The Emotionally Abused

"Why do they stay?"

Posted Oct 03, 2018

In a previous article entitled, “When is it Emotional Abuse” I described emotional abuse, so that it could be identified.  In another I described “The Emotional Abuser.”  This article will be all about the person who is emotionally abused.

            Persons who stay for a period of time in an emotionally abusive relationship have taken a lot of the blame and shame for years.  Even centuries.  They have been accused of being anything from masochistic to just plain stupid.  But the truth is that the emotionally abused person has too often been taught to tolerate abuse by many well-meaning adages served up in a golden dish promising that we will be “good people” if we know how to do things like “turn the other cheek” and “forgive 70 times 7.”  While those specific adages often carry religious over and undertones, they have spread far and wide beyond any religion. 

            Further, the emotionally abused have often grown up in an environment of emotional abuse, which they came to see as “normal.” Biting sarcasm, constant criticism, isolation, blame, shame, screaming, name-calling, gas-lighting, withholding affection as punishment and other forms of emotional abuse were used frequently in these homes, but were considered by all parties to just be “how it is in this family.”  So, for this person, being attracted to someone who does those same things, just feels normal.   Part of the healing process for emotional abuse is in moving through a grief process and finally to acceptance with regard to early upbringing rife with emotional abuse. 

            Combine those two and you have the ingredients necessary to continually attract those who will abuse—and to be so entangled in that, that you don’t know how to leave. In fact, many think that leaving is a betrayal of the spouse and of a principle that basically says, “I made a vow, I have to keep it ‘for better or for worse.’”  Much of what we are taught about marriage and relationship lends itself to the potential to stay in an abusive relationship.  Let’s look at some of these ideas:

·        Always be kind.

·       Always be forgiving.

·       Always be faithful.

·       Be loyal.

·       Turn the other cheek.

·       Give them the benefit of the doubt

·       Do not judge.

·       You are selfish if…

·       Do your duty.

·       You should love them unconditionally.

Andrea Mathews
Traversing the Inner Terrain
Source: Andrea Mathews

Some of these are detailed and clarified with deeper, fuller exploration in my latest book “Letting Go of Good.”  Obviously, we can’t go into that kind of detail in a blog.  But let’s look at each of these briefly to see how they set up those, especially those also raised in emotional abuse, to think that staying in an abusive relationship is the right thing to do.

            Always be kind:  This adage does not equally insist on kindness to self.  No. Rather it connotes a kind of goodness that thinks only of others, and considers any thought of self to be selfish.  What it leaves out is the kindness of truth—the kindness that leaving might offer to all parties.  It is interpreted to mean that when others are abusive, one must tolerate that abuse in the name of kindness.

            Always be forgiving:  We have a very faulty vision of forgiveness.  We think it means to accept the unacceptable and tolerate the intolerable.  But forgiveness is often a lengthy grief process that finally carries us to acceptance.  And acceptance allows us to deal in reality, not the fantasy of bargaining with ideas like: “If I forgive him, he won’t do it again.”

            Always be faithful:  To many this means that once you agree to marry someone, or once you promise to stay in a committed relationship, that means you stay no matter what.  It means that if you don’t stay you are not a faithful, i.e., a good person.  But if we are faithful, it should be to the truth, not to the many lies that fantasy tells us, i.e., that we should stay in order to be a good person.

            Be loyal:  Loyalty is a term that gets thrown around a lot.  And emotional abusers like it for its power to confuse those whom they abuse.  If you were loyal to me, they might say, then you would never think of leaving me.  And it seems to make such good sense, especially to those who have spent their childhood steeping in a system of emotional abuse.  The term was invented for the military—perhaps it should stay there.

            Turn the other cheek:  This has come to mean keep putting up with it.  A study of the original Biblical text’s root language might reveal something quite different from that, but that’s for another book.  Right now what we need to know is that this is a kind of “take the high road approach” which does not include taking care of self.  Many use this approach as a way of proving to themselves that they are worthy persons, all the while continuing to stay in an abusive relationship.  There comes a time to stop turning and turning, and look to the mirror to self-love.

            Give them the benefit of the doubt:  What this does is ignore the very real, and very important doubt.  It becomes, in effect, a form of denial.  It means there is no real doubt here, I can just overlook that, and pretend to myself that everything is okay.  And that will prove to me, on some discreet level, that I am a worthy person, because I’m doing the “right” thing.

            Do not judge:  So many times this idea is meant to talk us right out of our discernment.  We have not been taught the difference between judgement and discernment.  Judgement is a decision to find someone guilty or not guilty—it includes the outcome of punishment.  Discernment is observing what’s going on outside of me, while I simultaneously observe what’s going on inside of me, and then deciding how I’m going to respond to that.  We often throw discernment out entirely by trying not to judge.  And discernment is essential to overcoming abuse.

            You are selfish if….  Emotional abusers often use “You are so selfish” as a way of confusing their victims.  It is sometimes followed with “If you loved me, you would…”.  Many who stay in emotionally abusive relationships, have been taught a distorted version of righteousness, or goodness.  They believe that to ignore the self makes them a good person, and to think about or care for the self makes them selfish.  Not so.  The Self is our healer.  The Self is the cornerstone of our existence.  It must not ever be negated. 

            Do your duty:  The word duty has been given righteous connotations for centuries.  Many espouse and teach others to espouse a belief that one’s duty (usually described for us by others) is the most important thing one can do.  So many who are emotionally abused deny genuine feelings, thoughts and beliefs in the name of doing their duty to abusive spouses.  They do what they should—forgetting who they are, what they truly desire, where their true compassion and passion lie.  And so, they stay.

            You should love them unconditionally:  Here’s a truth can be relied upon:  Anytime you put the word should in front of the word love, it ceases to be love and becomes, instead, just another duty, another obligation, indeed, often another lie.  Genuine love needs no shoulds.  It operates from the onus of a genuine heart, gives because giving is in it to give, loves because loving is in it to love.  All real love is unconditional.  But shoulds prop themselves up on duty, obligation, and have to. 

            Of course, there is much more to be said here about the distortions of truth that have become the chains that bind us to abusive relationships.  But suffice it to say that those who stay in abusive relationships are not staying because they are masochistic or stupid.  They are staying because they generally have a long relationship with these lies, these chains that bind, and often also come from a deeply normalized but highly dysfunctional and abusive family dynamic.  And that doesn’t even speak of the damage done by the emotional abuser, which makes it very confusing, if not impossible to leave.