I need to stop being abusive
October 23, 2015 7:16 AM   Subscribe

I was in therapy, but then we moved to a developing country a few months ago where therapies are not the done thing. I was physically, emotionally and verbally abusive before therapy. After a lot of work, I am a lot less abusive, but I've found that I still engage in controlling behavior. For the sake of my mental health and my relationship I want to stop completely, but don't know how to without professional help.

I searched online but resources for the abuser seem to be scant. A lot of the advice points me to therapy but I can't get therapy here in this country. It's just not available. Skype therapy with my old therapist wouldn't work because there is an 11-hour time difference between us.

A lot of it stems from anxiety and having grown up with extremely abusive parents. It took almost year of intense therapy to heal myself, but the stress of moving countries and adapting here is making my anxiety shoot through the roof, and I find myself being nasty and controlling again. Due to cultural gap, I find it hard to feel accepted here, especially by other women, and this has made me shut myself in. I'm completely dependent on my boyfriend for happiness and social contact, and get jealous when he tries to establish friendships outside this relationship. It is causing a hard strain on this relationship.

My question: how do I get my abusive tendencies down to zero? How do I manage my anxiety? I feel like my mind is drawing a blank on what I learnt at therapy when it comes to this. How do I stop myself from emotionally and verbally abusing my partner in this stressful period? Also how can we keep ourselves together while we go through these tough times?

Online resources are the best, books are welcome too but I probably need to buy them online if they're not available here. Please assume that we'll be in this country for a long time, and we're not going back anytime soon. We are a late 20s het couple. Thanks in advance.

Throwaway email: thrwyabsmefi@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Skype therapy with my old therapist wouldn't work because there is an 11-hour time difference between us.

Have you asked? Because I have a number of work colleagues with a 12.5-hour time difference and we make it happen. Someone's a little on the early side, someone's a little on the late side.

There are also other counselors with less of a time difference, or more of a personal preference for working the hours that might work better for you. There's someone out there who will do it, even though it may mean you have to do your part after dinner or before breakfast.

The Anxiety And Phobia Workbook is available in Kindle version. It's kind of a CBT 101 but it sounds like completing it might give you a sort of "flash card" you can use to refresh and reframe when your anxiety escalates.

This will be either more difficult or trivial depending on where you are, but it may be time to look into anxiety medication or more likely an antidepressant. Use that to buy yourself some headspace, some breathing room, to let you get things de-escalated at home and make it easier to find/maintain yourself some social contacts outside the home. Which you are going to have to do if you hope to get through this intact.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:32 AM on October 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

An 11-hour time difference is perfect for Skype. 10am their time is 9pm or 11pm your time.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:34 AM on October 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

This sounds like a terrible situation to be in. Nthing contacting your old therapist for help or reading feeling good and the accompanying workbook. You really need to reach out for support and start building a local network. If I couldn't make friends, I would move. If situational stress caused me to literally abuse someome, I would move or leave them. Ymmv.
posted by Kalmya at 7:37 AM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, an 11 hour difference is fully doable on skype as a morning/evening combo. Start there.
posted by Jairus at 7:41 AM on October 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Are you a member of a faith community (or something similar?) Often they have programs within the community to foster healthy couple behavior. Make friends with a couple whose skills you aspire to become a proficient in. Get your couple-bubble out in the larger community. Healthy relationships are out there.

Brene Brown has more recent research on shame some responses arecflipping into rage, and has recorded materials for developing shame resiliency after exploring the social-gender framework. I learned about her from TED talks, read a few books, and have picked up audio material via Sounds True which feeds my mental health and professional development.

Figure out what you can with Skype - there is plenty of great advice there to address slipping and regaining ground with the tried & true. I'm scattering seeds for lifestyle development in addition to having a great professional that is accessible at your new home.

Best wishes
posted by childofTethys at 8:05 AM on October 23, 2015

Get a new therapist online. This is not uncommon these days.


Look at their "research" page if it seems too goofy to do it online. I'm sure there's someone out there for you who speaks your language and can give you a slot that works for you, time-wise.

