There are stages to the process of leaving an abusive relationship. If there are children and co-parenting will be required, the dynamics change dramatically. In this article, the focus is on a two-person relationship with no children or pets.
Self empowerment is critical for breaking the emotional abuse cycle
At the outset, before making any move, you need to truly make the choice that taking care of yourself takes precedence over continuing to care of your partner’s needs/desires. Self-empowerment is critical since an emotional abuser or sociopath will almost certainly resist the actions you take to establish your independence. There will be texts, phone calls, flowers, emails, letters and other forms of communication designed to shame you for leaving, charm you into staying, and/or degrade you by telling you no one else can love you because you are unattractive or unlovable. The abuser may even stalk you into your next life and next relationship.
Prepare to resist the attacks from the abuser
It is not uncommon for the emotional abuser or sociopath to bully you once you begin your move and to follow you through the divorce, separation or breaking up process. I’ve had many clients tell me that the sociopathic/emotional abusive partner often lingers on the sidelines for years and decades, interfering with future relationships, family, and even children from another relationship. Divorcing the abuser can sometimes take years, meaning that physical separation (if feasible) becomes critical because to stay in this environment only further diminishes you as the abused one.
Emotional abusers can trap empowered people too
Emotional abusers and sociopaths don’t feed on self-empowered, strong, confident, self- assured people, although they will often try to snare one. The first solution is to develop new habits (note that I did not say “change” yourself) so that you are unattractive in the food chain of the abuser. At times, the abuser will make changes if their partner is making their own internal changes and becoming stronger and more self-empowered—but this is not always the case.
In deciding that the relationship no longer is in your best interest, there are some tangible stages you will experience or create to cultivate the separation or divorce:
Become more open to seeing the relationship for what it is. This is the step of knowing there is a problem, of seeing the lies, manipulation, blaming and insults. It is the point at which you realize that your partner is the source of too much of your pain, unhappiness, silence and self-doubt. It is also the point at which you understand that you have given too much and received too little in return, and see that the relationship is a sham because it was built on lies, manipulation, false hope, a false belief that you have been loved, and no trust that the other person was ever real or genuine in their affections.
Begin to build your strength. Of the many ways to do this, the most effective ones center on developing close friendships, and having a stronger social support system. If you don’t have friends, find ways to join groups such as Meet-Up [https://www.meetup.com/] where you can meet like-minded people who get together to hike, bike, prepare for a marathon, volunteer, learn to speak French or Portuguese, learn to cook Italian or Moroccan, do walking tours of the city, etc. If you have family, reconnect and strengthen those bonds. Join volunteer organizations such as the Humane Society, a local church, a food bank, teaching English as a second language, etc. Self-empowerment is key to assertiveness skills and planning a future without your partner. Self-empowerment starts small: reading books or internet articles can start you on the path. Watching talk or music videos on self-empowerment, assertiveness skills, goal setting, changing habits of thought, and even smartphone apps such as Habit Tracker can be helpful. Look for models of self-empowerment and people with a strong voice.
Progress towards becoming detached and indifferent in the relationship. Your indifference and detachment become most tangible when the lies you once enjoyed no longer move you. The sweet things once spoken no longer affects you. You no longer accept blame for his/her shortcomings or finger pointing. The abuser’s manipulative statements mean nothing. You begin to ignore the insults, and the “gaslighting” no longer works. You stop questioning your reality or believing that your partner’s perceptions are more real than yours. You recognize that you deserve to be loved and in a relationship with someone who sees you, understands you, offers you a sense of safety, and adds value to your life. You start to feel better about who and what you are, and you begin to develop self-respect. The most tangible elements in your indifference and detachment from the relationship occur when hope for a loving relationship and the desire to please your partner have evaporated, to be replaced with anger or a cold indifference. Feelings for your partner may still be present, but the desire to be at his/her beck and call is now gone. As an emotionally maturing (or emotionally fit) partner, you no longer serve at the pleasure of someone else.
You will notice, if you have followed the steps above, that the partner who once had you feeling disempowered or falsely loved now becomes someone you dislike—they now turn your stomach and the old feelings are gone. When your partner now makes an insulting comment, blames you for his/her anger or faults, voices an expectation of you that you are no longer willing to meet—you become angry and speak up, or you are indifferent, or you simply no longer acknowledge them (“A lion does not turn around when a little dog barks!”). Other changes you will notice are: You have now joined a yoga or Tai Chi class. You now are taking classes or learning a new language or how to cook internationally. You are more engaged with your family and friends. That Meet-Up group now has introduced you to several people and you have set up more time to spend with them. You no longer are obsessed with knowing what your partner thinks, feels, or decides. Decisions about your life no longer include your partner and now you are beginning to straighten out your finances, your next living arrangement, or your new career move.
