Exiting the psychologically abusive relationship

There are a lot of different problems people face that might compel them to seek the help of a therapist. Among the most common are depression, anxiety, substance abuse, grief, low self-esteem, and relationship issues, plus a few more. When it comes to relationship issues, one problem that is fairly prevalent is the individual who is trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship.

This is an issue that cuts across all demographic lines. Men, women, straight, gay, wealthy, destitute – no societal group is immune. Traditionally, the problem was seen mostly in terms of women who were emotionally/psychologically abused by men; however, recent studies indicate that men and women psychologically abuse each other at equal rates. In my practice, most of the clients who suspect they are being psychologically abused are women, but this group also includes several men, some straight, some gay.

You might have noticed I use the term “suspect they are being psychologically abused,” as opposed to “being psychologically abused.” This is because a lot of people aren’t really sure if they are in a psychologically abusive relationship. I’m going to go out on a limb a bit here and make a broad statement: If you think you might be in a psychologically abusive relationship, then you probably are.

Not all abuse is obvious. Some perpetrators of abuse are very skilled at causing their victims to doubt their own perceptions. The popular term for this phenomenon is gaslighting. Much has been written about this topic, including several articles that can help individuals determine if they are being gaslighted. These include statements to the effect that the individual is “too sensitive,” or even that they are “remembering it wrong.” In these situations, the victim is likely to become confused and depressed, and even begin to doubt her own sanity.

Gaslighting is one type of manipulation. Another common method is to use guilt. Making someone feel guilty is a very effective way of getting them to do what you want. No one likes to feel guilty, and psychological abusers can be extremely effective at eliciting feelings of guilt – even if their victims have done nothing wrong, as is often the case.

My years as a therapist have made one thing very clear: it is often extremely difficult to exit an abusive relationship. This is especially true of psychologically abusive relationships. One of the rationales to remain in such a relationship that comes up fairly often is, “Well, it’s not like he’s hitting me.” The underlying logic of this statement is that anything short of physical abuse should be tolerated. This logic does not hold up well to scrutiny; however, it is often cited by individuals who are being psychologically abused.

Another thing that has become clear to me is that a therapist telling someone they need to get out of an abusive relationship can do more harm than good. Here’s why: if I or another therapist tell a client she needs to get out of a relationship, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. The client simply might not be at a point where she is able to do so. But if she feels the therapist thinks she should exit the relationship, she is likely to feel embarrassed by her inability to do so, and that embarrassment might cause her to quit coming to therapy. This is not the desired result. Most victims of psychological abuse are already being told by numerous friends and family members that they need to get out, so the message is nothing new. It is the job of the therapist to create a safe, judgment-free zone where the client can gain a greater understanding of his or her behavior, and ultimately make healthy changes. This process can take longer than many people would like it to, and it requires patience, empathy, and understanding.

If exiting an abusive relationship were easy, there would be no reason to talk about it. It can be extraordinarily difficult. There are many possible reasons for this, and these reasons need to become a focus of therapy for the abused client. I saw a woman in her mid-twenties who had come to me because of “relationship problems” with her boyfriend. It soon became evident from her description of their interactions that she was being psychologically abused. Everyone she knew was telling her to leave the guy, who lived in another state. At some point I asked her if she wanted me to tell her what to do. She said, “Please.” I asked her what she would advise a friend to do in a similar situation. She frowned and said, “I’d probably tell her to get out, but…”

“But what?”

“But I really love him.”

This is another rationale for staying in an abusive relationship: Love. But it’s time for a hard truth: If you are “in love” with someone who disrespects, criticizes, shames, or controls you, what you are feeling probably isn’t love. It’s better described as “dependency.” This may be difficult to hear. But when I ask people what they want from their love relationship, no one has ever answered with anything like shame or manipulation or abuse. That’s not what love is, and love doesn’t keep us tied to those things.

Consider this: everyone deserves to have a loving relationship. But the fact is, not everyone is capable at this point in their life of engaging in a loving relationship. It’s a fair question to ask of your partner: Is this person capable of giving me the things I want and deserve in a relationship? And I don’t mean at some undetermined point in the future. I mean right now. It is a mistake to get involved with someone for whom you think he or she might become. “But he has so much potential,” one might say of someone who is exhibiting warning signs of an abuser. This is a mistake.

