Moving on from emotional abuse (TW)

 |  Relationships

Trigger warning: emotional abuse, link to/veiled references to sexual abuse

One of the hardest parts about moving on from an emotionally abusive relationship has been recognising the impact that it has had on aspects of my personality and my own behaviour. I am regularly taken by surprise by my reactions to seemingly inconsequential events because of expectations based on previous experience. I will often detach, feeling like I am watching both the situation unfold and my own emotions that follow, knowing that often my reaction is disproportionate to what has happened, but feeling completely powerless to do anything about it. As someone who considers themselves strong and independent and able to deal with an incredible amount of trials and tribulations (TW), this is physically painful to me and does nothing to ease the trauma.

Take for example this every day sort of incident: not long after Gaz and I started seeing each other, he was walking through the kitchen of his flat when stubbed his toe on a portable radiator he had against the back wall. He yelped in pain/surprise and I physically winced. Not in sympathy or acknowledgement of his pain, but because of a sudden overwhelming fear that enveloped my body. My eyes started to water, I felt adrenaline surging through my body as the fight or flight reaction took hold. My body, my reaction, completely out of tune with what should have been an “oooh, are you ok love?” response. It took hours for me to ‘come down’ from that, and it was only months later that I was able to fully explain to Gaz what I had experienced in that moment. He, of course, didn’t even remember stubbing his toe (why should he?)

I know now that this response is caused by conditioning: that over time I have experienced so much negativity following incidents like that, that even though logically I knew I was safe and Gaz would react like a normal / rational person, my brain thought I was ‘in for it’. That I should expect verbal abuse because it would be all my fault.

I’m getting better at dealing with those sorts of incidents. Gaz tripped up the stairs recently (I’m making him sound incredibly clumsy) and although I had a wibble, my immediate emotional response was concern rather than fear.

However, one thing I still struggle with particularly during periods of high anxiety (generally in the week or so when I’m off the pill, and when I’m overly stressed or very tired) and can’t seem to shake is a different sort of fear: fear of abandonment. If I feel that I’ve done anything ‘wrong’ or that I’m causing upset I start to panic. Trigger for this can vary from something as harmless as a sarcastic comment meant in humour to Gaz physically turning around/away from me (with completely innocent intent). When this happens I am again gripped by feelings I have no control over, and this usually results in one of two reactions: I cry, and act like a needy child wanting reassurance, or I start to use passive aggressive behaviour in a push away/pull you close cycle, making sarcastic comments or resurfacing tiny irrelevant incidents in my head from months past to use as ‘ammo’ in case I need to argue, to fight. This in itself is a form of emotional abuse and it kills me that I recognise the things in my behaviour that have been done to me.

I have yet to wrap my head around why, when I was in that harmful relationship, I completely failed to spot or identify with any of the feelings that I experience now. I had no idea that I felt actual physical fear when I knew I was likely to be used as the excuse or blame for an incident not of my causing. It was just normal. It was how it was. To know that I was so completely out of touch with my own mind that I could not recognise something as powerful as fear makes me really, really fucking angry. And ashamed that I could be so stupid.

As a result of spending a huge part of my life waiting for incidents and accidents I’ve developed a weird sort of hypervigilance. I have empathy up to the eyeballs which allows me to very quickly identify with other people’s range of moods and feel spectacular depths of happiness (which itself causes me so much fucking pain: try being that person in the playground who cries at the sight of their child at the end of the school day “just because”) and, conversely, sadness. Anyway, this hypervigilance was vital in dealing with someone who operated on a very small scale of ‘okay’ and meant that I could try and react appropriately to nip a problem in the bud before it developed into a full blown argument. Of course this meant using the one thing I felt like I had any control over to try and placate and please: my body. The irony of this isn’t lost on me… having to fuck your way out of an argument is not empowering and the person in control was clearly never me.

The hypervigilance remains, but not everyone operates on a such a small scale of black or white in their emotional range. “Normal” people experience a range of feelings, which confuse my little internal radar. When Gaz comes home from work after a shit day and I can see the tiredness in his eyes and the stress in his expression, the “deal with this” alarm kicks in. I backtrack in my head to what I could have done, what part of my day made his stress my fault. A tiny part of my brain reminds me again and again that this wasn’t me but the tiny voice is drowned out by the shouts of “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” and “FIX THIS SHIT”. Of course I can’t fix it, because it’s not my problem nor responsibility to fix anything, and so the despair and uselessness floods in and Miss Fear of Abandonment comes aknocking.

I am getting better. Sometimes, when I feel something affecting the stability of my mood, I can talk myself down or distract myself from it. Sometimes I can fix things with a long run. Sometimes I type out stupidly long blog entries (although I usually delete them). Sometimes I spend money unnecessarily (less ideal). Mostly I just lean on Gaz and remember that I am very lucky to have found someone who isn’t scared by the journey I have yet to take, and who hasn’t faltered when I’ve needed him so far.

Jem Turner +44(0)7521056376

6 comments so far

  1. mumblies said:

    It is totally normal to expect all people to react how previous relationships were, I treated your Dad with the fear of being hit and how the emotional fear was sat there waiting for me to say or do that gave Ian an excuse for violence. It took me a long time before I trusted Keith to not use blackmail and blame to live with. Of course I did eventually figure it out and I came to understand he was not like that. Your Dad was /is a quiet placid bloke and just not like my ex at at all.He taught he that not all guys are violent and that I could trust him. I see the same in Gaz and I know that however long it takes he will eventually fill the gap and you will stop blaming yourself.

