Still Not Free from an Abusive Relationship

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Reader’s Question

I ended contact almost a year ago with a man who was emotionally abusive to me. I had online counseling which helped tremendously in terms of keeping me from going back to him. I believe this man had many emotional problems. I still feel guilt over leaving him, he felt horribly rejected the last time we saw each other.

Based on my feeling of being abused, my counselor focused on my staying faithful to myself and not having any further contact with him, which I haven’t. This man lives in the same part of town. I have seen him a few times driving down the street. I still have a great dread of seeing him or being near him, yet a part of me still feels emotionally pulled towards him. My counselor was aware of this and did address this issue but my counseling ended months ago.

Do you think it is unusual for me to still be traumatized and feeling saddened by his abuse (not physical abuse, but emotional) almost a year after I have seen him? My counselor told me I was grieving but is this not a long time to feel the pain and still grieve? Why do I still feel pulled towards him in some ways? He was controlling in our relationship and used abusive techniques such as anger and silent treatment. Basically my needs were not met at all but he would get angry or use other behavior if I tried to pull away from him. Will it just take more time to get fully over this?

Psychologist’s Reply

Grief is a very complicated process and there’s no easy way to tell when you are finished. I think a lot of people believe that there will be a circumscribed period of grieving and then it will just stop but that’s not generally what happens. Feelings of grief can be activated by various experiences or thoughts. Sometimes even the weather is enough to set people off. This is especially true in the context of abuse because other factors, like trauma, exposure, and relational patterns, are also in play. So no, I do not think it’s unusual to be traumatized and saddened even after a year.

However, that being said, I imagine that grief is not the only thing that is going on for you. You mentioned that you still feel guilty for leaving him and are sympathetic to his feelings of rejection. This indicates a continuing level of investment in a relationship that was very bad for you and that is something you need to consider. People who are in abusive relationships often internalize the abuser’s feelings in an effort to ‘fix’ them. This is a coping strategy that is necessary while still in the relationship because it helps alleviate or minimize the abuse. However, now that you are out of the relationship, this coping skill is no longer adaptive.

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You need to move past this feeling of being pulled toward someone who is abusive to you. In order to do this, boundaries need to be developed. Boundaries are imaginary lines you draw determining how you allow people to treat you and how you treat others. It may help to visualize your boundary as a gate. When there are people you want to let get close to you, your gate is open. When there are people whom you want to keep at a distance, your gate is closed. Right now I imagine your gate is open much of the time. If so, this needs to change.

One common boundary violation is when people take on the emotions of others. I think this is what you have been doing when you see the abusive ex-partner. You are letting his feelings overwhelm your own. Although it is difficult to do at first, correcting this violation means giving back this man’s emotions to him. If he feels sad and rejected, those are his feelings to manage, not yours. You can open your gate enough to feel sympathy but when he tries to make you feel responsible, shut your gate and move on. The gate is partially for your protection, so make sure you use it.

It does take time to develop healthy boundaries. You need to figure out what needs you have and then decide how best to meet them. Knowing when to open and close the gate also takes time and experience. So yes, it will take longer than a year to get over this relationship. Perhaps you can do some additional counseling to help you with the process. The good news is that the work will have long-lasting positive effects. Not only will you heal and move on from this relationship but good boundaries will ensure that your next relationship will be better.

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