How it Feels to Be in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship: An Insider's Perspective

Photo Credit: Lieven SOETE"The quickest way to give away your power is to think you don't have any."

I had never even considered that I was in an abusive relationship. I feel reluctant to admit that I stayed in one for so long, and I'm even more embarrassed to admit that I was unaware that there was such as thing as what I was experiencing at home: emotional abuse.

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When it was finally pointed out by my therapist, I was in denial. How could this be? I was well educated, socially connected, successful in business, and considered myself "aware." It took months for me to fully absorb the information and see my situation from a new perspective.

I've learned the most difficult thing for a woman is to understand how the abuse could have happened without her really realizing it. I've heard it likened to a frog being boiled alive. The idea being that if a frog is floating in a pan of lukewarm water, calm and relaxed, and the temperature is turned up ever so gradually, then it won't feel much difference even when the heat has reached a dangerous level -- it will stay there without struggle until it's boiled alive.

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It began with little jabs here and there and maybe small criticisms that were made in "jest." I remember the sting of my hurt feelings the first few times, and he reacted by telling me that I was being oversensitive, and should learn to take a joke. Then, slowly, over the course of the first year, things just started to gradually get worse. If I would ask to talk about it, It was never a good time, or he was "too tired", "too busy", and when we did finally talk, it always seemed to escalate out of control into screaming, crying, and sometimes insults or threats It did not take me long to realize that If the house wasn't clean by the time he got home, that I would somehow pay for it -- either with an unkind comment or his bitter, foul, and unpredicatable mood. Each time it happened I would wonder what I had done to make him so angry. Over time he would tell me that I "brought out the worst in him."

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Although he never hit me, I would begin to wish he had. His words were terribly painful and the things he said to me would make me feel small, ugly, and useless. After a while I realized I felt trapped and confused, and I blamed myself for not being good enough...if only I could change, be better, things could work out. The worst part about it is that I began to forget who I was, and what I was capable of, choosing instead to believe the lies, putdowns, and criticisms. By the time I left I was so depressed and confused and exhausted that I was almost unrecognizable as the woman I had been several years before.

The thing that's amazing, even as I look back, is that I knew better. As time went on, each episode was made up for with flowers, or gifts, kind words, and even promises of getting some help. Sometimes he actually did get help, but then would stop, and everything would go back to the way it was. He'd apologize and say he'd just been angry... tired... didn't really mean to say those things. We could go a few days being peaceful and at ease in each others company only to have the cycle begin all over again until the tension would finally break with an explosion. I found that I was always trying to keep the peace, just to avoid those exhausting episodes. I remember sitting as a terrified passenger in the seat of his car, seven months pregnant, with my two and a half year old in the back seat. He became enraged at something I said, and drove like a crazy person in and out of traffic at breakneck speed, until I screamed and cried and begged him to stop. I felt helpless to know how to change my situation, and I felt shame for even feeling the way I did.

The cycle of abuse is confusing, overwhelming and unpredictable. Unless you are a highly trained professional in the ways of manipulative behavior, you will never break down the victimology of abuse. Most women can spend a lifetime thinking he'll change, only to give away the best years of their lives. Survival becomes the primary motivating factor when you live in an abusive situation, especially when you have children in the mix. Although I wanted to help him, and tried, many times, the truth is that nothing I could, or would do, was enough to make him change.

I made excuses for his behavior for years, and continued to allow my family and friends to think the best of him. He was incredibly generous and kind to those around us, and always the life of the party. By the time I could put words to my experience, no one could believe me. I guess if I were to look back, I can see why it was so difficult to believe. From the outside looking in, I'd done a perfect job of making it all look perfect. I'd done all of the things for the outside image that I was unable to do behind closed doors, and I'd done an excellent job of appearing strong, capable, and outspoken. Ironically, I was, everywhere in my life but in my own home. When it came time to finally leave, I had no one to turn to, and realized that I'd created the exact scenario that so many emotionally abused women face: complete isolation.

Abuse is a no win situation. The best thing you can do is to get out, get help, get distance, and learn to spot the behavior a mile away.The best advice I can give to any woman who wonders if they might be in an abusive situation is this: How does your body react when he walks in the room? Do you tense up or become anxious?

If the answer is yes, then you might want to begin to think about planning your exit strategy. If I've learned one thing, it's that you should never, ever be made to feel afraid.

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