Have you ever wondered: Why am I grieving the end of an abusive relationship?
You’ve been through the cycles of the abusive relationship, the ups and downs.
You’ve been trying for such a long time to escape this endless roller coaster of emotions; your loved ones have encouraged you to get out, and you finally took the very brave step to leave.
You know that you had to get out, that it was the better alternative.
But what baffles you and your loved ones are the intense feelings of grief you are experiencing.
Why Grieve the Loss of an Abusive Relationship?
When an abusive relationship comes to an end, the grief can be intense and all-consuming. You may feel a strong pull to return, despite being sure that the relationship is bad for you, and find yourself questioning and doubting your decision to leave. You may get caught up in this internal battle, often maintaining the cycle of the abusive relationship, going back and forth.
The pattern of abuse is cyclical. After an incident of abuse the abuser often displays kindness, remorse and affection. They may beg for your forgiveness, go out of their way to comfort you. These behaviours of comfort, remorse and affection often create a sense of emotional security and reassurance. You want things to be good again, and then gladly accept these behaviours that give you new hope. As a result, you get pulled back in again, and the cycle repeats.
This can make it incredibly confusing to know what to do, doubting your decisions and the recommendations from loved ones. You experience these conflicting parts of your partner; one that is loving, caring, comforting, affectionate and remorseful, and another that is mean, abusive and distant. There may seem to be hope and reassurance in denial, discounting the abusive part of them as ‘not the real them’, and that your loved ones just don’t know this good part.
In reality, they can be both; kind and cruel, with both being real and present in the same person. In other relationships, the kindness is the ‘not real’ bit; kindness can itself be a useful tool to manipulate.
This intense grief and emotional roller coaster is in part due to the co-existence of fear, pain and disappointment, as well as love, kindness and hope in the same relationship. These conflicting emotions create a confusing but very intense and even addictive attachment.
Abusive relationships are often not bad all the time (although some absolutely are). There are often good moments. These moments are real, and it’s very normal to have positive and loving feelings for someone in these moments.
When the abusive relationship comes to an end, it is not just the abusive, painful moments that come to an end, it is also the loss of these loving, caring and romantic moments. It is very normal to feel loss and sadness when we lose someone that we love – even if there are bits of them that we hate or fear, or that may actually even be dangerous.
When we enter into a romantic relationship, there is often a dream, a vision of a beautiful future together. When we have these beautiful moments with our partner, we experience confirmation of this expected future coming to a reality.
However, when we experience abuse, we also fear that we will lose this romantic dream, this vision of a beautiful, loving future together. It is this fear of loss that lets us accept our abusive partner’s manoeuvres for forgiveness, reconciliation, and affection. We desperately look for hope that the dream will be restored; maybe this time it will change. This then contributes to the complicated grief we experience when the abusive relationship does come to an end. Not just the loss of the good, loving experiences, but also the loss of hope for this dream to be realised.
This can be the hardest bit for those around you to understand. They may not be able to tolerate hearing what you miss about someone that has hurt you so badly, and they may have their own feelings – often anger, protectiveness and sadness – about what you have been through. This can leave you feeling isolated, and can be where getting professional help can be particularly valuable.
Not only do you have the complex and contradictory feelings that often accompany the ‘ordinary’ grief of losing a loved one, but you are also dealing with the ‘loss of self’ that you had to abandon in the abusive relationship. The abusive partner often dismisses and negates your feelings, ideas and needs; your assertiveness often met with escalated abuse.
As a result you learned to dismiss and deny your own feelings, thoughts, ideas and needs. It’s common to end up losing access to your feelings, your voice, your likes and dislikes, your values, what make you ‘you’. This happens because you are either shamed out of it, or you have to hide it in order to survive (or both).
Your loss is further amplified by the damage caused to your self-esteem and confidence due to the constant emotional abuse, as well as the social isolation that you experienced due to your partner’s possessiveness and control. This may lead to you blaming yourself, feeling ashamed and lonely.
The practical, logistical and financial challenges that you experience due to the break-up further challenge your emotional resources to grieve the loss effectively, or to accept that you have made the right decision to get out.
Healthy Grieving and Recovery
In order to move on you will need to gain insight into the dynamics and the cycle of abuse, your own internal thought processes and feelings, and the fears and the vulnerabilities that allowed you to become entangled in a relationship like this.
It is important to validate your feelings of loss, fear and uncertainty, and to have self-compassion for the losses you have suffered; to find empathy and support from loved ones or a professional person that can guide you through the process of grief, dealing with the trauma, as well as rebuilding your self-esteem, and reconnecting with your values.
As you grieve the loss of an abusive relationship, you are grieving the loss of a romantic dream/vision – but you can find hope of a new dream/vision.
Author: Willem van den Berg, B SocSci (Psychology & Criminology), B SocSci (Hons) (Psych), MSc Clinical Psychology.
Willem van den Berg is a Brisbane Psychologist with a compassionate, positive and non-judgmental approach, working with individuals, couples and families. His therapeutic toolbox includes evidence-based therapies including Clinical Hypnotherapy (Medical Hypno-Analysis), CBT, ACT and Interpersonal Therapy. William is fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
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