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Healing from Emotional Abuse

The four crucial stages of healing abuse within a loving relationship.

Both genders are susceptible to emotional abuse, particularly within intimate relationships. Whether the original abuse was perpetrated by males or females, those who have experienced it are deeply damaged. Their sense of worth and capacity to protect themselves in subsequent relationships will be permanently dismantled without undergoing a successful healing process.

Whether they endured it from childhood or from abusive adult relationships, the victims of continuous emotional abuse often suffer a multitude of self-destructive symptoms. The emotional and physical expressions of these symptoms are uncannily similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder victims: unwanted and upsetting memories, nightmares, flashbacks, disturbing bodily reactions, hyper-vigilant anxiety, blame, guilt, startle responses, as well as internal feelings of isolation and helplessness.

As a result, those who have experienced continuous emotional abuse have difficulty choosing non-abusive partners. Their prior impotent and anguishing interactions make them suspicious and wary that any loving partner could ever treat them with respect and kindness. Believing that there cannot be anything better for them, they may continue to re-choose the same kinds of partnerships again.

Healing from those traumas cannot begin until the abuse is stopped, either by successfully challenging the current perpetrator or by leaving the relationship. It is often easier said than done. Many victims have been so brainwashed that they are too frightened to challenge that partner and do not see a way to escape.

But, even for those who manage to free themselves from an abusive partner, it is still often an uphill battle to heal. Once disconnected from often sequential abuse interactions, they must learn to not only choose a better partner in the future, but to also continuously practice their struggle to maintain healthy and self-preserving boundaries.

In my forty-plus years as a relationship therapist, I often face couples where one or both partners are attempting to heal their past abuses within their current relationship or with a new one. In the former, both partners must be willing to change the abusive interaction. In the latter, they realize that potential triggers are always present and must be honored and challenged when they emerge.

Sadly, many victims of chronically abusive relationships tend to be attracted to partners who are potential abusers. They respond to the positive aspects of that partner, and may be blind to those that might signal another mistake. Once in the relationship, they may still ignore the signs of abuse, wanting desperately to believe they will be outweighed by the goodness of the partnership.

Many professionals sternly advise that an emotional abuse victim should first resolve these past wounds before entering any new relationship, much like they would advise a co-dependent partner to seek recovery before they might unconsciously enter a relationship with an addict again.

Though that sequence might offer the most promising outcome, my own opinion is that it is rarely the case. More often, I find, as I stated above, that abuse victims are more likely to be drawn to similar relationships where they are seduced by familiarity but buoyed by new hopes.

Because it is the more common choice, emotionally abused relationship partners more often find themselves needing to transform within a relationship, either current or new. They must learn different responses that help them heal while they are likely to continue being triggered in old ways.

Gathering strength through that process has a potentially transformative outcome. Those intimate partners who can become courageously powerful within a relationship are actively engaged in taking charge of their interactions. Like a recovering alcoholic who becomes totally at ease not drinking in a bar, they see potentially abusive interactions as places to practice and strengthen their commitment.

For that to be possible, abuse victims must choose a partner who understands and supports their healing journey and can hang with them through the three critical stages that will ensue in that process. If that chosen partner also has trauma of his or her own, then both partners must trust the other to participate fairly in their inevitably more complicated exchanges. Those couples who have been willing to do this through their therapeutic become a team who create relationships that are admirable and remarkable to observe.

There are four stages of healing emotional abuse within a relationship. Because it is a difficult and challenging process, some cannot get through all four. But, even if they do parts of the sequence, they consistently do better in their future relationships. Not one abuse patient I’ve worked with has regretted learning what he or she has accomplished by embracing this healing process.

Following are the four stages of healing abuse within a love relationship:

Stage One: Acknowledging the Abuse Within Self and Between Partners

We cannot heal what we cannot see. Many of the abuse victims I have worked with are humiliated, shamed, or terrified of bringing up the depth of their traumatic experiences, let alone share them with their partners. They have good reason; many were taught by their abusers that they were somehow responsible for the punishments they endured. Particularly with sexual abuse, they were typically brainwashed to believe that they had participated willingly and benefited by the experience in some way.

Most abuse victims just do not want to re-experience their past abuses, believing that if they just never think about them, they will somehow go away. Or, they are simply unconscious of them because they have needed to bury them to survive. Often, they only become aware of them when their partner’s behavior inadvertently trigger them.

So many abusive victims denigrate themselves by putting their reactions down, as if they are overly dramatic, exaggerated, out of line, or even fantasized. Without having experienced quality love, they consistently give more credence to negative experiences than positive ones, re-trapping themselves into expectations of more abuse. Some tell me that sharing their past abuse with prior partners resulted in their being seen as “damaged goods,” not worth fighting for.

It is only when prior trauma is openly acknowledged to self and to the other partner, that the healing process can begin. Though remembering those past experiences can be deeply painful, knowing that their partners are able to hear them and keep them safe in the process illuminates the injustice of what has happened to them.

In the process of opening up old wounds, the abuse victim often feels the emotions he or she experienced at the time of the original abuse. They may feel helpless, angry, trapped, hopeless, beaten, and alone, even in the presence of a new partner who cares. As those feelings emerge, they might even project their prior abuser on to their new partner as a potential abuser, even when he or she has not behaved in that way.

