I would tell my BFF to DTMFA
March 28, 2013 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Why am I having so much trouble leaving an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship? Or, tell me about your experience with leaving and how long it took you.

Over the last few months, and especially in the last week, I've come to realize that I have been in a verbally and emotionally abusive relationship for over 15 years. Reading this article really helped to crystallize it. I identify with all but the last sign.

In January, I let my partner know that I was extremely unhappy and we started marriage counseling (and I started individual counseling). I told him I would do it for 6 months and then see how I felt about it at that point. So far we've worked on some of the super hurtful things that have happened in the past but he just says he doesn't remember. I realize that I am never going to get what I need from him. I am so so done.

I'm feeling a lot of shame and guilt. I am a very competent and smart person. I have always done a great job at any job I've had. I have lovely friends and an amazing support system. So I feel like I should've put a stop to this so very long ago. Certainly before we had 2 kids. I know the standard answer is that this relationship has just ground me down but I feel like I should've stood up for myself more.

What I'd like to know from you, lovely AskMe community, is this:

1. If you were in a relationship like this, how did you end it? Both practically and abstractly. For example, he will have to move out. I'm the one that makes the money and the kids will stay with me. So practically, did your partner take some days off work and move out then? Did he take lots of furniture and stuff?

2. Abstractly, what did you do to prepare yourself mentally? How did you get the strength to say the words and then stand firm?

3. And how long did it take from the moment you really knew it had to end until you physically separated (I know the divorce paperwork and all that can take a lot longer)?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
1: slowly, painfully, with lots of acrimony. (No kids, not legally married) But once it was done, it was done and after a no contact period, we could be friendly. (But we shouldn't.)

2: kept edging my way out of the relationship. I wasn't even the one to actually, technically, end it. I just set it up so it should have ended.

3: six months, give or take. Apparently my friends knew a few years before.
posted by RainyJay at 11:50 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is very very tough...I compare it to a rocket ship burning literally tons of fuel just to build up enough momentum to leave Earth's atmosphere. When someone becomes a huge part of your life their gravity very much holds you in place. I left my husband two years ago, but I wish I had left sooner. Shame did play a part. I didn't want to end the marriage and take my daughter away from him. However I had support from family and friends. Mostly my mother, who knew that he was all wrong for me and that he was verbally abusive and manipulative. Leaving was pretty straightforward for me....we were both in a foreign country and when I left to go back home that was the end of our relationship. But it wasn't until I did leave did I see just how bad he was for me.
Overall, I would say draw strength from the people around you who love and care about you. Know that it's going to be hard, very hard, to suddenly stop a relationship that has been an integral part of your world for years. Know that the "hard" will pass, the lonely nights won't last forever, and overall you will be better off in the long run. The initial break is always painful, but it will get better.
Wishing you all the best.
posted by Cybria at 11:53 AM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

1. If you were in a relationship like this, how did you end it? Both practically and abstractly. For example, he will have to move out. I'm the one that makes the money and the kids will stay with me. So practically, did your partner take some days off work and move out then? Did he take lots of furniture and stuff?

I was for 17 years. I also ended the marriage in a couple's therapy session and told him I was taking the kids for a few days and I expected him to move out and be gone when we returned. In the previous months, I opened up a separate checking account, took his name off joint credit cards and opened new cards in my name. I also took 50% out of our shared account (he didn't notice). I had my and the kid's bags packed and ready to go away for a few days, which we did. I also had the locks changed and filed a restraining order.

2. Abstractly, what did you do to prepare yourself mentally? How did you get the strength to say the words and then stand firm?

We had been working with a therapist. It only reinforced my resolve to divorce him. That's why I did it in front of the therapist.

3. And how long did it take from the moment you really knew it had to end until you physically separated (I know the divorce paperwork and all that can take a lot longer)?

