When in the midst of an abusive relationship, whether that abuse takes the form of emotional torment or physical attacks, many people are quick to give advice such as “Just get out," “You deserve better” or “Do it for the kids." However, it is never that easy.
In fact, such advice may be a source of frustration as the individual may rationally know what to do but knows there are roadblocks that play part in it all.
From a psychological perspective, the process of breaking out of an abusive cycle involves a two-pronged approach:
What's happening here and now, and how to do you make immediate change? What has happened before, and how did you end up in this situation in the first place?
1. Exploring Fear
The situation you are in now is real, but the level of fear you feel around your decisions might not be. Many people fear the consequences of walking out. Will their partner be more abusive after they leave? Will they get support if they leave? How will the kids be? How will I survive on my own?
These fears might drive behaviors such as denial and minimizing, which only serves to avoid making the wrong choice or getting hurt even more. As long you feed these thoughts, your abuser is in control. And to challenge their abuse is to challenge your fears around them.
Changing perceptions is the first step. When I cross paths with anyone who I “perceive” as manipulative or a threat, I first catch myself to make sure I remain in “adult” mode (i.e. emotionally calm, with a sense of separation from the person). They are not me, and I am not them. This is not something I am choosing. This is the product of their reality, which they are forcing onto me and they are wrong. The issue is them, not you.
Fear is not a problem, it's a defense mechanism which mobilizes to try and protect you, not debilitate you. It is trying to tell you something isn't right. Listen to it, but don't let it make your decisions. Don't panic, and don't rush. Write down each major fear you have around the situation and challenge each one. For example:
"I won't be able to cope alone."
It's important to remember what you were like before you met your partner. It may have been a struggle, but you survived. You may have had problems paying bills, dealing with emotions, but you survived. Humans have a capacity for survival far greater than our minds allow us to believe. Believe you will make it through, no matter what happens.
"No one will support me."
The right people will support you. The only challenge is finding those people. Ideally, people in your inner circle will be in a position to acknowledge what has happened and provide unconditional support, but that is not always possible due to their own fears or incapacity to empathize.
There are countless groups for domestic violence support. Many specialize not just in emotional support, but will also arm you with the legal advice, career advice and all the other skills you need to find your freedom.
"My children will hate me for tearing the family apart."
As a parent, you are the ultimate role model, even if you don't feel like you are. Through their relationship with you, they learn self-respect, setting boundaries and prioritizing their needs. Leaving the abusive relationship is the best thing you can do for them. Be honest with them, trust their resilience and ensure they know the situation had nothing to do with them.
2. Disable The Abuser
Despite outward appearances, all abusers are filled with fear, the source of which is unique for each. They might not fear the consequences of their actions towards you, but they might fear losing control, being abandoned or being afraid.
Finding out what's driving their fears can help in disempowering them. If they fear losing control, recognize the lack of control in themselves. If they fear being left alone, acknowledge they need you more than they project and if they are afraid of being afraid, see the child inside them who is terrified and truly co-dependent.
Viewing any abuser as a small child can have the power of taking away the seriousness of their actions. The major exception to this is physical abuse, but seeing the underlying immaturity and insecurity might take the emotional sting away from their actions and help you act from an adult place.
Like any child being disruptive, treat them as such. Don't try to have an adult conversation with them, and don't try to reason with them. Accept that there is a developmental issue, and speak to them accordingly. However, be careful not to be condescending, as this might fuel their anger. Try to maintain balance and be assertive, accept they will continue to push boundaries, but just like any child, they need to learn what they are doing is wrong and won't be tolerated.
The only real way to stop the abuse is to make it as public as possible. If you find people are not listening, talk to someone else and eventually you will be heard. Keep detailed notes of the abuse (dates, times, etc.) to back up everything. The point is to ensure the abuser realizes it's a mistake, and people will find out.
3. Grounding Guilt
It's normal to feel guilt from time to time, but when it's stopping you from making healthy decisions for you and your children, it's time to assess its usefulness to your life.
What exactly are you feeling guilty of? The decision you made with your partner, your behavior leading up to the current situation or being neglectful of your children's needs?
Our emotions often drive our behaviors, and when we are in a heightened state of stress, it is hard to control our actions. Accepting our own humanity and separating action from intent helps to let go of past mistakes and the need to punish yourself.
4. Use Your Anger
Search beneath the fear and guilt, and you might find a deep level of anger. Society often judges those who are more prone to angry outbursts, but anger has its uses. It can act as the fuel that drives us to get out of bad situations.
That being said, it's important to make sure your anger is being projected onto the right person. If you feel your life is out of control, if you find yourself reflecting on how unfair the situation is or find yourself sick of asking for help, use the anger to build a path out.
Use the energy to plan the life you want, the partner you deserve and the career you dreamed of. Do nothing out of a need for revenge. Express the anger through a good life, a happy life and the abuser will have less of an impact on your new life.
5. Rebuilding Self-Esteem
Creating a sense of worth comes from decisive action and positive reaction. It comes from having our experiences validated, from scrapping any designated roles (whether its husband or wife, father or mother) and valuing ourselves as something separate and individual. This can easily get lost in life, as we cross paths with so many varied personalities with their own self-esteem issues and different ways of making themselves feel better.
Childhood experiences are important, especially parental attachments, which create a sense of being loved and belonging. If this was lacking due to a caregiver being absent or self-consumed with their own problems, chasing the love of others might become an obsession.
Loving yourself starts and ends with being softer on yourself. Be softer on yourself by mentally by pushing away self-criticism or blame, by emotionally allowing yourself to feel sad or angry/not suppressing these natural responses and physically by getting back in touch with your body and treating it like the most valuable property you will ever own.
Ultimately, rebuilding self-esteem is a process. And it starts the second you say NO and walk out the door.
This article was originally published on the author's personal blog.