Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How survivors get stronger

Anybody who asks “well why didn’t she just leave earlier?” really needs to think about how hard that is. In addition to the practical reality of getting out without getting hurt, there is the sheer difficulty of starting a new life, independent of anything the abuser does. First of all, it really is building a new life – new home, new job, new school, new city. Second of all, it means letting go of many aspects of the old life: the victim will lose continuity with her past and sometimes lose family and friends. And third, she must do it while recovering from years of emotional abuse, which often does more damage than the physical abuse. And fourth, the survivor probably derived a lot of her self-esteem from her husband, her choice to marry him, and her ability to get him down the aisle in the first place, so she will need to find new ways and reasons to believe in herself and in her future.

So the survivor needs to figure out the things she can do to make herself strong. Take care of your head. Find the things that make you stronger and more independent; read books that make you feel stronger, articles, exercise, yoga, tai chi. Be positive and assertive; get used to using the words “I can”. Think ahead of what to do when you begin to weaken, to consider returning home, or when you need to talk to the abuser, or when someone tries to control you.

Look inside yourself and find the old You, the person you were before all the insanity started. Think about the new person you want to be, now that the troubles are (we hope) out of your life. Think about what your life will look like without him in it. Envision success, and find all the reasons to believe in yourself.

Tell yourself, daily, in the mirror: “I’m not imagining this, I’m not crazy, I don’t deserve this, it’s not my fault, and I’m not alone.” There is no reason in the world to stay with a man who is incapable of treating you with respect. No matter how lowdown he thinks you are, no matter how lowdown you think you are, even if you think you’re the worst woman in the world – drinking, smoking, toking, sleeping around, the house is a mess, the kids are filthy, you even hit your husband – even the worst wife in the world doesn’t deserve to get hit, to be terrorized. And you’re probably not the worst woman in the world anyway, no matter what he tells you.

Making a plan for you to grow will always pay off, whether he is there or not. Once you have a “walk-away position”, a plan that will work with or without him, you have one more option than you had before. That way, even if you’re not leaving yet, you can stop waiting for him, stop waiting for it all to get better, and your happiness no longer depends on him or his behavior or his progress. And stop trying to prove yourself to him – the only person who gets to judge you is you.

So begin to plan what your life in the future will look like – whether or not he is in it. Make an actual plan, now. Think about it and write down the ideas, possibly on the computer (and hide them safely!).Clear your head of emotions first, by going out with a friend to vent your feelings. Remember what your dreams were before you met him, and ask yourself whether he has been helping you achieve them – what dreams have you given up? Think of what you want to have in your life, and what you don’t want: health, fun, connections to others, spirituality, creativity, celebration, financial security, possibly the kids – how much of it were you getting, with him? Or was he, in fact, preventing you from getting what you need? Think of what you want in a relationship. The plan would include all the changes he must make, for you to consider staying – he’s got to know that you’re prepared to leave, before he will ever be willing to change. Be clear (at least to yourself) that it is your plan, not your relationship with him, that is the goal. Once you have the plan, look at all your strengths, things you’re proud of. Remember the beautiful, funny woman who attracted the other guy in the first place. Look at your weaknesses too – go easy on yourself, don’t seek perfection in yourself.

Prepare yourself for an emotional tidal wave: the rage finally breaks out and consumes you, later on the sadness will hit you, the loss of the man and the relationship you thought you had, the fear of the changes and the future, the loneliness, mistrust, exhaustion.

But you will also feel relief! A bad relationship is draining, and faking a good relationship is also draining. Bad relationships cost money, add stress, foul up any long-term plans for your life, foul up your efforts to raise kids. And constantly being afraid and hiding your feelings is exhausting. Focusing on him, him, him all the time can wipe you out. But not anymore!

Prepare yourself for the fact that while you are adding new people to your support network, some people may reject you and drop out: they will judge you, believe his lies, try to be neutral, try to shift the blame from him to you, try to impose conditions for their love and friendship, or lose patience with your dramas and emotions – good riddance.

Now, let’s review all the unhelpful things people might tell you – or that you might be telling yourself.

  • “But everyone thinks I have a wonderful life”. Well, they’re wrong, and you can’t sacrifice your life just to prop up the illusions of other people.
  • “My friends will desert me if I leave”. Well, then they’re not your friends, are they? Real friends want you safe and happy.
  • “I can fix this”. Well, generally these guys don’t change. Simple fact.
  • “But won’t I just end up with another jackass just as bad?” Probably not. The myth that women go from one abuser to another just doesn’t hold up.
  • “But the kids need their father”. No, no, no, no. They’ve even asked kids this question, and the children of abusive men invariably say “no, we’d rather have a single mom than have The Asshole back in the house”. A toxic household is bad for kids, and leads to damaged adults later on. And more abusers.Recently they proved that kids in abusive homes actually develop damaged brains, actual physical changes in the brain, just like the brains of war veterans with shell shock. That's the gift you give your kids, by staying.
  • “When the abuse stops, he loves me, it’s like a drug.” Yes, exactly. A drug. Drugs bad, remember? Something that feels good for a short while, even while it’s killing you.
  • “But I’ll be alone”. A great many women express this fear before they leave, but once they leave, they love being free, alive, safe, living their own lives instead of merely being a terrified little satellite of Planet Stupid. And then they say “What the heck was I waiting for??”
  • “Nobody will ever love me like he does.” Well, I damn sure hope not! That kind of “love” you don’t need.
  • “It’s my fault”. No, no, no, no, no. The worst woman in the world still doesn’t deserve to get hit. 
  • “But he’s starting to make a few improvements!” Few, tiny improvements, doing the bare minimum and expecting to be rewarded for it. Not good enough for you. 
  • “But having a man is where I get my self-esteem from!” If the only thing that makes your life worthwhile is an illusion, a romance that looks great to others but looks like a Stephen King movie back at the house – then you’re settling for something that is beneath you. 
  • “But he’ll fall apart without me!” …and that’s not your fault. He’s an adult. You can’t let him be the anchor that drags you to the bottom of the sea. 
  • “But if I leave, then I’m the Bad Guy!” Nope. Saving yourself and being happy – there’s nothing to apologize for, there. 
  • “But when I leave him, the pain is just too much!” And you’ll get over it. You’re stronger than you think, and you’re going to build a support network, and build a new life that is better than you can imagine right now. After the wave of emotions hits you, you will heal. 
  • “I’m his wife, it’s my job to make him happy, take care of his feelings!” It’s time to take care of your own feelings – let him fix himself. You’re his wife, not his Mommy. You’ve given too much of your own life to fixing his.

Any more questions?

Don’t jump right back into the dating scene, just to prove you can still hack it. All those years in a screwed-up relationship have impaired your ability to communicate with others, and you’re emotional, exhausted, vulnerable, damaged, maybe even desperate. So first, heal, think, deal with the kids and the practicalities of life, cry some, and plan your future. Once you get out there again, look out for the charmers, the guys who pride themselves on being Real Men, the drinkers, the guys who don’t respect women, the guys who are selfish, who make lots of promises and excuses, the guys who are pigheaded, jealous, possessive, who have secrets, who put pressure on you. Contrariwise, look for someone who respects you, who listens, who has a tidy life of his own, who has long stable relationships with others. If you hit the jackpot with a guy, build a friendship, and remember to communicate in a fair, constructive way – something you probably haven’t had much practice with. Find ways to be happy.

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