Less than a week. And that was a really crappy week, but also wonderful because I KNEW at the next session I was throwing his ass out for good.
posted by kinetic at 12:18 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can address number 2, as a friend of someone who was in an abusive relationship. When she decided it was over, she told all of her close friends, and we all helped her. Some of us had known for a while that it wasn't working, and really, had just been waiting and waiting for her to see it and accept it and leave. People helped in all sorts of ways - giving advice about finding a lawyer, watching her kids on the day he moved out, etc. It's already going to be painful enough - let people help you and ask for help for specific things as you go through this process.

I remember that she said she felt embarrassed and exhausted. Really ashamed, like she was a fool for not seeing it. But the thing is that I remember the toxicity of their relationship blossomed slowly, almost imperceptibly, over time. If their relationship had been that poisonous at the beginning, there is no way she would have gone for that. It sort of descended, the way sunset becomes night. Next thing you know you look around and you can't even see your hand in front of your face and you wonder how it got so dark. It's no wonder that she missed it - she was remembering how he first was when they first met, which was awesome.

Good luck to you. You are brave.
posted by anitanita at 12:21 PM on March 28, 2013 [30 favorites]

You got some wonderful advice from anitanita. Really lovely words.

Yes, I felt so frickin stupid that it took me so long to see how bad things were. Honestly, 11 years later, I still have massive bouts of self-doubt and yes, some self-loathing that I let it go on as long as I did.

But it's okay. You will do this. You will live a wonderful ife. You have a very exciting new chapter opening up now. Allow yourself time to feel what you feel; to feel elated and feel miserable, to feel stupid and feel brave.

You will be a mixed up jumble and that's fine.

What you are doing takes serious balls.

Memail me if you want to chat further.
posted by kinetic at 12:40 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is focused on physical violence, but it may be helpful to you.

Once a victim of intimate partner abuse has acknowledged that they are being subjected to domestic violence, they often experience feelings of severe guilt and shame. A battered wife may feel that she is responsible for the behavior of her spouse. This is often because the offender has utilized manipulative techniques in order to convince their victim that they have caused the abuse.

Quotes on Abuse is a collection of statements from survivors about the process of leaving. You may find it encouraging.

I think many people feel shame and guilt when they are abused - part of the dynamic of abuse is that the victim feels culpable. However you feel, act with the knowledge that the behavior is not acceptable and you deserve more. You have already been incredibly brave, and there is a future ahead of you with more happiness and less hurt.
posted by bunderful at 1:00 PM on March 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Did he take lots of furniture and stuff?

With the exception of the kids' things and one or two pre-relationship things, I told him to take anything and everything. Down to the spoons in the drawer. Who cares, just be gone. I know people who have focused all of their negative feelings about the other person onto the stuff, and it's cringeworthy to watch. I just didn't care. Peace of mind was what I was after, and a fresh start. Craigslist furniture is cheap, yard sales are fun, and the wine-bottle-scorer thingy I bought makes much more interesting drinking glasses than the matched Target set we had.

2. Abstractly, what did you do to prepare yourself mentally? How did you get the strength to say the words and then stand firm?

The idea that my kids would grow up in that environment was negative enough to overcome my fear. Love beats out fear any day of the week, if you let it. Love your kids, love yourself, and you'll know what to do.

3. And how long did it take from the moment you really knew it had to end until you physically separated (I know the divorce paperwork and all that can take a lot longer)?

Months. Uncomfortable, unpleasant, achingly painful months. But that grieving is going to happen regardless. Whatever grieving you're doing while you're still under the same roof is that much less time you're grieving after he moves out. Even so, try to make it happen sooner.

Good luck.
posted by headnsouth at 1:11 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry you're in this place, and also want to congratulate you for acknowledging what you need and looking for a path to attain it.

Abusive relationships haven't been an issue for me, but in general I've heard good advice about getting through the ugly part of break-ups.

The survival strategies of POWs might be helpful here. The ones who survived were the ones who were able to accept the shitty reality of the situation, in part by acknowledging that this was as bad as it could get. What I'm saying is, it's probably best to acknowledge that the process of ending your marriage is going to be really hard and sad and stressful. Keep your mind on the end goal, of how much better it will be for you (and your kids) once you get through all the ugliness. It's the end result that will make it worthwhile for you. Being realistic about the journey will help you take the plunge. Think about breaking the news in your couples counselling session.

