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Leaving An Abuser: What to Expect and How to Stay Grounded
Abusers are extremely predictable. In my experience as a survivor and now through encounters with other abuse victims and survivors, it is apparent that the abuser’s response to separation from his or her enabler-victim taps into a collection of tactics that is shockingly consistent. So, in the event that you have separated or are considering leaving an abusive relationship, it might be helpful to get a small taste of some of the things you can expect, together with a few recommendations on how to stay grounded. Of course, these are generalities. It is impossible to predict what every abuser will do, but the pattern is often very much the same.
Upon separating from an abuser, you can expect him to:
Initiate A Relentless Assault On Your Emotions
You may no sooner walk out the door than your abuser will seek you out and confer upon you an attitude of absolute astonishment and puzzlement. “I had no idea you were so unhappy.” “Why would you do such a terrible thing to me?” But that is only the beginning. Almost without fail, the abuser will then begin a daily, even hourly, course of ongoing harassment interspersed with emotional outbursts weighted heavily with apologies and desperate pleading. The abuser will almost without fail ask to get together with you to calmly discuss things (which usually means get you in a private place where he can explain to you why you’re wrong).
You may soon find yourself inundated with letters, text messages, e-mails, or gifts. His moods will run the spectrum from extreme sorrow to unfettered rage. Don’t be the least bit surprised if your abuser shows up where you work or your new living quarters, if he knows where to find you.
Understand that these are all strong indicators that the abuser wants you back, but don’t for one minute mistake these actions for repentance or heartfelt change. These are usually acts of desperation – to get his enabler-victim back into his world as soon as possible – to keep things from changing. There is also an element of ego involved here. The abuser doesn’t like to look bad. The agenda is to protect himself, not his victim.
Build His Case Against You
The abuser will begin to quickly go on the offense while constructing a strong defense. In a short amount of time, he will put together a thorough history of his own making meant to highlight your failures and shortcomings as well as a record of the many sacrifices and accommodations he has made for your benefit in years past. “And this is the thanks I get.” He will use it on you first, reminding you of the terrible things you have said and done, and any number of them can be used in defense of his abuse. Often, the story he concocts will have little basis in reality. Most likely the story will be constructed of lies laced with truth. When you begin to hear the tale repeated by those in your circle, essentially word for word, it will begin to take on a convincing air of legitimacy. If his record of shame is not adequate to humiliate you to the point of actually apologizing to him and returning to him out of a sense of guilty obligation, he will take it to the next level – and turn up the pressure.
To increasing the intensity, he will suddenly produce evidence of his uncompromising willingness to change. He will initiate a meeting with your pastor, agree to go to counseling, or start attending Bible study. Expect him to trumpet these pro-active efforts far and wide as confirmation of his miraculous and heartfelt transformation. As he begins to gain confidence that his story is winning him supporters, he will urge you to meet with the pastor and encourage you to talk to your common acquaintances, who will be just so happy to affirm how hard he is trying, while you are clearly unwilling to do whatever it takes to save your marriage. He has officially made you the bad guy.
Expect that he will push against the boundaries you have set to minimize conversation and personal contact, then complain bitterly that you are unreasonable if you do not accommodate him. On those occasions when you attempt to prove how reasonable you are by giving in to him, he will exploit your kindness with more game-playing.
Next, it’s time to bring in the big guns – your friends and family members. You might be stunned by how fast his story of your failure to honor your marriage vows will hit the streets. He will have the script down pat. It will be only a matter of time before you start to get phone calls or e-mails expressing disappointment in your harsh and selfish actions. People you trusted will suddenly be parroting his lies – the effects your midlife crisis or obvious hormonal imbalance is having on your relationship, or the rumors (which he started) that you are pretending to be single. You will discover from others how you have alienated your children against him, and if he can get your kids on board, he knows the pain and pressure they can bring to bear might compel you to see things his way. It is the ultimate betrayal and a cruel manipulation of those who should never be used as pawns in this self-serving chess match. Long-time friends, members of your church family, and your pastor are all essential recruits. Many abuse victims share how they have received corrective direction from pastors who have bought in, and well-meaning but deceived friends will send abuse victims articles on how to save their marriage or the terrible consequences of divorce.
There is no reasonable way of countering the abuser’s untrue, but well-rehearsed account in a single conversation with anyone, and you may well end more than one encounter feeling foolishly defensive or completely misunderstood. You may even begin to question if you’ve missed something, if perhaps maybe everything really is your fault. Playing he-said-she-said with your kids will also churn up more strife between you and send the message to your abuser that he is winning, inspiring him to continue the assault on your character to those who mean the most to you.
And all of these tactics can be traced to a singular purpose:
To Break Down Your Resistance
The end objective is to put heavy pressure on you from every possible angle. Using what he hopes will be an emotionally lethal combination of confusion, guilt, manipulation and pressure from his many allies, he has left no stone unturned in his effort to construct a wall of shame, an emotional bulldozer.
Don’t mistake this barrage of activity for love – some gallant, if desperate, effort to restore your marital relationship and a desire to see you content and fulfilled. This is about winning. Even if he promises you the sun, moon and stars, take a closer look at the extreme measures he has taken to try to get you back under the same roof. Is he genuinely concerned about why you have been unhappy and what your needs and concerns are? Is he genuinely repentant for his abusive treatment? Is he doing everything possible to re-earn your trust? Is he seeking ongoing counsel on his own initiative to begin to address his controlling, hostile, abusive ways? If he is like most abusers, the answers will not be in his favor. The aforementioned tactics are simply another manifestation of abuse.
The abuser’s bottom line is that he wants things just the way they were before you walked out the door. He intends to get there by swarming you with so-called evidence that you are wrong. Ask yourself, “What has really changed?” If you don’t have a good answer to that question, well, you have your answer.
