I have been thinking a great deal about a friend of mine who has been stuck in an abusive relationship for years. No matter how bad it gets, she continues to stay. I have a very hard time understanding this. Why would anyone want to stay in a relationship where they are treated horribly, suffering verbal and emotional abuse regularly? Where they get less than they give?
My friend has no satisfying answers to explain her failure to leave. When we talk about the dysfunction of her relationship and I ask her why she doesn’t leave, the rationale she gives include statements such as “I am afraid,” “I have to stay in this relationship for financial reasons,” “I don’t want to be alone,” “If I keep trying harder, things will get better,” “If I just keep my mouth shut, things will be OK,” and even “This is the best I can do,” “I need this person,” or “I don’t know what I would do if I leave?” All of these reasons make me sad for my friend. She is a kind, caring and wonderful person but has little self esteem. She doesn’t realize how unhealthy and damaging this relationship is to her, both emotionally and psychologically. I have watched this strong, capable women dissolve into self loathing and paralysis. She feels stuck and even trapped. It is obvious to me and to her other friends that the longer she stays in this abusive relationship, the more destruction to her self esteem and self worth. The light of her spirit is fading and she is loosing the joy that once flowed freely from her heart.
I guess it is just human nature to believe what others tell us about ourselves or say about us. Many of us carry such wounds from childhood. If you hear from someone who is supposed to love and care about you that you are worthless, not good enough, or wrong, pretty soon you start to believe these things about yourself. Even when you know what is being said isn’t true. Even when you know the handcuffs being placed upon you by the relationship aren’t deserved and do nothing other than to impede your own self determination and put others in control of your life and your happiness.
When I have let those with whom I am in a relationship bring me down, destroy my self worth and esteem, treat me poorly, verbally or emotionally and psychologically abuse me, I often turn on myself and start adopting as true the messages those people tell me, even when I know deep inside myself that they are wrong. It is both a painful and an incredibly lonely place to find yourself. It is hard to shut out those messages and believe in yourself. I know. I have been there.
It takes tremendous courage to leave a relationship where you are being abused either verbally, emotionally, mentally and/or psychologically. It may be harder than leaving a physically abusive relationship. After all, psychic wounds aren’t physical and no one can see them. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But words often do more damage to us as people than physical injuries. Wounds to our psyche take time and effort to heal. They stay with us and impact all of our future relationships. Unless and until we find the courage to stand up for ourselves and believe we are deserving of better.
Our fears often immobilize us, keeping us trapped from growing and believing in ourselves. They keep us enmeshed with our abusers. They convince us we don’t deserve better and prevent us from defending ourselves, and often, from leaving.
When I have been in this situation, I have found that it helps to look at my own issues and explore why I don’t feel I deserve better treatment. I ask myself, what in me propels me to tolerate such an unhealthy relationship? I talk to my friends. I have even spent time in therapy working on myself, my self esteem and self worth, exploring the issues that brought me to this place. And once I left the abusive relationship, I worked hard to build and nurture the relationships I have with people who value and appreciate me.
To my friend who is struggling, I am here for you. To listen, to lend a shoulder and to tell you how much you mean to me and how deserving you are of a healthy relationship where you are valued, appreciated and loved. All human beings are so deserving. Life is too short to waste energy on and with people who verbally, emotionally or psychologically abuse us, use us to make themselves feel better, stronger or more powerful, or who make us feel worthless and bad about ourselves.
I hope my friend finds the courage to believe in herself as much as I believe in her.