It’s Been Five Years Since My Last Abusive Relationship…and Shame Is Still A Thing

Disclosure: this article is written from the perspective of a female victim. I am not insinuating that men are not abused.

Disclosure: this is written from my personal reflections, this is not based on research.

Here I am. Your friendly neighborhood mental health counselor. Writing another personal blog. Yes…I am stalling.

Okay. Now that I’ve gotten the first line of this article out of the way, time to get to what I really came here to say.

Some of those close to me know my history of abusive relationships. I’ve been in several. Some were in my high school years. Some were in my early 20’s. I can now say that I am no longer in the negative cycle of abusive relationship after abusive relationship. It’s been five years since my last one. There have been some truly AMAZING changes in these five years…and some hardships remain.

I’d say I’ve grown a lot in the past five years. I’ve learned when to recognize that someone is violating my personal rights and wishes. I’ve learned to better recognize abusive patterns. I’ve learned to pay attention to the red flags. I’ve learned to not sacrifice my desires and needs for others. I’ve learned that the right people will uphold your desires and needs, not require you to sacrifice them. I’ve learned to stand my ground, even if I desperately want to keep the boat from rocking. In short, I’ve learned what a healthy relationship looks like and feels like. It’s because of these things I have learned that I do not regret everything I have been through.

However, there are still some present struggles that resulted as part of my relationship experiences. The main one (for me, at least) is shame. First, let’s briefly discuss what shame is.

According to Brene Brown, shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging–something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. It’s what you feel when the kids choose you last to be on their team in childhood. It’s what you feel when your church excludes you for getting divorced. It’s what you feel when the little girl inside you wants to hear her father say “I am proud of you,” and those words never come. Shame is different from guilt. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.”

So, how does shame play into my abusive relationships experience? Well, I experienced shame both during and after the relationships ended. During the relationship, shame came in the form of people telling me

“Why would you be with him?”

“Why don’t you leave him?”

“What he’s doing is NOT okay.”

These people meant well. But honestly…it was anything but helpful. What this communicated to me was that I was stupid for loving a guy who would treat me this way. I was ridiculous for staying with him. I was blind in seeing what he did to me. Rather than hearing “I understand, I’ve been there. I know how it feels to love someone who hurts you.” I heard “YOU NEED TO GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR A*S AND LEAVE HIM!”

Shame also came in the form of actually missing him and missing the relationship after it ended. Yes, believe it or not, there is grief when abusive relationships end. It is not this happy-skippy, suddenly dancing on the green grass of the other side, experience that so many believe it to be.

After the relationship ended, shame came in the form of telling my story. You see, in my five years, I’ve learned that not everyone has earned the right to hear you story. Those who have earned the right are the ones that love you endlessly, are honest with you and yet respectful at the same time, and validate you. In my days before I learned this, I would tell my story to people who responded with

“Oh…”

“Wow…”

“Glad you saw the truth”

Again, these people meant well. However, these statements mean that they did not know what to say and that they are happy that I am out of those relationships now. But what they communicated to me at the time is that my situation is not to be talked about, for fear of making someone uncomfortable, and I am still stupid for ever allowing a man to treat me this way.

You see, shame is accompanied by severe isolation. I experienced a huge amount of feeling more weak, dumb, broken, and beyond hope than anyone else around me. That’s part of the lie that comes in abusive relationships. You somehow see others as having their lives together, being smart, making the right decisions, and you begin to believe that you are somehow the poster child of being flawed. This isolation grows and grows and grows.

Asking a victim why she doesn’t leave. Asking what is wrong with her. Asking why she doesn’t see right through his kind words. Asking what she sees in him. Yelling at her to leave him. Not only is all of this a huge red flag for a lack of education on your part…it also further drives these women into this sinking sand. You see…majority of the time they know that what he does isn’t right. They know that he is abusive. That he’s controlling. That he’s an alcoholic. That the relationship is troubled. They are typically fully aware of what is going on in the relationship. And at the same time, they are spinning so fast in the tornado, they can’t see past the storm to get a clear, objective, unbiased, and honest look at the situation. Those stormy clouds fog our vision.

This is why they stay. This is why they honestly do see good in the person and in the relationship. This is why they see hope in a complete and utter shit show of a situation. They see the insecurity, the fear, the depression, the struggles of their abuser and empathize with them…thinking their love with heal them. They see that the person is trying to do better every time he apologizes and swings back into the honeymoon phase. They see someone who struggles. They see a man who desperately wants to be loved. They see a man falling a part. They hope to help this person and truly heal their wounds.

They also aren’t typically aware of the chronic nature of abusive behavior. They aren’t aware that violating someones personal rights is a criteria for several disorders. They aren’t aware that abusive behavior is often a red flag for untreated mental health issues. They aren’t aware that the issues that come with abusive behavior…are extremely complex and difficult to treat. They aren’t aware that abusers typically do not seek treatment unless mandated by a court or other entity to do so. And…why would they know that?! I didn’t know it until I went to graduate school for counseling! Even as a undergraduate psychology major, all I saw was men who were hurting and needing someone to be by their side to heal.

There is also another aspect that keeps the cycle of abuse going. Most people refer to the honeymoon phase in the cycle of abuse. But there really isn’t much talk about trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding. What is it? To put it simply, it’s a very intense bonding a victim feels towards her abuser. The reason for this bonding is that even though the abuser is the source of depression, despair, and, sometimes, even suicidal thoughts, they are also the source of self-esteem, happiness, and their dreams. This bond is extremely intense…to the point that when these happy times pop up, it feels like the happiest you have EVER been in your entire life and nothing could ever possibly top it. So, this kind of bonding, combined with the inability to see the situation objectively…it’s the perfect formula for an abusive relationship. It has absolutely nothing to do with the victim’s IQ level, her self-respect, or her “attraction to bad guys.” It has everything to do with the whirlwind that does not let you catch your breath. (There are many great articles out there for further reading on trauma bonding)

Next time you come across someone that appears to be in an abusive relationship, just be present. Let them cry on your shoulder. Let them talk about the argument they have had one-hundred times. Let them talk about how depressed, shameful, and unworthy they feel. Rather than saying “that’s not right!” Or “you should get away from him!” You might say things like “I’m here for you,” “I understand, I’ve been through that too.” Tell her that she’s beautiful, worthy of love, and has value in this world. Reflect what you hear her saying, such as “If I’m hearing you right, these ups and downs in your relationship is making you feel depressed.” Refrain from giving advice. Refrain from jumping in with “oh my husband did that and I’m so glad I got away!” Refrain from making comments about him, such as “He is an abuser. He is controlling you.” Instead, focus on her and how she feels. Validate. Validate that she has a right to feel the way she feels.

Always validate.

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