Good luck to you.
posted by tk at 8:33 AM on October 23, 2015

living in another culture is hard. so i am not surprised you are feeling anxious (and as someone who can be controlling at times, it seems completely natural that your response to this is to try "fix all the things" by telling your partner what to do, and also by being critical on yourself, as in this question).

other people here can address the controlling aspect, and the counselling. i'm going to look at the bigger picture - you being in a strange, new, poor country. because if you can "fix" your "problems" there, then you may find you're more able to cope with the controlling aspects.

you don't say where you are, and "developing" doesn't mean that much. nor does a single country since big cities (wonderful wonderful big cities) contain much more than small villages. so i am going to ramble at general.

so, first. as i've already said. it's normal to be stressed out by this. not everyone is, of course (so don't let "successful", "integrated" ex-pats make you feel small - they may have worked hard, as you are going to have to do, but they may also have been just lucky), but it's ok to be anxious about this. it's normal. it's hard.

second, obviously, you need a way to feel ok. you may be feeling isolated and lost, but you also have some things going for you. people here/there don't know who you are. you can do things other people cannot do, just because you are foreign (you can also not do things some people can, of course). in a weird way, you are almost starting over - you have a weird amount of leeway to be whoever you want to be. you might not feel that, right now - you might feel that you're constrained in some tiny box as a clueless outsider - so this is something you need to explore.

do you have a language issue? if so, that's a huge priority. you need to improve your language. you need to be able to communicate. that may mean forcing yourself to talk to other people (maid? shop-keeper? mayor domo? driver?), take lessons, read newspapers, listen to the radio, etc etc.

once language is sorted, you need contacts. because you're in a new society, with new "roles" it may not be obvious who is "the same" as you. in fact, it may be quite uncomfortable, because you may find that you have some things in common with people that turn out, in other areas, to have quite odd views. things are all mixed up. for example, you may find that your education level is the same as people from very rich families. so you feel more comfortable talking with them on some level. but then they come out with some horrendously offensive statement about servants that completely floors you. so you need to experiment. try different people. different sources. are you near a university? do they have talks or classes or something? have you tried reddit for your country? (r/mycountry) - you may meet people there. can you network via anyone?

and other ex-pats are a whole other can of worms. not going there.

a note on political correctness. when you're in your own country, you may be used to being considerate of other cultures. now, suddenly, you're a minority. but a weird one, because you're probably considered a rich foreigner. and things stop working right. because in some ways you're privileged, and in some ways you're not. and the simple, fixed responses you are used to do not work. which means it's ok to slip up sometimes. it's ok to think "christ what a shitty way to do that" and not feel guilty. you really need to not beat yourself up on this, because it's going to be a long time before you find equilibrium.

do you have stuff to do? if you can't get a job, can you volunteer? if not, can you get out of the house some way? get out and just take photos, or draw, or ride a bike wherever you can and explore. do something. you may be surprised what you can do, where you can go, once you start pushing. talk to people on the streets - they may think you are fascinating, or a push over, or whatever. they're using you, so use them! and if you can't get out, can you get something to do at home? books? writing (see what hilary mantel wrote about her experience as an ex-pat)? painting? whatever. do something. make it yours. invent your new life.

what can you enjoy about where you are? for me, food was awesome. so was the weather (so i got a bike). find the good things and enjoy them. explore them.

sorry, i know this doesn't answer the question directly, but i hope it helps. i've copied it via email in case the mods delete it.

finally, again, as i said above: i found this (living in a new culture) really hard. if you're like me, being controlling as a response is absolutely understandable. don't beat yourself up (fix it, sure, but don't feel bad - it's hard. fucking hard).
posted by andrewcooke at 8:44 AM on October 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

I have a lot to say about this, but for now I would suggest taking a look at the book How to be an Adult in Relationships. It was helpful for me when I was on the other side of this situation (I had an abusive partner) and I wish my ex had read it.

Doing the work and being willing to do the work is about 90% of the battle. So good on you. Keep working.
posted by sockermom at 9:44 AM on October 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Are you a member of a faith community (or something similar?) Often they have programs within the community to foster healthy couple behavior. Make friends with a couple whose skills you aspire to become a proficient in. Get your couple-bubble out in the larger community. Healthy relationships are out there.

