You can't be friends with your abuser.
July 15, 2014 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Help me accept that I can't be friends with my ex-boyfriend. The relationship was abusive but we've had to maintain contact while we disentangled our lives and I got on my feet. Now that time is over and I have to move on. I am finding it very hard. How can I start moving on towards my future?

My ex-boyfriend was mentally abusive to me and it was complicated by the fact I moved to his country with him and it was very difficult. He was very controlling and un-accepting of my body. You can see my previous question from March. I need to start moving on now and let go, but I am not sure how. I am really scared and afraid.

Since our break up my ex has been very kind to me and helped me get on my own 2 feet financially. I have a new roomate now who is great. I spent a lot of time at the Women's Crisis Center getting emotional support. I have a therapist who is awesome (but my next appointment isn't for a few weeks). I have tons of friends and a job I like. I am finally moving towards an independent life where I don't need to be in a relationship for survival.... so I am hoping that now I can move on and actually have a quality relationship and a family of my own.

The summer has been okay. I had your cliche rebound. Gotten over it. I'm dating a few different guys. But yesterday and today it became clear that we were not going to be friends and its left me feeling very weepy and wobbly.

I have a lot to be proud of. My past, from childhood up until the last few years, I am 33 now, was very traumatic and I have no family support to speak of. My childhood was not a bed of roses and I grew up in a family that was involved in a church that border lined on being a cult... and looking back I really internalized the message that I was a bad person and that my body is bad. My mother died when I was in my 20's and I took it hard. I've really struggled with alcohol abuse, a pretty severe eating disorder- and I've managed to overcome those things and by all accounts I have a nice healthy life now. But I have still yet to let go of the idea that I am a BAD and unworthy person.... Often I feel happy- but sometimes, like today, that little voice comes through.

My therapist has suggested that because I grew up in an emotionally abusive family where I had no voice, but where I was completely provided for practically and financially- that I am probably drawn towards relationships where there is a lot of financial support and that feels like love to me.

I'd also been living a very transient and unsettled life until I met my ex- and I have deep feelings that I've been saved from an awful fate. He's left me with a home and opportunities for the future.

So maybe that is why I am having a hard time letting go of this relationship. I know that he is seeing someone new and can't be a support for me anymore. But I am scared. I know that I shouldn't even want to be friends with someone who treated me like that. But I get afraid that I really was a loser, that I wasn't good enough, and that's why he wasn't happy. And whoever he is dating is better than me. Sometimes I feel like I must really be second-rate if someone doesn't even want to abuse me.

So I need help mefites- you are all so wise. How do I make peace with this? What can I tell myself in wobbly moments? Where do I go from here? How do I start re-framing things so that I can be a strong woman and have a relationship of equality?
posted by misspony to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The best way to become a strong woman is to start to give back. Find an organization that does things you believe in and volunteer there. When you do something meaningful with your life and for others, you will feel stronger, more independent, and more capable. As a bonus, you will meet like-minded people.

You become rooted to a community and more mentally self-sufficient when you have connections that go beyond you and the next guy you date.
posted by clarkstonian at 9:40 AM on July 15, 2014

You know, your ex wasn't all bad. You can say that and accept it and know it to be true. He was ultimately bad for you, and his doing right by you at the end was a nice way to honor the relationship you had together, no matter how dysfunctional and toxic it ended up being for you. Neither one of you went into it intending to hurt each other.

You're going to be okay. You're in a good place now, and you're standing on your own two feet.

There will be times when you're sad, it's sad when relationships end. There will be times when you're angry. You're allowed to be angry.

I would recommend not dating for awhile. You're not really ready to be in a relationship until you're 100% over your ex. If you're still raw and and sad and angry and confused, you're not done. You'll be done when you can think of him and feel nothing. THEN you'll be ready to move on and date other people.

Until then, work on other things. Do you want an advanced degree or certification in something, now's the time to sign up for that. Do you want to learn to cook a different type of cuisine? Volunteer for a good cause? Start singing torch songs in lounges on the weekends? All of these things are excellent ways to spend time getting to know yourself.

