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How to stop loving an abuser

There are many terms, labels and adjectives used in talking about abuse. They don’t always capture the issue of the twisted, warped, dysfunctional heart that longs to return to the abuser. Physically leaving an abuser is an achievable, practical goal: recovering emotionally through detaching from an abuser can, for some, be the hardest part of the process.

Physical abuse is temporarily painful. Emotional abuse is a lifelong scar. It is an enduring conditioning of the mind to think and feel in a particular way – usually with love for the abuser, and guilt if you ever upset him. You may hear terms like gaslighting, coercive control, love bombing and narcissism.

As of 2015, UK law recognises these terms as a form of emotional abuse and will punish these behaviours as a criminal offence. The Home Office’s Statutory Guidance Framework on ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’ includes:

  • Isolating a person from their friends and family;
  • Controlling what they do, where they go, who they can see, what they wear and when they sleep;
  • Repeatedly putting them down, such as telling them they are worthless;
  • Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim;
  • Financial abuse;
  • Threats to reveal or publish private information.

I was with my ex-husband for almost fifteen years. Coercive control began subtly at the onset of the relationship. He would put me down for my appearance. He would want to know where I went, who I was with, what I talked about, and so on. For fifteen years, I was consistently told that I was dumb, ugly and hollow. He even took over my finances, allowing me only a card with controlled spending.

I learnt through counselling that I’d been subjected to gaslighting. I never thought anything was wrong. I thought I was wrong. I was made to feel that I was in the wrong for everything. If the food had too much salt in it, I was told I had done it on purpose to be spiteful. If I defended myself from his verbal onslaughts, I was told I was rude and deranged. Everything was my fault. If he hit me or strangled me it was because he was stressed, and I could have made things easier for him. He would say he was sorry and he forgave me – so I should forgive him too. So I forgave instantly – partly to keep the peace, but partly because I loved him.

The love-bombing was expressed through buying me gifts, being extremely loving at times, caring, hugging, telling me I was beautiful (not a hooked-nose ugly cow which was the case when he was annoyed with me) and taking me on outings. But this is the danger. This is the confusion. This is the life-line given to you and the hook that drags you back in. You are forever thinking of his ‘good side’ and the ‘good times together.’ You hang on for another good day.

I left my ex-husband a year and a half ago. Letting go, no longer loving him, no longer pleasing him, and no longer belonging to him has been an extremely lonely, confusing struggle.  Why is it so difficult? Could it be Stockholm syndrome?

As a recovering victim of, dare I admit it, abuse, I can empathise with all the women who decide to ‘stick it out.’ I completely understand why they go back again and again. I know why they cannot break the rope that keeps pulling them back to their abusers. A police officer once told me they arrest many perpetrators but are unable to charge them with an offence because the victim retracts her statement. I retracted my statement on two separate occasions. It was the third that I allowed to go ahead.

The difficulty in reporting your loved one is indescribable: the panging in your stomach, the fear, the sickness. You lived with a Jekyll and Hyde character. Your emotions were dictated by his demeanour. Is he good today? Yes. Great. Then I can be happy. The fluctuation between these two states is the fundamental reason why emotionally detaching from an abuser is so difficult. You want the good back. You hope that if he could just change a little and stay on the good side, then things would be alright.

I loved him. I spent almost half my life trying to please him. He was the centre of all my actions and all my thoughts. How do you suddenly rewire your brain which is constantly ruminating: ‘Is he angry with me? Is he going to hurt me? Has he eaten? Does he hate me? Did he go to work? Is he planning an attack on me? Can he hear my thoughts?’ How do you detach your heart which is constantly yearning: ‘His hugs felt warm. We sat and watched movies together. He massaged my aching legs. He cared for me when I was pregnant. We went through so much together.’

This inability to detach and rediscover who you are without his abuse draws you back to feeling as if you need this cycle of love-then-abuse and back round again. You don’t know how to get off that roller coaster. That was your normal security, your routine, and your comfort zone.

Coming out of this (false) comfort zone is a tremendous step. It requires consistent self-reassurance and iron will-power to stay in this new, foreign and lonely space, both physically and psychologically. You have to learn how to tune into your own personality, thoughts and ambitions. You need to train yourself into positive thoughts about your decision to leave, and to be able to release the sense of failure and guilt.

The pain you felt in the relationship was real. Do not downplay it now you are out of it. The desire to end your own life after he hit you and dragged you across the floor was real. The humiliation of being called a ‘slag’ or ‘dumb bitch’ in front of your children was real. No matter how sadly he looks at you or how earnestly he promises to change (for the thousandth time), there comes a time when you must accept that you cannot rescue him nor change him. Remind yourself of that so that you can remain in your new comfort zone. Surround your zone with light, positivity, good friends and with gratitude to Allah subhaanahu wa ta’ala.

I have been receiving counselling for just over a year from two wonderful counsellors, Rupert and Gazel. I reached my current level of stability and acceptance through their help. Gazel taught me in depth about my behaviour, my needs and my vulnerability. She taught me about justice for the individual in Islam. She taught me that not every person deserves instant forgiveness and mercy. She taught me that  I have rights and responsibilities beyond being enslaved by a man. Above all she taught me where my own voice was, and how to distinguish it from his voice, which plays on repeat in my head ‘You’re worthless, you’re sinful, you’re an attention seeker, you’re needy…’

Rupert taught me hope. He taught me to channel my emotions into action. With his support, I began to connect with others and be productive. He told me breaking down and crying is a human response. He helped me dance. He taught me the importance of balance and holding fast to my principles in everything I do. He taught me to break myself down into pieces and then to rebuild myself stronger. He taught me to fill in my scars and gaping holes in the heart with gold. Rupert knew I needed validation, yet he eventually taught me confidence and the ability to validate myself.

I had to let go of my ex-husband. Then I had to be strong enough to let go of Rupert’s validation. I had to let go of constantly thinking and talking about my ex, who had become the focal point of all my memories. I had to let go to survive and to be sane. Have I reached the point that I want to be at? No. I will strive harder. I am human. My heart misses my ex-husband but my brain is firmly attuned to the knowledge that going back to him is not good for either of us. One day perhaps my heart and brain will be in sync and I will leave the past in the past. For now, I continue my own, personal therapy; positive affirmations, constant remembrance of Allah – and nurturing hopes for the future.