My unhealthy approach to relationships started when my mom passed away unexpectedly. I was six years old. I didn’t know how to grieve and those around me were lost in their own sadness. After a couple months of coming together, my dad and sister fell into deep depressions and isolated themselves. All I wanted was for my family to smile again. So, at six years old, I pushed my thoughts and feelings aside and focused on keeping my family together. I became the caretaker, protector, and excuser of bad behavior. This set me on a path to seeking out unhealthy relationships for the next 20 years.
I’m sharing this with you because I am a smart, confident, and successful woman, and I stayed in a very bad relationship for seven years. I went so far as marrying someone that was emotionally and sexually abusive. Thankfully, I managed to get out and stop my pattern. I hope the things I learned along the way can help others get out of, heal from, and break the cycle of engaging in unhealthy and dangerous relationships.
In this post, I’ll share why I engaged in abusive relationships. I’ll also share some ideas for how to get out of an abusive relationship and how to break the cycle. I am writing this post from a woman’s point of view, because I’m sharing my story. However, many wonderful men find themselves in abusive relationships too. My goal is for this post to be universally helpful.
Why People Engage in Abusive Relationships
This is a tough question and there isn’t one answer. We all have our own reasons for doing the things we do. I grew up surrounded by dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships. I didn’t have a good example to follow. I also had a deep need to “fix” people and make them happy. I still don’t fully understand why I chose the unhealthy relationships I did. Some days I think it’s because by “fixing” someone else, I thought I would somehow heal my own pain. I had a lot of repressed grief and anger about the loss of my mom and feeling abandoned.
My abusive relationships were insidious. I was drawn in by the intense emotion that accompanies an abusive relationship. I mistook possessiveness and jealousy as love and passion. Also, the cycle of fighting and making-up is strangely addictive. I was in too deep before I knew it. I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was ashamed for letting myself be threatened, belittled, spit on, and pressured into sex acts that demoralized me. I hid the worst of it from my family and friends, but they knew something was very wrong. The more they questioned me, the more committed I was to proving to them that I had everything under control. That I knew what I was getting into. That they didn’t understand my partner was hurting and didn’t mean to hurt me. That I was up for the challenge of fixing this person and I wouldn’t get hurt in the process.
At the end of the day, I boil my why down to the following:
- I didn’t have examples of healthy relationships to model after
- I was avoiding dealing with my own grief, loss, and anger
- I thought by fixing someone I would build an unbreakable connection
- I convinced myself that I was strong enough to take the abuse
The important takeaway here is that it’s worth spending time thinking about why you or someone you love engages in unhealthy relationships. Understanding the why is a key part of breaking the cycle for good.
Getting Out of an Abusive Relationship
Regardless of how much you care for an abusive partner, you owe it to yourself (and your children if you have them) to stop the abuse. If you are in immediate danger, call 911 (or your country’s equivalent emergency hotline). You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit www.thehotline.org. If you can’t have a conversation because your partner will hear you, the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website has a chat feature.
I knew I had to get out when I learned about some very hurtful things my partner did to people close to me. Not only did I have to face that people knew my secret, I had the guilt of knowing my choices resulted in some of the people closest to me getting hurt.
Getting out starts with practicing self-love and being completely honest with yourself. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. Have compassion for yourself, avoid blaming yourself, and give yourself permission to put your own needs first. Allow yourself to admit that you are in an abusive relationship and it needs to stop. Admitting that to myself was very powerful and enabled me to focus on getting out.
Once you’ve decided to leave, you will likely find yourself needing to do one or more of the following:
- Work up the courage to leave
- Prepare yourself mentally, emotionally, and financially
- Figure out where you will go or if your partner will go
- Figure out how to tell the kids, family, and friends
- Assemble your support structure
It can help to make a list of the things you need to do or figure out. Use this list to build your plan. Writing your plan down is tremendously helpful because it makes getting out real. It can also help to share your plan with a trusted family member, friend, or therapist. If you are concerned your partner will find a written plan, skip this until you are in a safe place.
Just remember, you don’t have to have it all figured out before you take action. Once you start, you will gain strength and the path will unfold.
How to Break the Cycle
Breaking the cycle starts with having some level of understanding about why you engaged in abusive relationships in the first place. You may be able to figure this out on your own through soul searching and self-discovery, but you may also need to work with a professional therapist or counsellor. I generally recommend against relying on family and friends to help you figure this out. Given their love for you they may not be objective. Once you know why you do things, you are better able to recognize when you’re in danger of falling back into an unhealthy pattern.
Be prepared to grant yourself the space and time you need to heal. The healing process is different for everybody and it can take many forms. Some people heal by spending time alone, others by surrounding themselves with people they love. Some heal through meditation, yoga, therapy, diving into their work, spending time in nature, spending time with animals, faith-based activities – the possibilities are endless. The key is to listen to yourself and honor the process.
As part of the healing process, it’s helpful to evaluate other areas of your life to determine if change is needed to stop other negative patterns, habits or behaviors that could prevent you from breaking the cycle:
- Evaluate other relationships in your life to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with genuine love, care, and support
- Monitor your self-talk to make sure it’s healthy, supportive, and loving
- Assess your habits to make sure your engaging in healthy healing behaviors
I’m happy to report that I broke my cycle. I ended my last abusive relationship nearly 15 years ago. Part of what I did was surrounding myself with people in healthy relationships. This helped me see a new possibility and something to work towards. I also found support in talking with people that had similar experiences. It wasn’t an easy road, and I’m still on my healing journey. Every now and then, I have nightmares about my past. When I wake up in a panic, I’m able to roll over, hug my husband, and remember I got out. I know you can too!
Want to learn more about how taking care of your whole-self leads to greater health, stronger relationships, and the confidence to live big? I thought so…