Staying busy will help in so many ways! You'll concentrate on other things, learn new stuff, meet new people and generally get out and about.

Breaking up is hard, even when it's for the best, even when you broke up with a horrible person. Acknowledge that your relationship served a purpose. Don't worry too much about what your ex is up to. It's entirely possible that he's with someone awesome, it's also entirely possible that he's with someone who is just as flawed and broken as you were.

When you hear that little voice, say out loud, "Oh well, that's in the past. Today I'm going towards a wonderful future." The more you say it, the more you'll believe it.

Good luck to you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:40 AM on July 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

Hi Misspony,

There are theories that I have some sympathy with that we attract (UNCONSCIOUSLY) into our lives people who reflect back to us what we really think of ourselves and too the parts of us we disconnect from.. like if you grew up in an abusive home and you don't want to be that person that dark/angry side goes underground.. but is still there. The healthy person is the one who can integrate as much as possible. Not an easy thing to do, but you may find reading on Jungs archetypes useful/interesting.. though personally I'm just quite into them right now!

Also read up on attachment styles.. these too explain so much about why we do what we do. We all gravitate to what is familiar. For someone whose familar stuff has harmed us, we have a disprortionate amunt of work to do in learning our patterns and pulling away from what feels in some ways so right, so natural. (I'm not inferring anyone likes abuse, bar the odd infrequent masochist this is populist, victim blaming bs).

It is normal for it to be harder to pull away from and stay away from an abusive relationship than healthy ones. Yep. You read right. Nuts eh? But true... they are very, very complex and need to be studied like you are a scientist.

As you get stronger, and you are and will.. you will get more appealing to ex as abusers most enjoy (yep often enjoy) pulling down the strong (so here we dispel another misconception about the shrinking violet g/f). You must stay away because he is your kryptonite. Sometimes we can feel so much for someone but not be able to be with them.

Write a list of all the ways he wronged you, listen to the cheesy but apt "I will survive" - it is wise!

Very normal to wobble.. what a mountain you are climbing. Well done. It is one of the toughest things anyone can go through in life.

I'd really recommend staying away from romantic involvement righht now, I think it was luck more than anything that got you through a well chosen fling unscathed. Now is not the time for boys. you are grieving and growing.. both need all your energy.

Body image? Go straight to the body image workbook.. you can't get better than that. Do things you have enjoyed in the past. Try yoga too.. soothing and gets you out your head a bit. Also maybe an angry spot.. survivors are pissed off too.

Btw - new partner will get it all and perhaps more (depending on the type of abuser.. may get worse.. if he takes out all his prior and inevitable rejections on her).. nothing you can do :( but keep yourself safe. This leopard hasn't changed his spots. Mark my hard learned words.
posted by tanktop at 9:50 AM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

How do I make peace with this? What can I tell myself in wobbly moments?

I suggest you acknowledge when you are having a wobbly moment, and then move your mind to the next thing. Keep doing it over and over again. Eventually the moments will be reduced in frequency. Its all hard work.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:50 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Meant to read angry sport.. who needs an angry pimple ;)
posted by tanktop at 9:52 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

You know, even in the most amiable breakup of wonderful relationships that just couldn't continue for whatever practical reason, going no-contact (or very low-contact) is critical for recovery. Because everyone has those tugs and what-ifs and it's so easy to fall back into comfortable old roles. Change sucks, the brain doesn't like it.

So those feelings, when you have them, they are actually totally normal. They are not indicative of something wrong with you. It's kind of like when you move out of an apartment that you'd come to hate, or trade in your falling-apart old car for a new one with a warranty, and you still get a little misty - good things are happening and yet we are instantly nostalgic for the bad old things.

You're having a hard time letting go because letting go is HARD, not because you are bad. That's why people stay too long, that's why leaving gets put off. It's why we stay at awful jobs or lay in bed with the death flu for a week before dragging ourselves to the hospital, because inertia is easier and we grow accustomed to bad circumstances.