It is critically important that the partner committed to helping a past abuse victim must not take those expressions personally and stay centered and non-defensive. That is not ever easy, particularly difficult if the new partner has prior abuse experiences him or herself.

Stage Two: Determination to Save Oneself at Any Cost

This stage is a “make it or break it” challenge. The traumatized partner now must make a hard-nosed stand, irreversible no matter the outcome. He or she must preserve self in the presence of any real or perceived threat or triggered reaction, even if it means temporarily turning off all awareness of the other partner’s thoughts, feelings, or needs.

This necessary stance is new to the abuse victim and can come across to the other partner as cold or indifferent. Startled, reactive, dramatic, armored, threatening, pulled-back, seemingly selfish and self-serving responses explode and may threaten the relationship, often without warning.

Not knowing how to balance reasonable self-preservation with compassion and caring for the other person, partners healing from trauma will predictably err in the direction of survival, even when they knowingly or unknowingly hurt and distance those most important to their healing process.

These determinations are not easy for an abuse victim to hold. There is always the consistent internal self-blackmailing going on that tells that emerging fighter that he or she will not prevail and that the challenge itself will lead to more dire consequences. Those internal feelings of pre-defeat feel like a maze that will always lead to the same trap.

The healing partner must find a way to balance chivalry with his or her own legitimate needs for self-preservation. They must accept only what they are actually responsible for in the present without accepting any blame for what has happened to the other partner in the past. It is a hard role to hold, especially if that healing partner has emerging and urgent needs of his or her own.

It is only when the emerging self-protective, self-preserving, and non-guilty partner is at peace with his or her new position of power, that the next phase is even possible. Not ever again, will that emerging victor allow him or herself to be dominated or abused. All anger, resentment, and terror subside as the new transformation becomes a permanent part of that person’s new self.

Crucial caveat: This is the stage that is the most likely to result in a break-up of the relationship. It takes a deeply chivalrous, confident, and supportive partner not to take this stage personally and push back with his or her own needs. The battle then, for the prior victim, becomes internal. Does he or she give up the heroic stance of take-care-of-self at any cost or supplicate to the demands of the other?

There cannot be any other choice for the abuse victim but to continue on the path of self-preservation, even if the other partner can only see it as selfish or self-promoting at his or his expense. It can be very helpful if the healing abuse victim can acknowledge the dilemma if his or her partner without feeling pressure to give up the crucial decision to hold fast to what must be done.

Stage Three: Powerful Compassion

Those who have unbound themselves from tyranny feel the newness of the power over their own lives, but they can also now feel compassion, both towards themselves and other abuse victims, including their current partner who may have been the recipient of their self-serving indifference during their healing process.

They have permanently given up living on a symbolic “witness stand” ever-needing to defend, to excuse, to plead, to explain, and to beg for mercy. They know how to hold others accountable for their own actions and not to see every difficult encounter as their fault.

They have replaced the guilt of not measuring up to someone else’s expectations with trusting their own criteria for self-judgment or change. They are more able to recognize trauma in others and not feel responsible to “fix” them at their own expense.

They also know they must be ever watchful for their own internalized abuser that has driven their behaviors for so long. Chronically abused people have been taught to only see the world divided between abusers and victims, with no other options. Now, as a person who can see the world from outside those limitations, they have triumphed over that abusive voice that once drove them from within but know it can emerge again if triggers activate it.

When they do encounter another who activates old responses, their first response is no longer to feel cornered, but instead to actively investigate what may lie behind that person’s motivations and agendas. They do this with confidence, knowing that they will not allow themselves to be pulled back into the trap of self-doubt and illegitimate submission.

Now, feeling the master of their own fates, they are in a position to choose with whom, how, when, and why they will open to love. They have learned what triggers their past anguish, how to recognize it when it happens, and how to replace their old reactions with new strength. They know what they need, what they will not abide by, and what they are able to offer, in ways only those who have triumphed over trauma can.

Stage Four: Becoming a Model for Others

It is a well-known and trusted axiom that the best way to learn anything is to teach it to others. The only caveat is that teaching must be by example, never by preaching. When you are fully into the third stage of your transition, Powerful Compassion, you will find yourself changed in two significant ways: the first difference in your thoughts and behaviors, is that you are no longer attracted to, nor attracted by, people who are abusive or feel the need to save their victims. You will have compassion for those locked-in damaging relationships, but you will not feel obligated to join or fix them.

The second is that the people who now surround you will treat you with a new attitude of respect. They will want to know how you transformed from an impotent victim into a compassionate warrior. You will tell them that you acknowledged, worked through, and broke free of the bonds of abuser/victim interactions and that you are now committed to being a model for others who ask for help.

No one I’ve seen go through this transition expects the peace they feel when they are no longer susceptible to being blackmailed because of their fear of retaliation or loss. The internal strength of having overcome despair makes all new challenges feel less threatening. It is as if the abuse they endured formed the basis of the freedom they have achieved, never again to be experienced in the same way.

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