In short, remember my favourite proverb: Doing the right thing doesn't make life easy, it makes life possible.
posted by dry white toast at 1:21 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

With the exception of the kids' things and one or two pre-relationship things, I told him to take anything and everything. Down to the spoons in the drawer. Who cares, just be gone.

My mom did this and then ended up with no home and she couldn't afford to feed us. If you have kids, please please get a shark of a lawyer.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:29 PM on March 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

You can ask your therapist for help with this process. Couples therapy isn't only about fixing relationships. There are some, like yours, that cannot be fixed no matter how hard you work at it. Let your therapist know that this is what you're thinking and ask for help coming to as positive an end to your relationship as you can. Having an impartial 3rd party can help you work out some of the logistics in your first question.

As to the rest, I was in a similar relationship, though not married and we didn't have children. I agree with anitanita, this probably didn't happen over night. You would not have allowed that. Abuse like this creeps in insidiously and it slowly grows doubt and shame in you that you don't notice at first. As the abuse takes hold and the doubt and shame take over it gets harder and harder to see or to even believe that you deserve better. You are strong and wise for being able to see that and for taking the steps you need to to make a healthy life for you and for your children.

Your friends and loved ones will support you, just like you would do and alluded to in your question. Let them help you.

All told it was a couple of months for us to get him out of our shared apartment, and probably another 6 months to untangle all of the financials. The relief I felt started the minute I said out loud that I wanted to end it, though, and it's just continued to get better ever since. I know it will for you too.
posted by goggie at 1:31 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Before you do anything, please go see a divorce lawyer and don't let your spouse know about it. Don't make any moves without good advice. You have 2 children to think about and have been in an abusive relationship. Please get legal advice before telling your spouse to take everything including the spoons out of the drawer. Tell a trusted friend or two who you know will keep your activities in confidence. Let them help and support you.

The lawyer will tell you what information to collect in preparation and what moves you can make without damaging your divorce case. Don't underestimate the anger and vengeance of an abuser; make sure you have everything in-place before you tell him that you are filing for divorce.
posted by quince at 2:03 PM on March 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

With the exception of the kids' things and one or two pre-relationship things, I told him to take anything and everything. Down to the spoons in the drawer. Who cares, just be gone.
My mom did this and then ended up with no home and she couldn't afford to feed us. If you have kids, please please get a shark of a lawyer.

small_ruminant is correct, as is quince, I should have been more clear. The things like pizza cutters and lamps and books didn't matter. The house and the debt and the child support and the health insurance mattered. I did have a lawyer for those things, and the lawyer came first. In the end, not being attached to the furnishings meant I could "choose my battles" when it got down to brass tacks. Which it did, to be sure. And I am still grateful for my lawyer, who ended up going above and beyond when it got awful.

I have a friend who fought tooth and nail over who got the Christmas decorations (they had divided the sentimental ornaments, this was about the lights and fake tree and purple globes). That's just not worth it. But no decisions without your lawyer's advice, for sure.
posted by headnsouth at 2:17 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Start with a lawyer. He may not accept that he should move out and you stay with the kids. You need to know how temporary and permanent custody is dealt with in your jurisdiction and you need to be strategic.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:26 PM on March 28, 2013

I've been there, and one of the hardest things for me to do was to forgive myself. After all the practicalities (and I wasn't married so I didn't have to do any of that) and all of the drama associated with getting out were done, I was relieved but still incredibly guilty. I should have known better; I should have seen it sooner, that sort of thing. One thing that really helped me was to realize that A: it wasn't bad when it started. If it was, I would have never gotten into that relationship. No one would have. Things can change very gradually and the next thing you know, you're in a bad situation. There was never any one lightbulb "ok, now this is a bad situation" moment (until the end, when I GTFO). It just kind of... creeps up on you. And B: I had never been in that sort of situation before. Of course I didn't know what the warning signs were. I couldn't have been expected to understand their significance if I had never experienced them before (because, looking back, I did see them). And once I did, I got out. And now I know. That, more than anything, has helped me to forgive myself. I didn't know, but now I do and going forward I can be sure to not allow myself to be treated that way again. You didn't have the life experience necessary to realize how bad it had gotten until you saw that website. But now you have, and you're getting out, and the only way to go is forward and that's awesome! Try not to blame yourself for not knowing about something you had never experienced before. That's not your fault.
posted by Weeping_angel at 2:50 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