You know, nobody has a guarantee that they'll never feel uncomfortable. This is hard, and some days you will have dysfunctional or unproductive feelings and at a certain point you just have to shrug and feel it and then let it move on. It doesn't say anything about you, and it isn't a command from the universe. It's your brain doing brain stuff; don't give it any more power than that, and recognize it as a normal part of grief.

How do I start re-framing things so that I can be a strong woman and have a relationship of equality?

Is your therapist supportive of you dating already? I generally feel like women coming out of abusive relationships would benefit from spending a year or more deliberately not seeking that kind of validation, to give your internal sensors a chance to reset.

Those feelings of jealousy of his new victim are normal, but probably an indicator that you do not yet have a stable platform for identifying dangerous behavior in a new potential partner. Spend some time in your own company, and with friends, and treat that like an investment in your future relationships. Dip your toe back into those waters gently at a later date, and don't start dating until you've worked up a couple of mental checklists you can use to be mindful of what is and isn't okay for one person to do/say to another.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:58 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

You are recovering from a crisis - probably multiple crises. This is a process that takes time. It sounds like you're doing many things right -- seeing a therapist, dating, reminding yourself of all that you have accomplished.

I would recommend working with this book.

The inner voice you're describing is the part of you that does not really know your own worth. Think of it as a wounded child that is frightened and scared. Your wiser, adult self can comfort this child. It doesn't help to tell this younger, less developed part of you that it shouldn't feel the way it does (e.g. that you shouldn't want to be friends with your ex). It is what it is. She wants what she wants. Doesn't mean you have to give it to her. In fact, being an adult means that you no longer have to do what your wounded child compels you to do. Just focus on being there for this part of yourself and allowing it to grieve and be scared and self-loathing. This is just a part of you that needs healing -- and you are equipping yourself to do just that.

I get afraid that I really was a loser, that I wasn't good enough, and that's why he wasn't happy. And whoever he is dating is better than me. Sometimes I feel like I must really be second-rate if someone doesn't even want to abuse me.

We all struggle with thoughts that tell us we are not good enough. Therapy should help you get to the root of where those thoughts come from -- it often has to do with family of origin stuff, as you know. The key is knowing that these thoughts cannot possibly be true. There is no such thing as a second-rate person. There is no such thing as someone who is a loser and therefore deserves to be abused. There is no such thing as a person who is not worthy of love.

It's not just that you are worthy of love -- so is everyone else. Society, conditioning and sometimes our own biology, conspire to tell us that we're not okay. You need to wrap your head around the fact (the fact) that you were never not okay. You have always been worthy. The little wounded girl inside has forgotten this -- but step by step, you are helping her remember.
posted by Gray Skies at 9:59 AM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sometimes I feel like I must really be second-rate if someone doesn't even want to abuse me.
I know what you're saying here. It took me a long time to realize that my abuser was basically just leaving me alone now not because I wasn't good enough to abuse, but because I wasn't going to take his abuse anymore. It's a subtle difference but it's a difference: I stood up to him, and refused to take his abuse, so he has to go elsewhere to look for someone that he can treat the way he wants to treat a girlfriend: like shit.

I have lots of wobbly moments, too. Still. It's been two years since I left him and I'm still wobbly as all get out on a routine basis. I feel like a fraud and a cheat. Like I can't seem to get close to anyone who is normal or sane. Like I do not know how to person. Almost everyone that I developed a close relationship with since leaving is either also an abuse survivor, or has psychological problems and also treats me poorly as a result (not as bad as my abuser, but just as boundary-pushing and selfish).

I've made a resolution to myself to do two things: (1) Step back from all of my close relationships aside from my boyfriend at present, since they all seem to be pretty toxic - I made them right after leaving my abuser, and they aren't functional because the people I got close to aren't functional, and (2) Wait to get close to new people, both relationship prospects and friends alike.

