Tell me how you survived the end of a long relationship.
April 7, 2013 9:29 AM   Subscribe

Last summer I left an emotionally abusive long-term relationship, and I’m still really struggling with loneliness and heartbreak. Hope me.

I’ll try to keep this brief. The relationship had lasted more than 15 years. It had some very good qualities to it and there were things about it that made me happy for a long time. However, it was also emotionally abusive, and things became very bad in the last couple of years. I knew I had to leave to save myself.

So I went very far away because I knew if I didn’t, I’d just go back to him. And I keep reading about how amazing I will feel and the thing is…I don’t. All this time later and I’m still heartbroken. I miss him terribly. I burst into tears at random moments. I feel like the best part of my life is over and I’ll never find anyone who has the good qualities he did that made me happy (when he wasn’t yelling at me and making me cry—I know, right?). Sometimes I feel like the pain is so great I will not survive it. Sometimes I think I will literally die of loneliness (even though I live with people and can be with people as much as I need to.) Oh, and did I mention the crippling guilt?

It’s good that I went far away, because if I hadn’t, I’d probably have gone back to him; I’ve made it logistically impossible to do that. And intellectually, I know it is a terrible idea. Intellectually, I even understand that someday I might feel better.

Emotionally, I’m not buying it.

Things that help: casual dating (with full disclosure of my circumstances), exercise, staying busy, reading loads of human relationship questions on MeFi

Things that don’t: talking about it and journaling don’t, most of the time; they just upset me more, I think because I am already in my head enough and I agonized over this for so long before leaving. I also posted on an emotional abuse forum for a while which helped me in the process of leaving and for the first month or so afterward but was all a bit too GRAR ALL ABUSERS ARE SOCIOPATHIC BAD PEOPLE black and white to be helpful for me.

So, Metafilter: Have you left a relationship of more than a dozen years (abusive or not) and thrived? How did you do it? How long did it take to start feeling “normal” again? What things can I do to make myself feel better now?

Considerations: I am broke (as in I have to budget for a cup of coffee with friends broke) and I have very little time. Also, I know, therapy, but I’m looking for other suggestions as well. Please be gentle with me; I am really fragile these days. Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Not what you'll want to hear, I expect, but for me it took several years to feel truly normal again. Just remember that it doesn't happen all at once, or even in a straight-line progression. You'll go along feeling horrible and then, hey, you have a day when you feel kind of normal. After a while you might have two days in a row like that. Then three. Maybe some genuinely fun days. Eventually, the normal days will start to outnumber the horrible days. Even after you feel pretty normal most of the time, a particular sight or sound or smell may trigger the tears again on occasion. You let them flow and understand that this too shall pass.

For me, it helped to concentrate on the normal parts of my life. Work, grocery shopping, hobbies, exercise, whatever there is in your life that isn't intimately tied to your ex. Sounds like you are doing some of this. Also, it helped to start doing some new things, which by definition could not possibly be tied to the ex. You already started that by going to a new place. It also helped to think about things I always wanted to, but had put off because they didn't mesh with life as a couple. I finally did many of them. Some of them were small things that didn't take any real time or money.

Basically, you had 15 years of your life as a part of a pair, and now you have to solo. It's very unlikely you can just resume being who you were 15 years ago. You have to find out who you are now, and it's something you will learn only gradually.
posted by Longtime Listener at 10:08 AM on April 7, 2013 [10 favorites]

My abusive relationship only lasted six years (and wasn't all that abusive for the first couple of those), but maybe this will be helpful anyhow. It took roughly 2 years to feel like myself again. Meanwhile the two things that helped me feel better were helping other people (I had extra cash at the time, and was teaching myself to cook, so I regularly cooked extravagant meals for some financially struggling friends) and a big project (I fixed up a decrepit old motorcycle and rode it cross-country). I had many bouts of sadness and pangs of loneliness. I did my best to avoid situations that would trigger such feelings, but if I found myself in such situations despite my efforts, I did not try to avoid feeling bad.
posted by jon1270 at 10:17 AM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's been about five years since I was kicked out of my 15+ year LTR and I am still broken... but I -am- better than I was right after it ended. So the main thing, and you'll hear this a lot, is time. They tell me it takes about half as long as the relationship lasted, for you to get over it. You're already doing well, dating etc, so it probably won't be as bad for you. Just keep swimming!
posted by The otter lady at 10:44 AM on April 7, 2013

I am so sorry that you are still suffering nearly a year after leaving. Here is an Internet Hug for you.