You absolutely need a lawyer before anything else. If you are the primary breadwinner, that can affect the division of property, possible child support and/or ongoing spousal support, and even child custody. You may think it's obvious that you would keep the house and the kids, but if he disagrees (and an abusive person may well fight you just to keep you on the hook and keep power over you), that will ultimately be decided by the courts. You need to be in the best possible position to protect yourself and your kids, and that means getting the best possible legal advocate for yourself before you make your spouse aware of your plans and give him the chance to hurt you again.
posted by decathecting at 3:18 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm glad you asked this.

It was the hardest thing I've ever done. I was in it for 3 years.

This comment I made sums up what I did pretty well.

How long did it take from the moment you really knew it had to end until you physically separated?
About four months. I left him three times - statistics I've heard (but don't have actual articles to back up so take these with a grain of salt) - say that it takes the average woman seven times to leave. Every time I went back, he was on good behavior for a few days and then started in again. That helped me really, really realize that there was nothing for me to do but leave. The thing to remind yourself of is that leaving an abusive relationship is a process, not an event. It takes time. It's confusing.

He put up a huge fight. He made it hard for me to leave. He promised that he would, and he lived up to it. This is common. Be prepared to lose stuff, money, and time. It's OK. You've already lost stuff, money, and time - and other intangible things, like possibly your sense of self or your identity or friends...

Support groups for other DV/abuse survivors were incredible for me. I love them. It was super helpful for me to meet other women - the strongest women I've ever met, some of the most amazing people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing - in similar situations. I would really recommend this. The weirdest part was seeing the diversity of the women: there was a high-powered lawyer, a social worker, a stay-at-home mom, a documentary filmmaker, a PhD student, an ESL teacher, and a neonatal ICU nurse in my last group. Some of them were drop-dead gorgeous. Others looked worn out and tired. Some were incredibly wealthy. Others were on food stamps. Some of the women were still in it. Others had left 15 years ago and were finally processing the trauma. So look into this, even if you have not yet left.

What I mean when I describe the women in my groups is: This can happen to anyone. It is insidious. It is slow. It is hard to believe that the person that you love, the father of your children, the man who says that he loves you is capable of abusing you. It's a hard thing to come to terms with. It's OK that it took you a long time. I suggest therapy for this part. I am finally coming to terms with the same of what happened to me - I'm a smart woman, I've always been a hard worker, and I've had successful relationships in the past - and getting through that shame has been a big project. Like with everything else I do, I took it on with full force. I go to therapy four times a week: once with my regular therapist, once for EMDR (I have PTSD from the abuse), and I am a member of two different groups for survivors of domestic violence. I have to say that it took about 5 months for me to start feeling OK more than I did not feel OK. I know that sounds scary, but you know what? I did not feel OK for three years when I was with him. I had to (and still have to) learn what OK even means for me. I feel like I am a new person, and it is the best thing that I have ever done for myself.

I can't believe that I let a man tell me that I was unlovable. That I let a man put me on a diet of 700 calories a day. That I let him systematically cut off all of my friends. That I, a smart, strong, capable person, let a man 14 inches taller than me grab my hair and twist my neck; that I let him smash a door down in order to threaten me with physical violence. That I let physical violence happen to me. I thought it happened to other women; it was abstract, and I did not want to face it.

So practically, did your partner take some days off work and move out then? Did he take lots of furniture and stuff?
I loved our home. I loved my things. They were not worth staying with him for, and he would not let go of them. I moved. I lost stuff. I lost money. I lost time. But I have my freedom back. That might sound dramatic, but it's true.

