So many of my clients minimize the emotional abuse that often happens as a relationship unravels. Recognizing this dangerous pattern and getting out before things become even more toxic is KEY to refocusing and maintaining a healthy family transition. What does emotional abuse look like? Well, in my case, it looks like THIS:
“I feel sorry for you because you pretend to be someone you really are not which must be really difficult to maintain such a facade all the time. You want to paint me as the bad guy to the kids, your family and friends and you as the martyr. You like and have always liked that role.”
Are you thinking, “what’s abusive here, isn’t this just normal fighting?” THE ANSWER IS NO!!
The problem is so many people are unaware of how insidious and toxic this sort of communication is, until it’s too late. This abuse is subtle, it’s effects are cumulative (google C-PTSD for more info on this), and there is no protection from it in divorce court. The first time someone says something like this to you, you just get angry and fight back. However, this pattern repeats over time, and you get angrier and angrier about being defined as something you’re not, and being accused of doing things you’re not doing. Eventually, this pattern of emotional abuse causes the victim to doubt themselves and what they believe about themselves. This lowered self-esteem makes it harder for you to leave and more vulnerable to the emotional attacks you are facing.
The ongoing psychological trauma, in the best case, throws you off balance and makes you question your identity. In the worst cases, it can lead to full manifestation of the physical and psychological effects of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
So how does this work? In this excerpt above, my ex-husband returns to the story he has been telling me for years, but especially in the years since we’ve divorced. The happy, outgoing, successful person that I am at my CORE, is apparently a façade. He is questioning my very identity, both how I see myself, and how the outside world sees me. My ex-husband doesn’t say what type of person I really am supposed to be, but he doesn’t need to-- he’s been telling me for years. Eventually, because the abuser’s perception of reality is so different than yours, you start to wonder if YOU’RE the one whose perception is off. You start to wonder if what they are saying is TRUE. Do I play the martyr? Do I portray myself as a victim? Do I paint him as a villain to the kids?
In this case, after years of grappling with this sort of behavior, the one thing I know that I DO NOT do, is play the martyr or the victim. After years of questioning the one thing I KNOW is that I am a person of integrity who tries every day to use my skills and expertise to help people, not tear them down, and this is not a façade.
While many who know the “behind the scenes” challenges of my life experiences would think that maybe I would be justified in playing the martyr or the victim, I believe there is zero value in that. Everyone could play the victim or martyr about SOMETHING. Part of what Family Transitions is about is helping clients realize that we are NOT victims-- challenges, loss, change, are all part of life that causes us to continually grow and improve. So how do I overcome the insults and belittling that inevitably still come my way
I remind myself that he lashes out at me because he carries his own trauma wounds (this doesn’t justify the behavior, but it makes it easier for me to let go of anger)
I remind myself that I can trust who I know that I am. If you do some reading on this, you'll be comforted to know that just the fact that you consider, even for a moment, whether or not what he says is true, shows that it is not
I remind myself that being treated this way just helps me learn healthy boundaries for behavior in future,
I remind myself that facing this sort of emotional abuse validates why I needed a divorce in and lastly,
I remind myself that creating the life I have now is a major accomplishment
So, corny as it may sound, I firmly believe I am the opposite of a victim, I am someone who refuses to be victimized any further. I can’t stop the barbs from coming, but I can get better and better at preventing their intended effects, and so can you!