I recently asked my son how he’d get free if he was stuck in a cage.
He said, in a sing-song voice, using his fingers as little legs to skip across my gold footstool, “Use your super strength and walk to freedom, just keep walking the path to freedom.”
It’s been a long walk for me.
Many years ago I was on the verge of leaving a relationship but felt so confused and scared that I couldn’t think straight. It was only after a counselor pointed it out to me that I began to notice a pattern, a circle, a cycle.
In retrospect, I think I did know that there was something going on but I couldn’t or wouldn’t face it.
Let’s just talk for a moment about the word “abuse.” Had someone asked me if I had ever been in an abusive relationship, or if they pointed out that they thought I was in one, I would have been angry and defensive in response.
It conjured up thoughts of someone being physically abused, black eyes; hidden shame. That wasn’t the kind of relationships I had been in.
There was always laughter, fun, great sex—but yes, there was also bad times too.
However, I always thought the bad times were caused by me. By my stupidity, my lack of finesse, my inability to earn decent money, my grumpy PMS, my craziness; I blamed myself. So the word abusive wouldn’t have made sense to me at the time.
The reality of abuse goes far beyond bruises. It can be extremely offensive and insulting language that is rude, vulgar, disparaging or belittling. It can take the form of derogatory, disrespectful, uncomplimentary words or cruel, brutal, inhumane actions.
We don’t always recognize when we are being treated unfairly in a relationship, especially when we are blinded by love.
Here are a few red flags:
- Your partner gets mad at silly things.
- You feel accused of things you haven’t done.
- You’re not allowed to have your say.
- You get threatened with consequences for your actions.
- You feel like you are going around in circles.
- You try to please your partner to keep things peaceful.
- Your partner’s mood seems erratic or illogical.
- You are threatened with having money, attention or love withheld if you don’t do as they say.
- You are put down or called names.
- You are blamed for making them mad or angry.
- Out of nowhere, they start they become loving and kind again.
- Nothing you do seems right.
This list could go on and on, round and round. It’s like a game. We can feel scared, vulnerable or desperate like the relationship is going to end before it springs back into blissful love and attention again. We can revel in the “loving” part of the cycle, knowing secretly that it will slowly slip away into a mean look or a curt comment.
Before we know it, the relationship is back to name calling, fear…and abuse.
Yes, that word. It made me feel shameful. What was wrong with me that I was being treated cruelly? Was I not worthy of love?
I slowly realized that my sense of worthiness only came from being shown love by another person. When the cycle swung back to meanness, it made me feel completely unworthy and unlovable. In truth I felt like that the whole time, but when I was shown glimpses of love and attention it gave me a false sense of being worthy.
It was a hard lesson to learn, but at the same time, it made me see there were reasons behind certain of his behaviors. I began to realize that it wasn’t all me. That was when a lightbulb started to flicker on.
Yes I was low in confidence, self-esteem and felt really unworthy—but that wasn’t the whole story.
So what can we do if we recognize our relationship falling into this destructive cycle?
We can start to build on our own confidence first as we begin to remove ourselves from the relationship. Here are some ten suggestions that begin that process:
1. Write down three things every day we are grateful for.
2. Tell someone: a counselor, a trusted friend, a women’s aid.
3. Journal about what is happening.
4. Move away if possible, and stay with family or friends if necessary.
5. Get your finances in order—establish a separate bank account that is all your own.
6. Read up on self-development through books, blogs, podcasts.
7. Find support in a sisterhood group.
8. Repeat empowering mantras or affirmations.
9. Throw yourself into a hobby.
10. Practice self-love.
These are some of the steps I took initially on my path to freedom. We can become greater than we ever imagined when we find the courage to realize we deserve more.
Ultimately, we learn that the most reliable love of all is the love that resides deep within us.
Author: Rhona Millar
Image: Flickr/Niklas Montelius
Editor: Callie Rushton