that your ex will suddenly come to there senses and take desire and fanta It is easy to get into the blame game back and forth making it hard to move on.

3 – Betrayal

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 abusive relationships, 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 the betrayal leaves a deep loss. 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 experience leave you unable to express the pain and anger it causes.  This can also lead to emotional reactivity exploding once you end the relationship.

Steps in Healing from An Abusive Relationship.

1 – Gaining a sense of self

Start by identifying the things that are unique to you.
What do you enjoy doing?
Identify your opinions and write them down 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.

2 – Make mistakes

We all do. 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, causing you to struggle to make decisions and take action.  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. 

3 – Realize you can’t change anyone

It is reasonable that you wanted things to be different and have a right to be respected. In an abusive relationship where you are the focus of blame, failure, and not good enough, it can leave you obsessing over what you could have done differently. This often translates into taking responsibility for someone else’s behaviour. Learning to distinguish between what we can change and what we can’t is part of the recovery.

4 – Learning to trust again

Takes time. Trust and safety develop when we understand and accept what happened in this relationship and notice experiences with others who feel safe. We can begin to feel more confident in discerning who we can trust.

5 – Learning to express emotions

In an abusive relationship being vulnerable is dangerous and emotional expression can feel very vulnerable. 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 important in integrating your experience and healing trauma. Through a safe and supportive relationship, you can release the shame you carry from your experience