Seconding this. When a relative of mine was in a similar position with no access to regular therapy, her clergyman was a great help to her, and with his assistance she was able to get herself turned around.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:45 AM on October 23, 2015

I feel like my mind is drawing a blank on what I learnt at therapy when it comes to this.

Like everyone else has suggested, you should get some 'refresher' counseling with your former therapist. It doesn't hurt to ask if they can make time for you again, 11 hour time difference or not. Being a former client, I can't see why he/she would say no to you.

Regardless, PLEASE get some professional therapy however you can. Books only do so much. I really commend you for recognizing your issues and trying to work on them - I've been in your boyfriend's shoes, and being on the receiving end of this stuff can be very soul crushing.

Best of luck.
posted by kilohertz at 10:26 AM on October 23, 2015

One thing that might, especially in the short term while you try to get some of these other things set up, would be a daily practice of journaling. Sit down and examine the past 24 hours - make an accounting of the times when you think you were controlling. Write down what you felt at the moment, what the trigger was, what you did, what you might do differently next time. You want an attitude that combines a positive, forward looking attitude that combines fearless honest with self-compassion (of course you will mess up, and probably more often than you would like - it is part of learning this new skill) and commitment to moving towards the person you want to be.

Also, think about what you can do to cultivate the counter-balancing virtues - patience and acceptance, probably. You set yourself some goals to help practice these at times when you aren't being triggered to be controlling. Practicing when it is easier will help you use the skills when it is harder. If you want more ideas of how to do this, download a copy of Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. There a lot of other stuff in the book you might not be interested in but it does offer some practical tools for identifying and cultivating positive virtues that you want to add more of in your life.
posted by metahawk at 12:03 PM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm completely dependent on my boyfriend for happiness and social contact

This line caught my attention because it seems like a classic statement for a survivor of abuse to make. You're also isolated, both socially and due to your location, and it sounds like you are engaging in a lot of self-blame - these are all risk factors for being abused. Despite your efforts to exert control over this situation by taking all of the blame, I'm not convinced that you're the only abuser in this dynamic.

You don't mention much about your boyfriend's behavior towards you, but it doesn't sound like he is trying to help you make social connections, and it sounds like he is instead focusing on satisfying his own social needs and excluding you in the process. This seems like a valid issue to have anxiety about - being ignored and isolated by one's partner is not an indication of a healthy relationship.

Is your boyfriend defining you as controlling when you ask to be included in his social activities, or when you express anxiety about your isolation? It sounds like you are seeking normal human things from your boyfriend, but your needs are being devalued and ignored (by you and/or your boyfriend) with the label of 'abuse,' and colored by the past challenges you have experienced with being a safe and nonabusive partner.

Another thing that stands out to me in your question is your hyperawareness about your own behavior. Typically, an abuser feels quite justified in their abusive behavior, and you seem to be taking the opposite approach. Does your boyfriend feel justified in excluding you from his social activities? Why is it only your problem that you are having difficulties with the culture gap?

I'm not saying that you are blameless, and I applaud your self-reflection and concern over your own behavior. However, it sounds like there is more going on here than is within your ability to control, no matter how much you blame yourself. From my view, you are talking more like a survivor than an abuser, so please know ThereIsHelp - this MeFi wiki page includes links to worldwide resources and support for survivors of abuse.
posted by Little Dawn at 12:04 PM on October 23, 2015 [11 favorites]

I myself suffered from crippling anxiety for many years as a young adult. I did luck into an excellent therapist because of the book I recommend here and from whom I found Rosenbergs work. Because of this experience I offer the following"

In addition to anything you do with getting therapeutic support through Skype or other online resources (I know addiction groups provide online meetings) I am going to offer you a resource and two techniques one of which comes out of that resource. So first the resource; "Body Self and Soul" by Jack Rosenberg. In there you will find a list of good parent messages. These are self affirmations to be used when you find yourself fragmenting one form of which is anxiety. They are divided into father and mother versions. The rest of the book is just as valuable. The other technique was taught to me by a therapist. When fragmented, overwhelmed with anxiety, discomfort or pressured in the company of other(s) draw an arc in front of your self with your toe and tell yourself (silently unless in supportive company) "This is my boundary and you cannot come in unless I let you in".

