REPOST: What NOT to Say to a Survivor of Emotional Abuse

Sometimes we need to hear something more than once for it to sink in. Reposts are made exactly for that, I think! The ideas in this week’s post are something abuse survivors should NEVER hear, but everyone should be aware of the harmful comments and “advice” abuse survivors often get. A lot of the items I’ve listed below are said with “good intentions”, but I don’t think naïvité is actually a decent excuse. So pardon my repost, but I’m putting this out here again as I work on my first ever public speaking gig (!!!) and try to divide my time between that anxiety-inducing (but very exciting) activity and all the other shit I have going on in my life. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below; have I missed anything in my list? xxJ


I’ve been posting some pretty heavy stuff lately, so think it’s time to lighten things up and bring back some sarcasm. Adding humour to conversations about emotional abuse and mental health is something that’s always kind of “funny-not-funny” but I think we can laugh every now and then and not hurt our cause.

So today I would like to present to you, complete with the witty and charming commentary you’ve all come to love hearing from me,


Number 10: “Well, it takes two…”

Um, excuse me?

Whoever says this manages to both undermine the legitimacy of your experience and place responsibility for that experience on you, the victim. OBVIOUSLY relationships involve more than one person BUT only the abuser is responsible for their abusive actions. I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it: you are only responsible for yourself, no one else! You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, behaviour, or choices. Emotional abusers use tactics like gaslighting and playing the victim to convince you that everything is your fault and not theirs. There may be two of you in your relationship, and neither of you are perfect, but when you are being abused emotionally, you cannot be blamed for it.

Number 9: “No one’s life is perfect, so why are you complaining?”

Ugh. This one. The worst! Okay, well, one of the worst.

Saying this to someone is like when you were 6-years-old and refusing to eat your Brussels sprouts and your parents said, “There are starving children in Africa who would love to eat those” in an effort to guilt you into consuming what you’ve come to understand is a vile vegetable. (My adult-self now loves Brussels sprouts, for the record.)

Actually, it’s worse than that. Clearly anyone who says this has no understanding of what it feels like to be abused emotionally. When you come to someone and confide in them that you are experiencing abuse, there is no place for shaming. Yes, we all experience stress and hardship in our lives, but ABUSE IS NOT NORMAL STRESS OR HARDSHIP and therefore, it can’t be treated as such.

Number 8: “Couldn’t you just try harder?”

Wow. Okay, again, what a shitty thing to say to someone! When I was in abusive relationships, I worked my ass off to change them into healthy ones. I sacrificed and struggled and exhausted myself putting effort into making things work.

If your abuser isn’t putting equal effort in, or, if the effort they are putting in is narcissistic and hurtful, then it won’t matter how hard you try; your relationship will still remain abusive.

I think it is safe to assume that anyone who comes forward and says that they are being abused has spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to avoid coming to that conclusion. So don’t say shit like this to them.

Number 7: “But how can you leave them? You have children together.”

There are probably lots of people who will disagree with me on this one and I’m betting some of those people have made the decision to “work through things” with their partner “for the sake of the children.”

I’m calling bullshit on that.

Who in their right mind thinks it’s better for kids to live in a dysfunctional home where one parent is being abused? What kind of model is this setting for those children? And why is it considered selfish to try to stop being abused?

Leaving an abusive partner when you share children is incredibly difficult; I know that firsthand. It’s not the kids’ fault and yet they have to endure the struggles of managing the breakup of their family. Some days I feel insanely guilty about putting my kids through a divorce, but then I return to the little mantra I made for myself: I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.

‘Nuff said.

Number 6: “But if you leave [insert name here], you’ll be all alone. Do you really want to be [insert age] years old and single??”

Fuck, it sucks to be a single divorcée! It especially sucks to be a single parent! Do you know what sucks worse, though? Being in an emotionally abusive relationship. As hard as it is to be alone, I would never EVER go back to my previous partners.

As if being single is someone’s primary concern when they come to you and admit that they are being abused! Please don’t say this to someone who comes to you looking for support. Just don’t.

Number 5: “Well, there are plenty of other fish in the sea…”

This one’s kind of the opposite of Number 6, isn’t it?

So someone’s just come and told you that they think they are being abused. Now is not the time to offer clichéd dating adages. Also, if someone has experienced emotional abuse with a partner, there is so, so much that they need to work through before they can feel safe and secure enough to trust somebody new. I’m not saying survivors don’t get into rebound relationships or go looking for another “fish” too quickly (yep, guilty of that!); I’m saying that to suggest that there are other, better fish out there in the sea, at a time when the fish this person had chosen has let them down and fucked them up monumentally, is completely inappropriate.

Number 4: “Suck it up; just get over it.”

In the most significant relationship of my life so far, I spent the majority of my time “sucking it up” and since ending that relationship, I’ve done everything in my power to “just get over it.” There is no magic way to recover from emotional abuse. There may not be physical reminders of a survivor’s experience, but emotional scars run incredibly deep and they have their own timeline for healing. Advising someone to “suck it up” is a callous and insensitive thing to say, no matter what they’re telling you about.

Number 3: “They didn’t actually hurt you, so it’s not abuse.”

Oh my goodness, this one drives me absolutely crazy! People don’t usually put it to words so clearly, but often there is a strong implication that emotional abuse doesn’t count because it wasn’t physical (something I argue against here).