I feel like you do almost all of the time. I was only with him for three years, and I know what you mean: everyone seems to say "Oh, you're FREE now, it's GREAT!" and while I have some moments where I feel that way, they're few and far between. I do not feel free. I miss the heck out of my abuser. God, every day I have at least one or two moments where I think about going back, which is embarrassing to admit, but it's true. Good for you for creating a situation where that would be impossible: I am impressed. That's hard, and you're really brave to have done this.

The thing is, leaving a relationship - abusive or not - is never great. There's always some sadness.

The biggest help for me, I think, has been joining a support group for survivors of domestic violence. I have met some fabulous women there, women who get it, and it helps a lot because there is not really any of the "grar abusers are evil sociopaths" mentality there. It's more like, "How can I learn to develop healthy boundaries?" and "What does self-esteem look like for me?"

There are a lot of women there who are still in their abusive situations - I'd say it's about 50/50 - and that kind of makes the conversations focused less on the "abusers are evil, can you believe he did [horrible thing] to me?" and more on the "how can we feel good" side of things, which I really appreciate. Also, it's free. I would contact your local women's shelter to see if they have something like this. Try it; if it's not for you, it's not for you.

Other things that help me are:
- Hobbies where I produce something. Volunteer work would count here. I knit, cook, and play piano.
- Getting a pet. My little cat (who was also abused before she got picked up by the no-kill shelter, which is probably why I bonded with her instantly and was like I MUST HAVE HER NOW AND LOVE HER FOREVER) is one of the things that gets me out of bed on the really bad days. A fish or lizard or hamster might be more affordable, but would still be really beneficial. Or if you have a friend with a dog, you could offer to take her doggie to the park once or twice a week. They'll both appreciate it.
- Doing favors for friends. Personally I like to feed my friends, but also I sit with them and talk with them if they need to talk, or do errands with them if they need help, or whatever. Helping other people helps you. A friend told me something nice, she said, "just put love out there in the universe, and it will come back," and I think she's right.
- Exercise
- Being nice to myself. Oh god, this one is the biggest one, I think. I say the meanest things to myself in my head - things that I wouldn't say to someone I loathed. Being nice to myself is difficult sometimes, but I need it. There were very few people that were nice to me when I was in the abusive situation, and I hardly ever interacted with them because I was isolated. No one was nice to me on a daily basis while I was with him. Being nice to myself now is very important.
- Church was helpful for a little while. I am not religious, but it made me feel really good to be absolved of my sins by the priest. I needed it for some reason. Also, there was a sense of community that I really liked there, and it was just built in and always there. That was comforting.
- Getting out of the house: going on walks, to the public library, reading in the park
- Letting myself be sad when I need it. I don't ignore the pain, because it will just come back later. I just sit with it. When it gets to be too much, I say "ok, I will talk to you later now, bad thoughts" and I go do something else
- I watch a lot of television for company in the house and to distract me
- Reading Cheryl Strayed's book Tiny Beautiful Things, which is not about abuse at all. It's just about how to be a person. It's a collection of the Dear Sugar columns, so if you want to read it online you can peruse her archives. I have no idea why, but this book was so helpful to me and continues to be helpful.
- Helping other people who are either currently in abusive relationships or who are out. Writing about it on Metafilter, talking to women from group, or even friends that I know who disclosed to me that they, too, are in or have been in abusive relationships - these have all helped me process what I'm going through. I always say that the only silver lining to my abuse is that I can help other people because of it. That might just be me, but it does help me to help other people in this area specifically.

It will take awhile to feel like there are more good days than bad days on average for the both of us, I think, which is pretty unhelpful but is unfortunately true.

Hang in there. Make friends. Do what makes you feel good. Don't beat yourself up for not feeling better yet. It's OK. In fact, it's normal.