I know of one other therapeutic book that teaches a technique for self-healing. That is "Focusing" by Eugene Gendlin. It is my opinion supported by a medical doctors comment to me that we heal ourselves from both mental and physical illness. Doctors perform interventions to remove physical disease (surgery) and provide chemical and physical resources in the form of drugs and natural things, like water, warmth, manipulation. Our bodies take these resources and do the work of healing. I wish you the best in your recovery.
posted by Jim_Jam at 1:20 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am so sorry. This sounds horrible. I don't mean to add to it, but if you are in any way causing physical harm to your partner, please leave. Even if it's just temporarily getting a hotel room to live in, etc.

Good luck.

(And making the sacrifice of odd hours for therapy may have a great payoff. Especially since your therapist is already familiar to you.)
posted by Vaike at 2:11 PM on October 23, 2015

I am a person who was pretty badly abused as a kid, and who also carries great capacity for being abusive, emotionally and physically. I suspect I probably have a pretty good handle on where you are coming from.

I applaud the fact that you have reached out and gotten help for your behavior and your own abuse issues in the past. I cannot tell you anything about yourself with absolute certainty, as I do not know you and your specific history, but I was concerned by your assertion that a year of intense therapy healed you from your past abuse issues. My experience with dealing with childhood abuse repercussions is that the healing is cyclic. You go through the mess, and you sort it out, and you think it through and begin to understand what happened, and what it did to you. And you feel you have a handle on it, and you feel better, and pretty much done. But, and there is a but - what that means is you might be done for now. The memory of what happened to you will rise again in you, in stressful situations, in new situations. Whenever there is change, or too much time on your hands, they will present themselves again. And if you are open to looking at them again, and seeing them with new perspective, you will learn more about yourself, and your reactions, and your needs.

The abusive behavior that some survivors of abuse perpetuate usually comes (as it does in me) from a need for control. Your living situation has changed, your environment is new and unfamiliar, you have none of your familiar touchstones except your boyfriend, and so you reach to control what you can with every tool at your disposal. Your toolbox, the one built for you by your family of origin, is filled with abuse, so that is what you know, and what you reach for. Your boyfriend is reaching outward to deal with this change - working, getting to know new people, the culture, the new place, and so he is changing as humans do when they are living in new ways. This triggers you - your one familiar piece of safety is changing and you want it to stop. And so the controlling and abusive behavior crops up, seemingly of its own accord, to try to force him back into your concept of and need for him. So what can you do?

First, I will reinforce the above advice to get out of your house. I know the anxiety makes it terribly difficult, but seek out some human contact aside from your boyfriend every day. Whether it is going to a local market and just looking at the wares and working on your language skills bit by bit, or taking language classes with other people new to the place where you live, or anything. To be brutally honest, it is unfair to expect your boyfriend to deal with all the changes in his life and be your sole emotional contact and support. That would be unfair if the two of you were still in your own neighborhood, much less now. I think you will find, as you expand the range of your own daily experiences, you will have more to talk about with him that does not focus on your relationship, and is thus less fraught with anxiety and the need for control. You will be able to hear about his day with more ease and less hyperfocus, because you will have new experiences to share with him as well, whether it is showing off new language proficiency, or telling him about the strange thing you saw in the market, or how odd an experience buying coffee was. Living in this new place will then become a shared exploration, not something you are living primarily through him.

As for dealing with your abusive behavior specifically, there are strategies that have helped me over the years. First, understand and accept that most of the time what triggers your anger and need for control is not really anything about him and what he is doing or saying, but your own issues. I am sure he does things that are irritating, or thoughtless, or sometimes even hurtful, because he is human, but your response is not only a response to him, but also a response to old pain and old situations. So when you find yourself angry at him, or anxious and wanting to make him change something, or defensive, or any of the emotions that lead to conflict -stop and ask yourself one question. "What am I afraid of?" I know on its face this seems nonsensical. But when my wife forgets to bring home the pasta that she promised to pick up on the way home, and I get disproportionately angry over freakin macaroni - I am not angry about the pasta. I am afraid that her forgetting means she wasn't listening to me when I asked for the pasta, and that must mean that she doesn't really care about me. I am afraid she does not love me as I love her, as I need her to love me. And so my instinctive reaction is to punish her for ignoring me, make her prove by attention and perfect memory of everything I say that she does love me. Ring a bell?

