The Important Things I Learned After Leaving My Abusive Relationship

Me: “I’m starting to sound like a victim of abuse”

My therapist: “You are a victim of abuse”

As anyone who’s ever turned up to work on a Monday morning with wet hair, no makeup and covered in tea from the mug that was lobbed at them over breakfast knows, domestic abuse isn’t something of which the participants are necessarily aware until it’s been pointed out by someone else. Whenever I’d read about abuse in the past, I had imagined that both the perpetrator and the victim would be hyper-aware of their own reality. In practice, I have found that the opposite appears to be true, because of the amazing human skill of being able to normalise and minimise even the unhealthiest behaviour.

As a thirty-something, accomplished, ambitious, fiercely feminist, professionally successful and socially confident woman, I never expected that I would or could ever fall victim to domestic abuse. No, that was a life reserved for other poor souls. It wasn’t arrogance on my part, but rather the product of an otherworldliness that belonged to the stories I had read; they weren’t relatable to me. However, on a cold and wet January evening, on my triumphant return to therapy following a recent break-up, I was confronted with the harsh reality of my situation. I was a victim. A victim of emotional and psychological abuse. Me.

I sat there stunned for a while, and then challenged her: "I’m probably just exaggerating." "What if I got it all wrong? He doesn’t really mean to be so hurtful, he has emotional problems." "But he really loves me, unlike anyone else could." "If only I wasn’t so sensitive, so thin-skinned." "If only I could take criticism and realise he’s doing it out of love." "If only I wasn’t so insecure, I wouldn’t take everything so personally." On it went. "If only" followed by "if only", blame directed squarely and consistently at myself. This continued for days, weeks and months, such was the resilience of my denial.

There’s a strength to be gained from facing your own truth, from processing it, coming to terms with it, and understanding how it came to be. Over the past several months, I have been up and down more times than the temperature this summer but in the process I have learned a lot about myself, about relationships and about abuse, some of which I’d like to share with you.

Shame, guilt and denial are all normal feelings

Shame, guilt and denial are all normal feelings

When I first came out of my relationship, I was a shell of a human being. I had stopped eating, couldn’t sleep, was operating in a constant state of fight or flight and barely capable of fulfilling any obligations, at work or socially. Despite this, I was fundamentally incapable of accepting that what I had been through was abuse. I would sooner blame myself and my inability to cope, call myself a drama queen, minimise the behaviour and make light of it than accept the severity of the treatment I had been subjected to, which is, in itself, a classic symptom of abuse. With hindsight, I am able to see that this habit of blaming myself for the actions of someone else was a routine that had played out repeatedly throughout my relationship, and had become so instinctive, I had never stopped to question it. But once I finally started to realise the gravity of the situation, and with the help of a very supportive therapist, I was able to gain enough distance to see that these internalised responses were as much evidence of the abuse as the cruelty itself.

When you start talking, you won’t be able to stop…

When you start talking, you won’t be able to stop…

One of the hardest things I had to come to terms with upon leaving my relationship was how regularly and instinctively I had lied to just about everyone around me, including myself, for the entirety of my relationship. Yes, there were high points – there always are – and positive things, but I became an exceptionally talented spin doctor, capable of telling a story in a way that covered up awful treatment and made it sound like love. The night of my break-up, one of my closest friends came over for six bottles of wine, and I started talking. And talking. I told her everything, every single detail and she was horrified. Over the weeks and months that followed, I found great comfort in sharing my story with just about anyone, because I found their horror reassuring when I doubted my decision, and it validated all the challenging feelings I was confronting. It felt cathartic. It also acted like the vocal equivalent of lobbing a match on the detritus of my relationship so I could never, ever go back, because there were too many witnesses now, the price was too high. This helped me to stay strong when I had doubts.

...but at some point, you should stop

...but at some point, you should stop

About six months after my break-up, I had got so entrenched in my routine of telling everyone my horror story and seeking their reassurance that I forgot that at some point you need to stop and move on. The problem was, I was struggling to talk or even think about anything else. This was until a wise friend of mine gave me some incredible advice. She said: “Your words create your reality.” I’d become so used to telling this story in which I was a victim and he an aggressor that I had forgotten I was an interesting person with lots of things to talk about aside from this experience. It also made me feel like a victim when, actually, leaving him had been incredibly brave. I started being more conscious of when I was talking about him and gently stopped myself, favouring silence instead. This was the key to pushing me forward to the next stage of my recovery.

Leaving the relationship doesn’t necessarily signal the end of the abuse

Leaving the relationship doesn’t necessarily signal the end of the abuse

I soon found, after mustering the strength to finish the relationship, that this wasn’t the end I had hoped for but merely the beginning of a long and complicated process of disentanglement. My ex was convinced that we were on a break and did everything in his power to grapple back the control he was losing as I drifted further away. After months of calling from unknown numbers, camping outside my house, calling and texting my friends and family, stalking me, emailing constantly (each time pulling on a different heartstring), speaking to my colleagues, and harassing me on dating apps, I finally gathered the strength to threaten police action. It was so complicated inside the situation to see how every time I heard from him, my mood took a massive dip, but the threat of serious consequences was enough to scare him off (touch wood).

