Emotional abuse isn’t typically thought of as domestic violence, but it absolutely is. Subtle, difficult to pinpoint, mentally confusing, emotionally consuming, existentially suffocating — this type of toxic relationship is often challenging to identify and even more so to exit. It took me years after leaving my situation to realize that what had endured was actually abuse.
I was 23 when I met him — open, naive, trusting, admittedly a bit clueless. He was 37 — twice divorced, charismatic, genius, and admittedly very jaded. We met in grad school in the fall of 2009. We moved in together that winter, and by the fall of 2010, I was pregnant.
Within the context of grad school his mental eccentricities (later formally diagnosed as pathology) were obscured, the European drinking culture blurred his alcoholism, our age difference softened his cleverly couched, yet constant corrections of me, and my “pregnancy hormones” were to blame for my “drama, my maddening oversensitivity, and my misinterpretation.” Once classes ended, he was home all the time. From 2010 to 2012, he was home so much I could count the number of times on one hand that I was alone in our apartment for a duration of more than 20 minutes.
To be enmeshed and immersed without reprieve is one of the biggest challenges in actually finding the strength and wherewithal to leave an emotionally abusive relationship. But the steps towards freedom begin with the cultivation of your own self resilience.
The hardest thing about the advice I’m about to give is that mostly everything must take place internally. And not in the cliché new age wellness kind of way (broadcasting the ‘inner healing process’ as it unfolds, talking about it incessantly, getting public recognition on every social media platform for every minuscule step)… no, this is totally different. It’s silent. It’s literally you in your own head, navigating whatever arises on the daily, solo.
Domestic abusers weaponize emotions. Anyone in an emotionally abusive situation knows that the more you say publicly while continuing to remain in the relationship, the more ammunition you give your partner to use against you. It sounds warped. But that’s only because it is.
Below are coping tips for surviving a situation you cannot yet extract yourself from; a start in a long process of self reconciliation.
1 | Disengage —
You cannot reason with an unreasonable person. You cannot reason with someone who is trying to maliciously manipulate you. I remember my ex regularly waking me up in the middle of the night in a drunken haze to start a fight. He would wake me under the guise of being sad, say something self deprecating, something utterly hopeless, and of course I’d jump to the rescue to be supportive, only to have the rug pulled out from under me… again. Arguing for hours about nonsense, me in tears feeling defeated, exhausted, demoralized. And then the sun would come up, my baby daughter would wake, I’d start my day, and he would pass out until noon. I took the bait almost every time. With an emotionally abusive partner, the fight is always futile, so you must learn to disengage, a tactic that helps to both preserve your energy and reconstitute your sense of self empowerment. Repeating something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you see it that way” is a good way of diffusing the situation and side-stepping an argument.
2 | Keep Track —
Count the offenses. Every day. Keep track of every fight, every underhanded remark, every embarrassment, every manipulation, every single cruelty. Keep a daily tally of them somewhere and refer back to it often. It will remind you of the abnormality of your day-to-day and keep you accountable, because when you’re living it, it becomes easy to trick yourself into thinking that everyone lives this way. By keeping a record of the transpiring events, you make yourself conscious of them in a new way. And you can use your awareness to move from a sense of hopelessness into a feeling of empowerment, even if you can’t yet leave your relationship.
3 | Unhook —
This goes hand-in-hand with disengaging from the fight. It’s an internal shift. An internal declaration of ‘no’ with small actions to follow. Unhooking is a way of releasing yourself from the false notion that your self-sacrifice will in any consistent way serve to ‘keep the peace.’ There is nothing you can do to please an emotionally abusive partner. Unhooking means conquering the feeling that compels you to try.
4 | Rewire —
According to Dr. Nicole La Perla “dissociation is a trauma response where you are physically there but mentally ‘spaced out’ and might not have memories.” You may feel like you have forgotten everything about yourself. You’ve been deconstructed, broken down, stripped of confidence and self assuredness, and conditioned to feel that everything you are doing is wrong. In your place stands a blank slate of a person. But with this ‘blankness’ comes the opportunity to overwrite, starting with a slow and steady rewiring of your self-dialogue.
Your internal monologue will mimic what you hear externally — so if you’re constantly hearing criticism and cruelty, that’s what you eventually will internalize. This is why you must learn to catch and rewire it.
Anytime you hear yourself being self-critical, self-doubtful, and self-diminishing learn to pause and restructure the thought into something you would lovingly say to a small child. Learning to command your self talk will not only renovate your self-concept, it will help you cultivate the emotional dexterity and resilience you’ll need when recovering.
When it comes to emotional abuse, the damage happens below the surface, so that’s where the healing has to start. Some days will feel nearly impossible, and some days will be okay. Life is a process of learning how to negotiate transition. And the more you celebrate your small victories, the more you encourage your own self-transformation.
Aliks Keller, L.Ac. is an acupuncturist and holistic health practitioner specializing in postpartum wellness and mental health. She is a happily married mother of two. Based in New York, Aliks offers in-person and telemedicine sessions. Find her on Instagram at @wellculture.co.