    Nobody should have to live in constant fear be and I’m hoping you will eventually pick up the pieces and start over. I am furious with Karl and believe me if he hurts you again I will kick seven shades of shite out of him regardless of disability. He hurt my daughter which give me the right to sort him back. It has been a very short time and already I see the result in you, Gaz put the smile back on your face and a happy in your step since you met Gaz and for this I’m greatful. I’m sorry that you didn’t feel that you could come here and talk. I’d thought that all my kids knew that but I also know how hard it it can be to raise the subject.

    Know this, if you ever feel you need to talk that you can, and that you don’t need permission to come home for whatever you need, just that I wish you had come to see me sooner. Just bear in mind there will always be mash and chicken groovy for my family

    • Jem said:

      I write because it’s cheap therapy. It helps me process stuff and move on. I want to move on: to forgive. Retaliation and violence aren’t a part of that. But then I’m fairly sure it was you who taught me that two wrongs don’t make a right, mum.

  2. Helen said:

    Couldn’t read and run. I had a very damaging relationship once. I’m not going to go into too much for it was mostly emotional abuse.

    Occasionally physical, but mostly emotional.

    When we finally broke up, when I finally found the strength to leave him, I found myself a few months later with a lovely guy. I suddenly found aspects of my behaviour like how my ex had treated me and it was horrible, I felt ashamed, it was horrifying.

    And then the fear of abandonment also kicked in for me.

    *hugs* I’m glad you’re getting better.

  3. Eli said:

    So, here’s a thing about normalcy. When you grow up with abuse, especially as a child, you have no idea what a “normal” or “rational” life partner is, much less what a “normal” relationship look like. You can justify anything.

    I was in a relationship for four years. The first year, he broke up with me twice, once before Christmas, another right before I was about to graduate from college. When he broke up with me the first time, my parents said he was trash, and told me to call the whole thing off. I decided to stop talking to my parents about my relationship because, obviously, they “didn’t understand us.” He cheated on me AND THEN broke up with me right before I graduated from college. My friends told me he didn’t deserve me. I decided to stop talking to my friends because, well, “they didn’t understand me like he did.” I begged him to come back to me. The three months we were apart, I spent every day crying. He “took me back,” and I spent the next year trying to “do everything right” so he would never “have to cheat on me” again.

    Next year was relatively uneventful. We took a trip abroad that summer. When we were on vacation, I got sick, and then he got sick. I spent the next couple weeks taking care of him, feeling so guilty that “I got him sick.” He tried to solicit a prostitute during the last week of our vacation. I was mad and insulted, and then I was convinced that I was being irrational. Of course he respected me. Of course the prostitute was a drunken mistake. Of course I overreacted.

    The third year we were together, I commuted two hours every day on the bus to spend time with him. It was “too much.” He needed “personal space.” He started drinking. He broke up with me every other week. I cried myself to sleep every night. I felt unloved, and unloveable. There was something obviously wrong with me because I wanted to be with him. He was “obviously not ready” to share his life with me. My friends (new set of friends this time!) told me he was a drunk, and an abusive and violent person, and I didn’t listen because obviously, they didn’t know how “gentle” and “kind” and “nice” he was “when he was not drinking”.

    The last year of our relationship, we were not even “seeing” each other because he had already moved to a different state. The fact that I still took the train to see him every three months was inconsequential. He was sleeping with other people. He was doing fieldwork abroad and while abroad, he had sex, but “not with a prostitute” (because she insisted that she was not).

    The (not so funny) thing is, I didn’t consider myself a dense person. I had degrees coming out of my ass. I was well respected professionally, and I was successful outside of my relationship. My parents were educated. All my friends were well educated as well. NOBODY who saw us together had EVER said that we were a good couple. Nobody in my life encouraged me to stay in this relationship. And had it not been for the fact that I tried to kill myself, and he decided that that was too “dramatic” for me and cut me out of his life completely, I would not have gotten out of this relationship as “quickly” as I did. In my head, I had grown up with emotional abuse all my life. I saw many, many intelligent, capable women trapped in dead-end relationships, unable to leave their spouses. I swore to myself I would never end up in one myself, and because I believed so strongly in not being in an abusive relationship, I never could see my own relationship as an abusive one.

    Being smart does not protect you from abusive relationships. Having experienced abuse does not protect you from abusive relationships. If anything, the combination makes you better at adapting different defensive mechanisms so that when you ARE in an abusive relationship, you survive and come to see it as “normal.” And you come up with all sorts of ways to do away with other people’s effort to convince you that you are in a toxic relationship. And you sort of congratulate yourself and dwell in your own suffering because you think that it makes you strong.

    • Jem said:

      Thank you for sharing your story. I felt so angry for you just reading through that. :(

      I found it particularly pertinent that you mentioned seeing others in abusive relationships not ‘saving’ you from the same fate. One of the things that was really hard for me to come to terms with was that, having seen close family members involved in their own abusive relationships, I was determined I would never let it happen to me. I was not going to be ‘that’ person. And it did, and I missed it completely.