You’ll defend your abuser, even when logically you know it’s absurd

You’ll defend your abuser, even when logically you know it’s absurd

Emotions are really complex, and they don’t always connect seamlessly to your rational thoughts. Since leaving my relationship, I’ve had to get used to a feeling of separation between my thoughts and my feelings. Although I was party to the abuse, and can tell rationally that it was horrifying, I can’t make my feelings respond in the way you would expect them to; I can’t feel horrified. I still also find it incredibly hard to hear other people criticising my ex, or calling him names, and have to stop myself from immediately leaping to his defence. This has been the source of much frustration over the months, because it would be a lot easier to move on if I could hate my ex and believe he’s awful, but I can’t. I’ve found a peace in accepting this fact, and a peace in the certainty that one day, with distance, this will all make a lot more sense.

You will doubt yourself constantly

You will doubt yourself constantly

Hands up if you’re familiar with the term "gaslighting"? I wasn’t, but one particularly frantic night in the middle of my darkest period, while fiercely googling "emotional abuse" (I do this about once a week just to remind myself I’m not exaggerating), I came across it. The basic premise is that the abuser controls and manipulates their victim by making them question their own sanity. In my case, this was reinforced by the questioning of my mental health, and the repetition of adjectives like “flawed”, “messy”, “crazy”, “sensitive” and “insecure”. When you’ve been controlled for a prolonged period of time, you stop listening to yourself, and you listen instead to your abuser. Leaving a situation like this is tricky, because you’re out of the habit of trusting yourself, and doubt is a logical and natural part of that. Be patient, be kind to yourself, and try to cling on to the certainty that you made the right decision, because you absolutely did.

You’ll get used to relapsing, and eventually will learn how to deal with it

You’ll get used to relapsing, and eventually will learn how to deal with it

With every email, phone call and text message, my sanity wore away slowly. I would just about summon enough energy to start rebuilding when I got knocked down again, to the point where I could no longer see the sense in trying, because of the inevitability of the crash. And the lows would be crushing, chiefly because every time the pain returned, I felt like a failure for still feeling it, for not having conquered it. After a while, though, I learned to find comfort in this pain, and to stop fighting it. Instead I would acknowledge it, sit with it and wait for it to pass through me again, and it did. Having an emotional breakdown is exactly the same as suffering grave physical injuries – it takes time to recover and progress isn’t always linear, but it happens gradually.

You’ll miss them, and that’s OK

You’ll miss them, and that’s OK

I’m ashamed to admit that after all of the pain, torment, guilt, anxiety and sadness that I experienced at the hands of my ex, I have missed him regularly and intensely over the past few months. I still find myself imagining him lying behind me and holding me as I drift off many nights, and let myself remember the good times, when I felt warm and safe in his company. And that’s OK. Life isn’t always as black and white as you’d expect it to be and it’s possible to love someone with all your heart, even when they’re tearing you to pieces. But whenever I let myself fantasise about this, I force myself to remember the millions of times I cried myself to sleep as he angrily ignored my tears, and then I remember why I had to leave.

You’ll have moments of real clarity, and it’ll feel incredible

You’ll have moments of real clarity, and it’ll feel incredible

Despite the fact that on paper, the last six months have been the most tumultuous of my life, I have also experienced some moments of pure, unadulterated joy, because I’ve finally taken the time to listen to myself and value myself in a way that I never have before. As a result, on good days, I feel invincible and excited for the future, certain that my darkest days are behind me, and that’s really kinda cool.

You’ll learn the beauty of boundaries...

You’ll learn the beauty of boundaries...

After being on the receiving end of someone’s bad behaviour for an extended period of time, I became acutely aware of my lack of boundaries, and the need to put down and enforce them to ensure that I wasn’t mistreated again. As I started thinking about this, I started noticing other areas of my life that I was unhappy with, which could benefit from me setting some limits. In the beginning, this felt awkward and caused some difficulties in existing relationships as I started standing up for myself and my emotions. However, after a while, things started to become more natural, and I’ve noticed myself much stronger in situations that I would previously shrug off, for the sake of peace. And do you know what? It feels better!

...and to trust your gut

...and to trust your gut

If I’m completely honest with myself, I always knew something wasn’t right in my relationship. The constant battle between a head that’s saying “You deserve better” and a heart that’s protesting “But I love him!” is enough to drive anyone to distraction. After leaving my relationship, I was worried that my judgement was awful, but my mum reminded me that the fact that I hid a lot of what was going on means that my gut always knew it wasn’t right. So I made a vow to trust my gut from now on, even if the stakes are high, and so far it’s made for a calmer, more harmonious relationship between my head and my heart.

You’ll realise that your first responsibility is yourself

You’ll realise that your first responsibility is yourself

To be clear, nobody, I repeat, NOBODY, deserves to be mistreated by a partner or anyone in their life, and blame should never lie with the victim. But one thing I have learned is that in a lot of cases, certain behaviours can make you more vulnerable to abuse. As someone that has struggled with low self-esteem the majority of my life, it has been hard but necessary to admit that my constant self-bullying throughout my life made it harder for me to recognise someone else’s, because, sadly, I agreed with them. I thought they were telling the truth. What I have learned throughout this whole process is that your value and worth as a person is not defined by anyone but you, and the way that you love yourself is how others learn to love you. So take the time to reconnect with yourself. Do things you enjoy that build your confidence and make sure you remind yourself of all the amazing qualities you possess, because there are millions of them!

You’ll realise how many amazing people there are in the world…

You’ll realise how many amazing people there are in the world…

...and that you are one of them.

If you are involved in an abusive relationship, there are people who can help. Give Women's Aid a call on 0808 2000 247.

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