Here’s another hard truth: couple’s counseling isn’t going to fix your partner. Many clients have informed me they were desperately trying to talk their partner into coming to therapy for a couple’s session, or two, or several. I repeat: couple’s counseling is not going to remedy your partner’s issues if he or she is a perpetrator of abuse. Yes, people are capable of change, but if a person’s behaviors are controlling, manipulative, or abusive, several prerequisites must be met before change occurs. First, the person has to admit he or she has a problem. And by this, I don’t mean to concede a minor problem in order to quell a debate. It has to be a genuine admission. Many people are never going to reach this first step. Secondly, the person has to be willing to get help. Again, this must be genuine. Plenty of people have agreed to go into therapy in order to get someone off their back. Guess how often that works out? Third, the person then must be willing to engage in a process of growth and change for as long as it takes. A few sessions aren’t going to do it. Lots of partners have gone to therapy for a few weeks, and then pronounced themselves “cured.” This is not realistic. If the problem were some minor issue, then a few weeks might do the trick. But perpetrators of abuse have issues that are far beyond “minor.” And they are their issues – not yours.

Neither you, nor me, nor anyone else can “fix” your partner. It doesn’t matter how badly you want to. You don’t have the kind of power it takes to create that kind of change. This could be bad news or good news, depending on how you look at it. It’s bad news, in that you are not in control. It’s good news in that, if your partner doesn’t change, it isn’t your fault. If someone told you to go push over a mountain, and you tried, and couldn’t, would that mean you failed? Consider the notion it’s not a failure if it were never a possibility to begin with. You have a better chance of pushing over a mountain than you do of “fixing” someone.

If you are in an abusive relationship, your problem isn’t that your partner doesn’t seem to want to change. The problem is that you are still with that person. Maybe you are holding onto an unrealistic hope that he will change. Maybe you are afraid to be alone. Maybe you are worried that no one else will have you, that this person is your only hope. Maybe you believe deep down that this is what you deserve. Maybe there are other reasons. Whatever the reasons, they are discoverable. A bit of advice – please resist the temptation to fall back on the convenient reasoning that you are just too screwed up, or that you’re crazy. Very convenient, but also quite hopeless-sounding. Don’t buy it. There is hope.

Being locked in an abusive relationship is very much like being addicted to a terrible drug, and exiting that relationship is very much like giving up an addictive substance. The risk of relapse is often quite high. In fact, this is why a support group like Co-Dependents Anonymous can be quite helpful. CODA is a 12-Step program, based on the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous. 12-Step programs have the advantage of being readily accessible – they’re all over the place. They are not the only game in town, however. There is a list of resources at the end of this article that may be helpful for the individual who is contemplating or in the process of exiting the abusive relationship.

One thing I tell my clients if and when they make the decision to leave an abusive partner: you must cut off ALL ACCESS to him or her, and I mean everything. That means you have to block them from your phone, your email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, any and every means that would allow them to get to you. If you don’t, then you are setting yourself up for failure. This is like the alcoholic who quits drinking but keeps a bottle stashed away “just in case.” It is an indication the person isn’t fully committed to the idea of getting out. I have heard people justify their decision to continue to maintain some kind of access to their abusive partner, usually via Facebook, in order to “keep tabs” on their ex. Don’t kid yourself about this. If you leave any form of access open, your ex will use it to manipulate you into coming back. And now it’s time for another hard truth: your ex’s over-the-top efforts to win you back might seem romantic, and an indication of their fierce love for you, but it’s not. That behavior isn’t about love, it’s about control. Many perpetrators cannot abide someone breaking up with them, because it represents a loss of control on their part. That’s what manipulation is about: control. Perpetrators want to be in control of you, and if they can’t have you, then they want to be in control of how the relationship ends. Their thinking is, “Nobody breaks up with me.” There is nothing loving about this way of thinking.

If you are thinking of exiting an abusive relationship, your chances of getting out and staying out are better if you have a good support system. This can include family, friends, a support group, and a therapist. A good therapist will have the advantage of helping you to understand your reasons for why you think, feel, and behave as you do, without creating more stress by putting a lot of pressure on you to leave your partner before you are ready. On the other hand, a therapist can help you in the process of getting ready to leave, as well as clarify the benefits of doing so, and maintaining support during the process.

Here are some resources that might be helpful to the individual who is or might be in an emotionally abusive relationship. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and these and many others are easily found using Google:

10 Signs You Are a Victim of Gaslighting:

Co-Dependents Anonymous: CoDa.org

Are You Being Gaslighted? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/power-in-relationships/200905/are-you-being-gaslighted

Is Your Partner Emotionally Abusive?http://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-love/emotional-abuse

Facts About Domestic Violence and Emotional Abuse: https://ncadv.org/files/Domestic%20Violence%20and%20Psychological%20Abuse%20NCADV.pdf

Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous: https://slaafws.org

Smart Recovery – an Alternative to 12-Steps: smartrecovery.org


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