Memail me if you need anything. I can send you a care package if you'd like a box with a few goodies in it.
posted by sockermom at 10:47 AM on April 7, 2013 [22 favorites]

I haven't had a 15 year relationship, but I had a 6 year one that ended badly. Also, other bad life circumstances that were hard to get over.

My experience was, nothing really makes it 'better' except time. Sure, the stuff you're already doing like exercise and distraction. I liked funny books and movies - a little levity. Stuff that gets you to the end of the day without feeling hopeless is important. And creating and reinforcing new, good habits you want to keep is worthwhile. Why not put that distraction energy into learning to play guitar or build furniture? But really, it's only going to feel better after this runs its course. In fact, you are not supposed to feel good right now. If you did, you would have a heart of stone. You would be a robot or at minimum suppressing real feelings.

But maybe it's useful to think about this: The suffering you are going through now is transforming you. You are going to come out of this a different person, someone wiser, stronger, tougher, more insightful. Think of this time as your cocoon. You are going to be wrapped up in that cocoon, and maybe no one can see it, maybe not even you, but when the time is right, on the scale of years, you are going to look around one day and realize those big, gorgeous wings are yours.

This time is terribly hard, but it's a gift. Know that some time in the future you'll be able to feel that.
posted by latkes at 3:45 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I did this with a relationship that wasn't as long, but started very young and had a huge impact on my life. It's hard to summarize what I learned in one post, but here are a few key points.

- It gets better. But the process of getting better involves a HUGE change to your identity, and changing identity is a long, slow, confusing process. I did some reading on identity change and it was very helpful.

- Do something fucking awesome. This time is going to hurt no matter what you do. But it will be better if you run a marathon, get a grad degree, start a new career, build a house... whatever. Don't be risk averse. You've lived through a lot and you are going to die someday. Do all of the crazy, amazing stuff that your abusive ex prevented you from doing, from the large to the small. Even if you are broke, you can ride your bike to a new part of the city, you can stay on a friend's couch in a new place, you can play a cheap instrument, you can declare bankruptcy and start again. The things I am most happy about are where I did this kind of thing; the times where I was least happy were where I sat around and moped about my circumstances.

- Consider casual relationships, polyamory, and other activities where you can have quick intimacy with others without a lot of expectations. For me, the best way to get over someone was to get under someone. But I also realized that I wasn't ready for a real capital R relationship. So I had a lot of casual relationships and it was very good for me. Later, I had other issues because I had never been in a real relationship (without abuse), but (if it works for you) the casual stuff can be very freeing.

- Now is the time to call in favors. If you have family that will help, or old friends, or anyone, get some help. Your life is going to be way better in a few years, but you need them now.

- I can second a number of the suggestions above (exercise, biking across the country sounds great, fixing up old things or any task that is productive and requires a lot of focus, reading memoirs and writers like Cheryl Strayed who really *get it*; happy, funny, joyful television and movies; growing living things (like plants, but no guilt if they die); therapy).

- Also, tincture of time. This is the first time you are doing this, and it is the hardest. Hopefully you will never have to do it again, but you are learning how to recover from an abusive relationship, and it's hard to learn, and tricky, and you will know how to do it exceptionally well by the time you are done.
posted by 3491again at 5:16 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

You have to be committed to yourself. This person who abused you hated you, wanted to hurt you. You have to be your own best friend, show yourself love and compassion and care.

You have to remember how horrible it felt to be yelled at and emotionally abused. Remember it often enough that you are grateful not to be around that---not to have a one in a million chance even of walking into your apartment today and being put down and abused and feel sick and damaged and trapped.

Get to know yourself. Accept the reality of who your ex-partner really was and how he enjoyed being abusive (it made him feel powerful).

You want a good life. A healthy life. You don't want to be associated with a man so emotionally challenged and immature. You don't want to let anyone treat you that way.