Don’t give in to overwhelming pressure simply because you believe it might be easier to return to him while proving to him and others that you are not unreasonable. If you return home for the wrong reasons, you can bet that he will rub your nose in how wrong you were for years to come. Just because you have been trained to give in doesn’t mean you should.
What you need to do to stay grounded:
Remember Where You’ve Been
No one except you, your children and God really know what has taken place in your home. And just because some of your friends, family members and even your kids are suddenly siding with their abusive father doesn’t make them right. Of course your children want the family whole and happy, and many kids are willing to accept that Dad has changed, and Mom should give him another chance. But if nothing has really changed, then nothing will change.
Stand On What You Know
What are you seeing? Repentance? Change? If what I have described thus far is indicative of what you have experienced in separation, then you are not seeing repentance or change, only manipulation, guilt, blame and pressure from his allies. You might see some compliance, which is not to be confused with change. Compliance is when the abuser gives you the bare minimum under duress to “prove” to you that he is trying. There is no desire there, only an obligatory act that enables him to continue to point a finger of condemnation at you – his victim. Words are just words, and actions speak much louder. With that in mind, what do you know to be true?
Learn to Trust Your Instincts
As abuse victims we are trained to doubt our convictions and diminish our feelings. We are told that we expect too much and sacrifice too little. Now that you are apart from your abuser, you will need to re-learn to trust those red and yellow flags that pop up when you read those hostile e-mails or hear manipulative messages over the phone. When everything in your heart screams, “Danger;” listen to that inner voice. Learn to say ‘no.’ Keep those boundaries in place. You have erected them to protect yourself and your family. When you find yourself confused, seek counsel from a trusted counselor, confidante or support person who recognizes what you are dealing with and can help you to see through the insanity and stand strong.
Stop Being Shocked
Even after years and years of manipulation and verbal attacks, I wonder why we as victims are still shocked by the cruel things our abuser says or does. He may begin a conversation calmly and rationally (which he has probably rehearsed before he ever engages), and you are no sooner sucked into the notion that common sense might just prevail when he strikes. He will likely target your sensibilities – your faith, your children or your reputation – and you will still be surprised by the maliciousness of the attack.
Stop being shocked. In every encounter, expect his real attitudes and motives to be revealed in an overtly ugly and offensive way. Then you will not feel guilty when you are compelled to walk away, hang up or tell him, ‘no.’
Quell Any Inclination to Prove Yourself
This is not about what others think about you; this is about you choosing to do what is right and best for yourself and your family according to the dictates of your conscience. Some people in your circle and even in your own family will probably not “get it.” There comes a point where you are wasting your breath to try to explain what some people simply cannot understand, and it is simply easier for them to condemn something they have never experienced. Many abuse victims must by necessity keep a safe distance from certain people who are naïvely critical.
Standing on the truth sometimes means refusing to read or respond to those idealistic your-marriage-can-be-saved articles from your church-going friends. I’m sorry to say that it will probably be a poor use of your time and energy to respond or try to enlighten those people. Odds are good that you will find yourself in an unproductive conversation that leaves you frustrated and emotionally deflated.
For those whose children come home after a day with Dad with a mind full of half-truths and well-honed criticisms, it is more difficult to remain silent. Kids who have been fully indoctrinated may not be receptive to any defense on your part, so it is best to keep things short and simple. “That is not exactly the way it is,” or “You’re just going to have to trust me on this,” or “I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for me, too, and I am trying to do what is best for all of us,” may be some appropriate ways of minimizing drama. Some kids will mimic the name-calling or manipulative tactics they have seen used. Demand respect, and let them know that such behaviors are unacceptable.
As painful as it is, it may simply take time – sometimes years – for our children to see the truth for themselves. My eldest son gave me little but grief and angrily questioned my decision to divorce his father for seven long years, while I continued to love and reach out to him. Only two years ago did he confess how wrong he was and apologized to me with tears how he had treated me during the time he believed his father’s lies. It was a long, rough road, but I could not tell him what he refused to receive and ultimately had to discover on his own.
Time reveals truth. Virtually every abuse victim I have encountered shares a moment of profound weakness – when their abuser has come to them in utter despair and seemingly bared their pained soul, confessing their failures, begging forgiveness with passion and promises that everything will change, that they will never love another. Everything in us wants to receive the abuser’s enlightened revelation and rush into his arms and sing the Hallelujah Chorus.
Please wait. Do not allow one encounter to birth doubt in your mind or alter your view of him. Make no snap decisions. As eager as you are to believe it all, I hope you will take a step back. Let time reveal where his heart truly lies. Keep it all business. Then watch and wait. More often than not, his outpouring is another desperate ploy, all part of the game. For those who choose to maintain a healthy skepticism, it is often only a matter of days and sometimes a few short hours before an abuser is frustrated by your tepid response, and he will often become not only angry but enraged. This man who declared his love for no one but you will attack with a vengeance when you fail to give him the reaction he sought.
Waiting is a wise strategy in virtually every scenario when dealing with an abuser. Hasty decisions will end up costing you, boundaries will fall, and you may end up wondering why you ever gave him an inch, because now he is barking at you to lighten up and give him a mile.
Refuse to be railroaded. Give decisions time to stew. Get feedback from others you trust. Consider the costs and the consequences. Don’t act until you have a confident peace.
For those walking this difficult road, I hope this information helps you to stand strong and stay balanced and focused on the end goal – a healthy and abuse-free life for you and your family.
*Statistically speaking, most abusers are men. For the sake of simplicity, the male gender is used in this article; however, it is also recognized that many abusers are female. The reader’s understanding is appreciated.
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