Support from both other women in domestic violence situations and from friends was vital. Vital. Reach out to your support system. I am so glad you have one. I did not, and many women in abuse situations do not. Use yours to your advantage. Tell people what you need. Lean on people. Let people help you.

Getting out is a process. I was recently helping to train new hotline supporters at the local DV shelter, and my co-panelist said something really helpful. She said, "Once you think you're done and that everything is better, something new comes up." She's right, and that isn't as scary as it sounds -- it just highlights that this is going to take some time. It's totally and completely worth the time.

Finally, since you are married and have kids, please consult a lawyer or several lawyers. Get the best one you can. The women's center in your area will probably have both resources on support groups and some good names for legal counsel.
posted by sockermom at 3:39 PM on March 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

Also, I notice that in my post I sort of focused on the physical violence aspect of my experience. There was tons - tons - of emotional and psychological abuse. That was actually the part that was the hardest, because it's hard to point to something and say "Hey, that's not right" -- he would always twist it around and say "That never happened" or "I don't remember that" or "You are over-exaggerating" or whatever he could say to explain it away.

For me, the physical stuff was sort of helpful (and I know that sounds sick) because it was like a giant flashing sign that said NOT OK to me. I think that if he hadn't started using physical violence and threats of physical violence toward me that I would have stuck around a lot longer. A lot longer. The psychological/emotional/verbal stuff went on for years before he even started to make motions toward being physically violent toward me. I just realized really recently in fact that the physical abuse was starting to ramp up considerably right before I left. Isn't that weird? It took me six months of being away from him to construct a timeline of the more egregious, more obvious incidents that had a paper trail and for me to actually see that it was getting worse over time.

So, I commend you for getting out before it escalates to physical violence. That escalation is all too common.

Also, The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans and Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft are both excellent books that I highly recommend you read.

You are brave, and I am proud of you. MeMail me any time if you want to talk further.
posted by sockermom at 4:47 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would counsel against collaborative family law practitioners in this kind of circumstance, especially given the long time it took you (me) to realize the relationship that started out promising was eventually harmful. You need an advocate with the mindset of doing the best for you and for your children, which is counter to assuming the other adult in your relationship has (intentionally or not doesn't matter) caused emotional and verbal abuse.

Whether or not you expect it, be prepared to document reasons for and defend your intention to take full legal custody of the kids. Children are far too often used as weapons to hurt a departing or former partner.

Since I'd maintained my own bank account, credit cards, employment, health insurance, and other means of independence, division of assets was fairly clean if fiscally painful as the major income earner who had provided the entire down payment for a house whose equity was split 50-50 according to the law of the area. I chose to leave for my own reasons, taking items that were readily identifiable as mine and negotiating on others (not always to my satisfaction). A third party who is not strongly tied to only one of you being present for division of physical assets can help maintain neutrality and civility.

Record your interactions where possible, and document them otherwise. If you receive a credible threat of death, rape, or other violence, or find the emotional and verbal turning physical, having that dispassionately noted can be valuable in the aftermath even years later.

Look at where you and those you love are. Envision where you want yourself and them to be in a healthy future. Make plans to realize that future.

You will encounter setbacks and have times of self doubt. Remember the future that's possible, pick yourself up, and move in that direction.
posted by thatdawnperson at 6:14 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing that helped me a lot: knowing that Future Me will thank Me Now for leaving. Someone here on Metafilter said that to me and it really was helpful (so thank you, whoever you are).

There's nothing that will make it easier. And there's nothing that will make it quick and painless, for you or your kids.

But there are a lot of great people, both here on Metafilter and in your own community/life, I'm sure. And the reason community exists is to help in exactly these situations. You can and should ask for help and take it when it's offered. I would be happy to talk with you over MeMail if that's helpful. I was grateful to the Mefites who offered when I was in your place.

Everyone carries demons, and the most important thing is learning not to pick up any more. You can't do much about the ones that are already there, but you getting healthy and safe, emotionally and physically, is the most important thing. If you have someone close enough, ask them to help you so that you don't change your mind. And then listen to them.

We're here, no matter what your choice. This shit is tough, and a lot of us have been there. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:09 PM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

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