I have a boyfriend that I really like (he's got his issues like all of us but they're not interpersonal, which is why I'm staying close to him) and one thing that he taught me - not on purpose, he just taught me this by being himself and I learned by watching him - is that it's OK and good to wait to get close to people. It's OK to be slow. It's preferable to evaluate at every turn: I often just jump right in the pool and get close to people and then am surprised when they turn out to be not what I thought at the beginning. People reveal themselves slowly over time through their actions, so they must be evaluated slowly over time by watching and paying attention to those actions.

I know that I shouldn't even want to be friends with someone who treated me like that.
The number one thing I learned as I've made this journey out of abuse is that I have to listen to myself. I have to feel my feelings and pay attention to them. Feelings are not facts, sure, but they are still there and they should be listened to. They deserve my respect and attention. What I do with them, how I decide to behave, is a different matter - I will make choices about which feelings I will convert to action, and what those actions will be - but I still need to pay attention to how I feel. You should want to be friends with whomever you want to be friends with. For the most part, I can no longer even stand the thought of my abuser. I want to be far away from him and to never be in a room with him again. But that doesn't mean that I didn't love him when we were together and that there weren't good times with him. I was attracted to him for a reason. He's a pretty amazing human being (if you ignore the abuse, anyhow, which is like ignoring the sky being blue) and I liked him because of his myriad good qualities. If he was in my life and was no longer abusing me, I would feel differently. I would absolutely pursue a causal friendship with him if he was no longer abusive to me. I would not want to be close to him because I know how he treats people he is close with but I have to say that some days, I would like nothing more than to sit down and have a coffee and shoot the shit with that guy. But I also know that if I did that two things would happen: (1) I'd feel like absolute shit afterwards and (2) It's not like he'd be able to do that without pestering me and pushing me and making me feel guilty for leaving. As a thought experiment it's a nice thing to consider but it won't ever be a reality: that time is over. The door is shut. I will never, ever sit down with him again. Not because I do not want that, but because it would be incredibly unhealthy and it would not make me feel good. So it's not about what I should or should not do, it's about what I know I must not do for my own mental health. There is a difference: one is external, and the other comes from within.

How do I make peace with this?
The fact is that abuse is not about the abused. It's not about you. It's about him and whatever is going on in his head. It's about the choices he decides to make and the actions that he decides to commit based on his feelings. He has feelings, which are not facts, and he converts them to abusive actions. This is all on him. I do not know how to make peace with the fact that there are people in the world who do things that are harmful to others, but I do know that it is true, there are people who treat others so poorly that to think of it is shocking. I don't know if you make peace with this as much as you recognize it and learn to avoid it as much as you can in the future.

Where do I go from here?
You go on putting one foot in front of the other. You keep going to therapy. You do whatever it is that you need to do. You pay close attention to people and evaluate them and wait to get close. You spend time getting close to yourself and paying attention to yourself and feeling your feelings and doing things that are good things. Feed yourself. Make sure you eat. Clean your house. Create a comfortable nest in which to roost every night. Shower and keep your body clean. Exercise and make your body strong. Read books about relationships and survival and starting again. Volunteer and give back and help other people, whether it is at a soup kitchen or a women's shelter or a hospital - use your time to make someone else's time better or easier, too. Keep a journal to make your mind sharper and to get closer to your own feelings. Become yourself. Focus on the present. Take care of yourself.
posted by sockermom at 10:03 AM on July 15, 2014 [13 favorites]

One of the things about abusers is that they make the relationship all about them -- their needs, their feelings, their problems, their wants -- and punish partners who don't anticipate and satisfy their every whim. So you get used to thinking about your abusive partner non-stop, trying to anticipate their every passing thought, as a way of working to minimize the abuse.

It's totally normal to think about an ex after a breakup, but I think it's much more intense after an abusive relationship ends, because the abused partner's entire mental landscape has generally been taken over by thoughts of their abusive partner. It's like the abuser outsources his emotional work -- identifying his needs, communicating them, negotiating how to get them met, soothing himself if they can't be met right then -- to his partner's brain.

