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How We Recover from Emotional Abuse

What we can learn from elephants.

Key points

  • Partners who have been emotionally abusive often give up too soon on trying to make amends. It requires above all a long period of safety.
  • Victims of emotional abuse who are hesitant to move forward are not living in the past; their concern is about the future.
  • Only consistent compassion and respect can reassure a victim that they can feel safe in a relationship.

I recently saw a video about a rehabilitation farm for performance animals. It featured an elephant newly retired from a circus.

At first, the visibly scarred elephant would not leave her pen. She hardly ate and barely moved. When the attendant raised a shovel full of hay to her mouth, she recoiled in fear. She’d been beaten with a stick as part of her training – a common practice in the traditional circus world.

Elephants are famous for their memories. It took a long time, and consistent compassionate interactions with attendants, for the elephant to respond positively. Eventually, she fully recovered and lived out her years with affection for her caregivers, socializing with other elephants, and romping through the open fields of the spacious farm.

The attendants showed compassion and tireless patience for the scarred animal. Their respect and care for her were obvious.

A Model for Relationship Repair

The abused elephant’s attendants modeled the demeanor partners must show during recovery from chronic resentment, anger, abuse, or betrayal.

Too often, previously offending partners give up too soon on trying to make amends. I’ve heard more than a few failed partners complain: “I’ve tried compassion, and it didn’t work.” Well, compassion isn’t something that “works” or “doesn’t work.” It’s not manipulation to get a certain response.

With genuine compassion, you recognize that it takes a long period of safety to change reflexive and habituated responses, just as it took a long time for the elephant to stop flinching when a shovel of hay was offered to her.

These phrases must never be said to recovering partners: “Get over it!” and “Stop living in the past.” The last is especially ironic. Abuse victims are not living in the past when they bring up past abuse; they’re concerned about the future. The evolved function of fear is not to burden us with the past but to make us cautious in the present and future. It’s not the past saber-toothed tiger that distresses, it’s the one that might be around the corner.

When victims bring up past offenses, as they are likely to do, they are not trying to punish or shame their partners. They want reassurance that it will never happen again. Reassurance must include specifics about how the former abuser will maintain respect when similar stressors recur. This is crucial: If the brain doesn’t know what else to do under stress, it will repeat what it’s done in the past.

Instead, one can say: “The next time I’m overworked, the kids are acting out, the bills are overdue, I’ve had too much to drink, etc., I will get in touch with my deeper values, with my love, respect, and appreciation of you. I'll do my best to improve the situation, without blaming it on you.”

Just as abused elephants can learn to take nourishment from the hay without fear of the shovel that offers it to them, humans can learn to give and receive love, without fear of being devalued, demeaned, or intentionally hurt. But the only way to repair a relationship damaged by chronic resentment, anger, abuse, or betrayal is through consistent compassion, respect, patience, and practice of emotion-regulation skills.