When intertwined, fear, sympathy and anger create one chaotic, dysfunctional, perfect storm of an abusive relationship. Its gathering winds start long before the couple meet.
Humans in an attempt to understand their world are apt to create stories to explain situations. Children of a critical parent who never says the words “I love you,” tell themselves that they are inept and unloveable. They often become people-pleasers searching for someone who will love them. This is the story I carried into my marriage. I was exactly who a controlling partner wanted.
On the other hand, those who felt betrayed and cheated as children often tell themselves that the people they need will hurt or leave them. They feel entitled to take what they want as payback. The story they tell themselves is that in order to be safe, they must be in control. Sadly, that is usually at the expense of their partner’s safety.
If you follow the threads of controlling behaviors to the end, you will find the underlying cause is fear. Jealously is the fear of losing a partner to someone else. Hiding all financial information from their partner is fear that their partner will have the resources to leave. Terrorizing, instilling fear of bodily harm, is driven by the fear that a partner may leave.
It didn’t take long for me to see through my partner’s bravado facade to the fear-infested person inside. The sympathy I felt for him held me in the relationship. I spent years trying to save him, assuring him that he was safe with me. All the while, I wasn’t safe with him. My desperation to earn his love was fear-based. I didn’t want to be a failure. The story I told myself was—if I could just hang in the marriage long enough, sacrificing myself, things would change. It took a long time for me to accept that his entitlement and fear-based internal stories created a lack of empathy and didn’t allow for the revelation or awakening that I had hoped to see in him.
Therapy helped me rewrite my internal stories to healthy ones. My partner’s behavior wasn’t about me. The occurrences from my childhood that started the unhealthy story of who I was, wasn’t about me. This knowledge is a blessing, but it can also be dangerous.
When we understand the underlying fears that caused the bad behavior in our spouse, our sympathy for them can keep us entwined. Hope that things can change may hold or draw us back into the relationship. It’s important for us to disconnect from our emotions and use reason to evaluate the relationship.
In those highly charged moments, I recited the following truths:
- Though I feel sympathy for him, I will not minimize or excuse his bad behavior. It was wrong and should not be repeated. Nothing will change that fact.
- Abuse is a choice. My partner chooses to abuse me.
- He is the only one who can change his behavior. If he wanted to save this relationship, he would have gone into treatment and followed the program. He did not, so he does not value our relationship. He will not change.
After leaving the relationship we experience a lot of anger and grieving. We mourn the loss of the dreams we had for our lives, and the men we thought our partners were. We are also angry. Our partners’ selfishness made a mess of our children’s and our lives. We feel enraged that we are left to suffer the consequences and clean it up.
Anger is good. It keeps us out of the relationship and gives us valuable energy to fight for a new and better life. As we move along the upward path, we can spend our time hating those who wronged us, but wouldn’t that mean they are still the center of our lives? Our focus is still on them—just where they want it to be.
I suggest we turn our focus on ourselves and children. We can stop trying to force our partners to be who they should be. We can stop trying to make up for their bad behavior toward our children and others. Suppose we step out of the drama and accept that the controllers will spin their wheels, rant, rave and tell lies. Suppose we let their words pass though us without sticking to our insides—because we have new stories of who we are. His old lies mean nothing. We can be age-appropriately honest with our children about our inability to change their fathers. We can use this as a teachable moment where our children learn about choices and consequences. We can admit the truth of the situation to them without showing anger or hatred toward their fathers.
Escaping and staying out of abusive relationships means rewriting our internal stories, accepting the truth of our situations and balancing our emotions with logic. Let us focus on loving ourselves enough to walk away and build a better life.