Advice: When Warning Signs Fail

Advice on recovering from a volatile relationship.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I was 33 and my girlfriend 30, separated with two children, when we met. She told me that her marriage had ended over her own infidelities and that she had had a two-year affair with an abusive drug dealer with whom she went on a months-long binge, leaving her children with her ex. Her own mother warned me that her daughter was "a whore" and would cheat on me. Eventually my girlfriend moved to her parents' home in another city to go to nursing school. I visited monthly and tried to protect her from her mother. I got little emotional support from my girlfriend but offered much for all the trauma in her life. When I suggested she get professional help, she insisted that everything wrong was my fault. I soon ended the relationship. I am still angry that I didn't stand up for myself, that I trusted her, and that I expected she would eventually apologize. A therapist I saw afterward suggested I undergo EMDR, which I had done in the past because of sexual abuse as a child. This should be an open and shut case for moving on—it was the pinnacle of unhealthy relationships. So why, two years later, am I writing you for help with letting go?

Hara Estroff MaranoBecause it certainly was a dramatic experience that became the center stage of your life. Trying to protect another is certainly more exciting than attending to your own inner needs, especially when you think it carries the promise of heroism. Yes, some anger is warranted. But anger is valuable only when it motivates change, when it forces you to confront what you didn't like about your part in the relationship, to understand why you took on that role, and to change the pattern. Many people warned you (in their own weird way) about the dangers of involvement with this woman, but you were too focused on your own vision—to rescue her and bask in her eternal gratitude. You've probably read too many fairy tales; that strategy rarely works in real life and certainly never delivers the appreciation you sought. Another big red flag you overlooked—her insistence that things were your fault. Sadly, the legacy of sexual abuse lives on, and Exhibit A may well be your willingness to believe that you were the cause of everything bad in the relationship. Abuse can create many kinds of confusion in the search for a partner. The redemption you seek is attainable not through public acts of heroism but the very private act of dismantling the sequelae of abuse. Typically, these include notions about self worth and entitlement to caring from others, and, of course, beliefs that you caused all the problems. EMDR is not the best tool for this. It does not teach you how or whom to trust, how to stand up for your own needs, and how to create a healthy relationship, which you could expect from cognitive behavioral therapy. Relationships are more than feelings; there must be demonstrations of caring. And they must run two ways—you have to be getting caring in return for the caring you give. One-sided giving should have been another big red flag alerting you to the fact that the relationship was not even capable of meeting most of your needs. It's time to stand up for them.