The second thing is to learn to pause before you react. Think back over the times you have been abusive or controlling to him. What did you feel just before you lashed out? What did he say or do, and what did you feel immediately after his action that led to your abusiveness? Write down as many instances as you can remember, like a journal. Look for patterns. Were you feeling uneasy as those conversations began, or was the switch in your mood instant and vicious? Do you build to abuse in a slow burn over minutes, hours, or days, or is it a heel turn from a good mood to punishment? How does your body feel during every step of the escalation? Figure out how it happens for you, and then pay attention to how you feel during every interaction with him. Look for the danger signs you noticed from past problems. learn to see it coming. And then - and this is the hard part - find ways to stop it.

For me there are several patterns. Say, if I have a headache, I know now that i am much more easily triggered to rage - and so when my wife gets home, I will warn her - "Hey - I'm hurting. Let's take it easy tonight, okay?" This gives her the opportunity to show she cares, which instantly eases some of my tension, and gives her the signal that this is not the time to talk about emotionally fraught things. Another pattern for me is during disagreements . I feel tension in my body - my arms get tight, and my hands curl into loose fists, and I want to get up and pace. And then she will say something that feels like an attack. I get angry and defensive and nasty words come into my head - and then it is my job to stop, take five long deep breaths, and either ask her what she meant, or say "hey, I am getting angry and don't want to be a jerk. I am going to go cool off - can we talk about this more in an hour?" If you get too angry to speak kindly, have an object that you can hold up as a signal - a bright piece of cloth, a small toy, a worry stone - something small you can keep in your pocket that you can hold up for him to see as a signal that means 'I am struggling with myself and need a little bit to calm down.' and then - this is important - remove yourself from the situation. Go into the next room, take a walk, have a warm bath, do something that calms you while you mull over your reaction, what it means, and how you can deal with the actual problem in a healthy way.

Third, I will urge you to learn really good communication skills with your partner. Learn to use "I" statements when discussing pretty much anything from "I really love it when you bring home dinner" to "When you forget to bring home dinner, I feel unloved." This communicates that you understand that your feelings are your responsibility, and gives him the chance to demonstrate to you that he cares about your feelings by listening and responding with his feelings. Commit to never, and I mean NEVER hurling insults at each other. No matter how upset you are, address the behavior, not HIM. "I hate it when you X", not "You are such an asshole!". Practice reflective listening - when he says something that feels like an attack, rather than responding, rephrase it back to him. "When you said that, what I heard was that you think I am X. Was that what you meant?" This gives him a chance to tell you what he really wanted you to hear, not what your fear, anger or the abuse you lived through taught you to hear.

Lastly, I will nth the above advice to get in touch with your old counselor and see if telecounseling might be an option. Even if you have to stay up to the wee hours, working with someone you already trust can really help you when everything else in your life is so new and anxious. If that doesn't work out, ask your old counselor if they know of any resources in your area, or how they suggest you find the right resources for your particular set of issues (which you and your therapist know far better than any random stranger on the internet, and thus will be better fitted to what you really need.)

I have written a small book above. Some of it might be helpful, some might not. If any of it feels insulting, I apologize for that, but I am writing as much as possible from my own experience with these issues. If it feels helpful, and you want more of the same, feel free to memail me. In any case, I wish you luck and courage. Breaking the cycle of abuse is really hard work, but it pays incredible dividends.
posted by Vigilant at 5:18 PM on October 24, 2015 [11 favorites]

[a small footnote to my comment above. this link includes a rather technical description of two "marginalities". the second is what i was trying to describe with my comment that you are free to "be whoever you want to be". it's all a bit obscure, but i thought it might help. via]
posted by andrewcooke at 2:39 PM on October 26, 2015

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