Fixing that, getting your own brain back, takes time. It can help to be in non-abusive environments. It can help to be around healthy couples so that you can recalibrate what relationships look like. It can help to remind yourself that thinking about him is a habit that was once essential to your survival but no longer serves you. It can really help to work on prioritizing yourself in your thoughts and actions, remembering what it is you like and want, and practicing making that happen.
posted by jaguar at 10:29 AM on July 15, 2014 [12 favorites]

I want to add that what has triggered this was he had seemed very very friendly to me a couple weeks ago. He stopped by a few times (not invited by me- and for practical things, an errand in the building, to pick up his mail...) and got comfy on the sofa and we caught up with each other.

And I felt so so happy. Like- he's not such a bad guy. I am glad its turned out like this that we can be friends. Part of me wondered if he wanted to get back together, because he gave me an extra long hug.

But then he asserted that he felt that I was sending too much love his way... and I didn't understand what he was talking about. So he clarified that he felt I was being over friendly, and he wanted to do right by me and that meant helping me to move on.

And I told him that I didn't have any regrets about not being together, and that I was just being nice.... because I felt positive about him helping me... and then a few days later we had another conversation that ended the same.

I felt he was kind of an asshole for coming over like that, being so friendly, and then putting me in a position where I felt embarrassed about responding friendly back. I don't think its super Machiavellian- but I felt tricked... That old feeling of: DUDE- I didn't mean it like that, why does everything I do get twisted and leaving me feeling like shit.

And it reminded me of how I felt with him. And all those feelings rushed back....

So I sent him an email that said from now on I was going to refrain from contacting him at all apart from the few remaining practical links...
posted by misspony at 10:37 AM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

just for clarity, I was NOT sitting on the sofa with him!
posted by misspony at 11:05 AM on July 15, 2014

Wow, from your update it seems pretty clear that he's still manipulating you and you're right to see it that way. The fact that you can see that for what it is instead of getting sucked in is a testament to how strong you've become.

Maybe make a list of every strong step you've taken after getting away from him. Read it to yourself when you get wobbly so that you can see how far you've come.
posted by quince at 11:45 AM on July 15, 2014 [17 favorites]

Look at you! You saw some bullshit and called him on it! Good for you!

He's not playing fair and you're being a strong capable woman by not letting him yank your chain.

Hang in there. The longer you go without seeing him, the easier it will be.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:13 PM on July 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

So, a billion years ago I had a boyfriend who treated me like total garbage. Cheated on me (multiple times with different guys, one of whom he left me for--then cheated on him with another guy who he only jumped on because he knew I liked the guy in question), etc etc, generally an awful person, I'm not going to go into further details.

Few years back, as soon as my relationship status on Facebook changed from "in one" to "single," suddenly messages me out of the blue. My response to him, verbatim:

"You treated me like shit while we were dating, and when you broke up with me. What the fuck makes you think I have any interest in talking to you now?"

And walk. The fuck. Away. It's hard, I know it's hard. But it looks like you're already doing it.

quince has the best advice ever. List everything you've done that indicates your strength and growth and keep that list somewhere prominent in your home. Every time you waver, look at that list.

So I sent him an email that said from now on I was going to refrain from contacting him at all apart from the few remaining practical links

Two things:

1) How many of those are actually practical links, and how many are emotional?

2) Deal with the former all at once or at least as fast as possible. The other ones, throw in the garbage with the abusive ex, and move on.

Something that has helped me, sometimes, in the past is this: design for yourself some sort of ritual where you say, permanently, goodbye. Maybe that's setting a picture of him on fire. Maybe it's going to one of your Special Places alone, and reflecting (again) on your strength and how you've moved on. Whatever works for you. But set a bright line after which you will no longer allow him to live rent-free in your head.

A girl I knew in highschool did this amazing performance art project that involved her holding a ball of string, throwing it at people, and asking them what they thought of her. Then throw the ball back (recipient holding their loop of string), and repeat.

She concluded with pulling out a pair of scissors, snipping all of those strings, and saying "You don't define me." (There was more but it may be Googleable so I'm leaving it there.)