This is an extension of the other stages—now you begin to focus on ending the relationship. You now are thinking about letting go of both your positive and negative emotions. This is not the time to think about forgiveness. Your task now is to unburden yourself of an emotional albatross. Remind yourself of how miserable you’ve been, of how different life will be when you are the pilot and not in the economy class of the plane. Your goal here is simply to create physical distance, followed by your healing process. Start visualizing your life without your partner—what will mornings be like, evenings, weekends, friendships, family dynamics, time alone? Who and what will you evolve into? What new meanings and purposes will there be for your life? How will you reclaim your decisions to create your own destiny and direction? These visualizations will sustain you when you begin to hesitate and second guess yourself—after all, the whole of the relationship was about you being slowly brought to the point where questioning your ability to decide for yourself was secondary to taking care of your partner’s desires and needs.What happens in stage 5? You begin to set up your future—where would you like to live? What kind of friends would you like to have? Ask yourself—how did I contribute to this failed relationship? What could I have done differently? What changes do I need to make to not repeat the mistakes of the past? And most importantly: is your “picker” broken (essentially, do you have a broken or damaged emotional/psychological disposition or approach for choosing partners)? If your “picker” is broken, talking to a professional may be helpful in reducing the risk of re-creating a dysfunctional pattern in a new relationship.
The moment of truth—are you financially at a place where you can move out? Will you need an attorney? Will you need protection, such as a domestic violence shelter (where many do offer legal advice and individual therapy), or a court order for protection from abuse (a restraining order)? Plan out your move carefully and with support from friends and family. Talk to others who have been down this path, get their advice or tips for a more efficient and effective move away from your partner.
This stage brings the most self-doubt and fears. This is where you begin to question your decision. Can I make it? Will they follow me? Will they escalate and try to hurt me? Will they try to harm my family or reach out and damage my friendships? These are common fears and at times they are realistic; however, for most who do go through it, the rewards, relief, contentment and happiness at being able to manage their life without someone controlling them is overwhelming. For those that go back because the fear is overpowering, usually the emotional abuse intensifies significantly after the “honeymoon” has worn off (usually within days or weeks of the return).
Learn to be comfortable with the fear. Learn to live with it and make it your ally in terms of using it to fuel your decision. There is a reason the fear is present, and this should remind you of why you left. Running from the fear, hiding it, trying to control it, or allowing it to control you, only strengthens it. A better approach is to learn from it, allow it to enter you and develop ways to incorporate it into your life mindfully. Your fear and unease with your decision will produce some fantastic days… and conversely, may also give you some miserable days. This is part and parcel of the process. The fears and pain are inner voices that often want to take you back to where the wounds were created, and they can create self-doubt and weaken your resolve if they begin to choke out your decision to leave the relationship. The easiest way to manage the fears and self-doubt is to remember why you left. Replay the images and feelings as the fears surface. Also replay images of your newly reclaimed life by visualizing your future as an independent, assertive, self-empowered individual.
In ending the relationship, there are typical reactions from your ex-partner—clinginess, crying, love notes and texts expressing how much they love and miss you, offers to help you set up your new life and even the occasional “booty call” to remind you of what a great lover they were. Remember that you were a pawn in the relationship and that these behaviors and moments of drama are not about you—they are about your former partner’s needs, drama, and desire to have someone they can control and even punish. Sociopaths and emotional abusers are talented and skilled actors and while they seem desperate, lonely, pitiful and needy, they are luring you like the monstrous Sirens from Greek Mythology. To an emotional abuser or a sociopath, losing a partner produces “narcissistic hemorrhaging”, which in turn evokes powerful acting out.
Keep in mind that they may spread rumors about you, try to create problems with your joint friends, bad-mouth you in public or even sabotage your next relationship. These are only expressions of the narcissistic injury your leaving has created. The stories will paint him as the victim—he will present himself as the affectionate, loving, tender, kind and thoughtful soul, you will be painted as the evil, cruel, thoughtless and cheating partner. This is all part of the game; move past it. Your true friends will pay him no mind. You are now the ice queen or glacier king even if inside you still miss them or the things you did together. The wrongdoing they accuse you of is designed to get a rise out of you, any reaction will feed their behavior and thereby intensify it. A successful end to the relationship requires a complete shutting of the door to their pleas, insults, mudslinging and sabotage.
The end result will be a new beginning for you. A reclaimed life. New purpose and meaning. New and deeper friendships. The possibility of having someone in your life who offers what you deserve. Compare this new life (whether real or visualized) of being pain fee, self-determining and empowered to the old life of being controlled, manipulated, “gaslighted”, blamed, and damaged.
NOTE: I understand that the process for leaving an emotionally abusive partner is complex and takes much more than what is written here. Entire books have been published on how to end and heal from abusive relationships. My hope is that this 4-part series offered enough thoughtful information to begin the process of reclaiming your life and finding your voice.
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
More by David Saenz