Have you seen a therapist regularly since leaving? Joined a support group? Connected with other single women? All these things can help tremendously.
posted by discopolo at 5:48 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also wanted to add that one of the things I enjoyed most after the relationship was being able to eat whatever I wanted, watch whatever I wanted, read whatever I wanted. Most of these things are free (or you're going to do them anyway). So, indulge yourself in hulu marathons or by eating foods he hated or reading the classics or whatever you like. No one will get on your case for this stuff again.
posted by 3491again at 6:09 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I left a relationship of more than a dozen years. Sadly, I left it because I had already started an emotionally abusive relationship with someone else (LTR and I were poly at the time). Clever, hey? Then less than a year later, left the abusive relationship, so that was something.

Things that helped (with both): realising how much stuff I could actually do for myself. I had somehow come to believe that I was really rather incompetent at a lot of life things, so even though I was stressed out of my nut about money, living circumstances, etc, I dealt with it. If you are a list-maker, try making lists of all the things you have done for yourself each day. Go you!

Volunteering helped a lot as well; it was something that I could do exactly as I was. I didn't have to learn anything or change myself or anything, just show up, do the work that needed to be done, leave. It was greatly restorative.

I still (more than 6 years later) get a rush out of "hah! I can watch this stupid show/don't have to watch that stupid show/eat this because I like it/don't have to pretend to like this food I loathe/be mocked for not liking whatever food" and that kind of thing. Kind of childish, sure, but helps to re-establish who you are and what you do like. Important when you are used to shaping yourself around someone else.

Getting into a rather short-lived relationship with someone completely different was good too. Reminded me that not everyone has to be a manipulative bully, etc. Good friends and good company helped a lot too. So did recognising the emotionally abusive relationship as having been emotionally abusive. Seems obvious in hindsight, but I was pretty blind to it at the time. At least you've ticked that box!

You don't mention alcohol/cigarettes and/or other drugs - if you have to budget for coffee they're probably not much on the cards - but they don't help. Maybe a couple of glasses of wine with a good friend, but otherwise it just makes stuff worse.

Exercise, distractions, animals who accept you exactly as you are - these are all good too. And also allow yourself time to grieve. This often takes a lot longer than you might think, or might like it to take. No one is horribly evil and of course there were good bits that you miss. Just not enough to go back.

Oh and also, if you can, forgive yourself. That's taken rather a while for me and I think I still have moments where I think I should have known better. But be kind to yourself.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:53 PM on April 7, 2013

I left a 10-year relationship in which there was much love and no abuse. The first year was spent curled up into myself, walled-off, and crying more days than not. Even with therapy.

It took me more than four years to feel mostly better, and to begin dating again.

I still have pangs 13 years out, including guilt and sorrow, but I've learned to carry it relatively lightly.

What helped me was spending time with old people in old folks' homes -- their perspective and sense of mortality somehow comforted me. The sadness of their predicament also reminded me that I had options they did not -- to move freely in the world; to love again someday; to go outdoors.

Hang in there.
posted by nacho fries at 9:26 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I once in a relationship where, by the end (and especially at the very end), my boyfriend had tried out almost every category of abuse that I know of. Afterwards, I was in group counseling, and the group would start every meeting by "checking in." You would just say how you were feeling and what was going on with you. One day, I couldn't hold it in anymore, and I just started crying and babbling about how, despite all the terrible things he did to me and how angry I was when I thought about them, I still loved him so much and missed him all the time. To my shock, every head in the room started nodding. So, I think what you are feeling is very common. I can tell you that I feel very differently now that a long time has passed. Even if the emotional abuse forum wasn't helping you, you might get a really really different vibe from a counseling group or a support group led by someone with training.
posted by cairdeas at 11:46 PM on April 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

FWIW it took me well over a year to get over every single long term relationship I've ever been in, all of much less time than 15 years. At the one year mark I was still sobbing my way through the entire state of Connecticut whenever I travelled through it because that was where I'd lived with my ex. At the one year mark, I was utterly convinced I'd never again find love or happiness, and that I wasn't capable of either without my ex. And I was just barely coming out of the part where every fucking thing, every fucking song and every fucking smell reminded me of him.

What helped me is the idea that there was a specific date in the future where I was going to be truly happy again, and that while I didn't know what that date was, every day I slogged through, no matter how brutal, brought me one day closer to it.

You are absolutely normal in your recovery and right on track. You're doing great.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:16 PM on April 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

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