Do something like that. He doesn't define you. His treatment of you doesn't define you. You define you.

My neighbour/best friend is one of the strongest, most independent women I have ever met in my life. She takes no shit from anyone (including me); she roars, she doesn't meow. Yet, somehow, a decade and a bit ago, she was in a relationship with a horribly abusive man. It happens, no matter how strong or weak or inbetween you think you are. Abusers have that power to break you down.

He no longer has that power. Repeat that to yourself: "Assface has no power over me." Then complete your goodbye/severing ties ritual, in whatever way is meaningful to you, and to quote a very old song, wash that man right out of your hair.

You're doing all the right things already so you hardly need this encouragment--let alone from a man--but there it is. You're strong. You're worth more. You deserve more. Waste no more energy on the leech that fed on you. Repeat those things to yourself as often as you need to in order to believe them. Seek therapy if you need help believing them.

But no matter what, they're true. You. Deserve. Better. Period. Waste no more time on human garbage.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:05 PM on July 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

Oh! And if he contacts you again: "You caused me great pain and trauma. I have no interest in revisiting or reliving any of that. Do not contact me again in any way." Then filter his email address(es)/texts/etc to be deleted before you even know about them.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:08 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, misspony! This is one of the most honest and self-aware things I've read in a long time. I know that you're going to be fine.

The only way to get past it is to go 100% no contact with him no matter what. If you have to nail your feet to the floor, do that. If you have to superglue your hands so you can't stalk his social media, do that. If he comes over unannounced, you put on a fake nose and glasses, run around boarding up your doors and windows like a cartoon character, and hang a sign saying "Gone to Siberia". If he calls you up, you say, "Oh, hello, ex... I don't live here any more."

And while you're doing that, you keep filling your mind up with reading material that will strengthen you. Think of it as isolating yourself and building up your immunity to him and people like him.

It will probably take a long time as even an ordinary breakup isn't something you can get over in a couple of weeks or even a couple of months.

But you do have to ban him, just ban him completely. I know that seeing him again and having him seek out your company makes you feel like things are not so bad, but really he is that bad. And... he isn't coming back because you need his validation. He's coming back because he needs your validation. He'll have to earn validation, and not from you because his account with you is bankrupt, so he can't come to you any more.
posted by tel3path at 1:58 AM on July 16, 2014 [9 favorites]

You're seeing him and his actions for what they are - not super Machiavellian, maybe, but manipulative nonetheless. And this is what they do: they pull at your heart strings and try to make you question yourself and your perception and your feelings and understanding. Abusers aim to confuse. They're emotional magicians.

It's so hard to see! And you're seeing it!

Go have an ice cream and pat yourself on the back and feel proud. Your update is amazing. You're seeing it, misspony, and paying attention to it, and choosing your actions based on what you know. It's so hard to do this! I'm just glowing and happy and full of pride for you here. I hope that does not sound condescending. I am really just hands down proud here.

Nice work.
posted by sockermom at 6:57 AM on July 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

He's a manipulator. He gets validation from the sense he can have you back if he wants.

When, in your innocence and good faith, you responded positively to his "friendliness", he cut you down saying you were reacting inappropriately to the fact that he's just this great guy who's "doing right by you", whatever that might mean.

I would bet real money he enjoyed that part of the conversation. It was the whole point of his dropping by.

So yes, do continue to take steps to leave this person behind you. If he gave you anything, it was for his own reasons. You owe him nothing.

As to healing yourself, in addition to the excellent advice already given by others, I would encourage you to think that, deep inside, you shouldn't measure how "good" you are by any standard that isn't your own.
posted by Pechorin at 9:55 AM on July 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I get help through the wobblies by remembering that I am not alone in this. Periodic emails from blogs like this one have been helpful.

It sounds like your thoughts sometimes seem to run away with themselves and say things that are hurtful. Mine do too. Thoughts seem to be like that. I take solace in the fact that they are free to say whatever they want and I am free to refuse to believe them.
posted by macinchik at 5:02 PM on July 17, 2014

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