If you tell an emotional abuse survivor that their experience wasn’t real, you continue the cycle of abuse by gaslighting them into believing your own misinformed perspective. I still struggle with accepting the legitimacy of my experience because I assume that since a) my former partners don’t recognize the abuse, and b) I have no police report, hospital stay, or physical reminders to show that I was abused, it must not count.

How messed up is that? I am literally writing a blog about my experience of emotional abuse and I continue to question my experience! No one who has gone through something like what I did should have to justify it with corporeal proof.

Number 2: “But he/she/they seem like such a nice person…”

Wow, gee, yeah…I guess since you think he’s such a nice guy, I must be totally wrong! Thanks so much for helping me see that!

I have heard this so many times in the last few years and it is infuriating.

Do you think an emotional abuser isn’t capable of “playing nice” outside of the home or wherever they proliferate their abuse? In my experience, emotional abusers are exceedingly talented at manipulating others, so they can seem “nice” when it serves them to do so. I was once told that my story couldn’t be true because my former partner was “so handsome and charming.” I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I heard that and it definitely set me back a few counselling sessions too.

Ugh. Let’s move on to number 1…

Number 1: “I don’t care. I don’t believe you.”

Clearly, this is the WORST thing you could ever say to a survivor of emotional abuse. I don’t think I need to say much more about it; survivors need to know that we have the love and support from the people we confide in. A much better response when someone tells you that they are being abused is to say, “How can I help and what do you need right now?”


Helpful? Not helpful? Fuck, I don’t know all the shitty things people say to each other! But I do know that there are lots of ways to mess up supporting someone who needs loving kindness after recognizing a pattern of abuse in their life. (If you think you need a better understanding of what emotional abuse looks like, check out my post “Looks Like/Sounds Like/Feels Like”.) 

I hope you laughed a little; I hope you thought more about what you could say to someone in need. I mean, no one’s perfect (see number 10) but we can all try to show compassion to those who come looking for support.

Emotional abuse = abuse. Period.

xxJ

50 Ways to Leave Your [Abusive] Lover

*Disclaimer: I am not a legal, medical, or mental health professional; I’m simply a person with experience and ideas, trying to share them. Please take the following suggestions carefully and if you are in an abusive situation and need help, reach out to someone you trust. xxJ



You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free

Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

If only leaving your lover was as easy as Mr. Simon’s catchy tune makes it seem! And leaving an abusive partner? That’s even harder to do.

I don’t actually have a list of 50 ways to leave your abusive lover. I did start start trying to make one… I had things like, “Sneak out at night and leave a glitter bomb for your now ex-lover to open and find in the morning. All it needs to say is: Fuck you; I’m outta here!” I also included ideas like giving your partner the finger, doing a dramatic hair flip, and then walking off like a bad-ass movie star who never looks at explosions behind them. Or simply look at them, and call upon the Queen of queens, RuPaul, saying “Now sashay away…byeeeeeeeee!!!!” before sauntering out the door.

But those ideas seemed really inappropriate when paired with the actual circumstances of leaving an abusive partner, because I think, unlike Mr. Simon says in his song, that leaving an abusive partner is a process—one that doesn’t end when you physically remove yourself from your partner’s presence. It’s more like a series of physical, emotional, and financial steps away from your disentanglement to that person and towards your re-engagement with yourself.

You’ve probably considered leaving before—maybe even many times before!—but until now, you’ve always found ways to rationalize staying. You’ve told yourself that your partner will change. Or you’ve blamed yourself and decided to just work harder (just!) to make changes in the relationship. You may feel too scared to face the uncertainty of leaving what’s familiar (even if it’s dysfunctional). You might assume that you’re not worth more than how your partner treats you (they’ve groomed you for those kinds of feelings, remember?), feel like you have nowhere else to go, or there may be children involved and that complicates things.

There are so, so many ways to convince yourself to stay.

When you do, finally, make the heart-shattering, gut-wrenching, completely terrifying yet entirely empowering decision to leave, you begin the step-by-step process of leaving your abusive lover. I have some ideas about how this process might look, but remember that the entire process could take years, or it could happen in the course of a few moments. My experience was that it took years before I felt empowered enough to leave my partner. Others may make it happen right away. You do you, but here’s what I think the process may be like:

  1. You begin to consider leaving as a legitimate possibility. You mull it over, maybe take some small steps to start preparing for it, and you work yourself up towards making the final decision.
  2. You reach out to someone you trust for support as you prepare to leave your abusive relationship. This may be a trusted family member or friend. It may be a counsellor or your doctor; it could be someone at a shelter or on a partner abuse hotline. You seek out the reassurance that someone will in fact be there when you find yourself alone.
  3. If you are an intensely anxious over-planner like me, you will set a time and date for when to inform your lover. You may also draft up a quick and informal separation agreement and have your trusted friend or family member come with you on D-Day to deliver your news and your agreement to your partner, ensuring that everyone present signs and dates the agreement (this is an immensely helpful document if you find yourself in a legal battle post-separation).
  4. Or you don’t plan ahead and one day, you just tell your partner that you’re leaving. Or you kick them out of the house. Or you sneak out in the middle of the night because that’s the safest way for you to leave. You get the fuck out of there, however works best for you! Because that’s the whole goddamn point.
  5. This is where the-post-leaving work begins. You begin to disentangle emotionally from your abusive partner. This might take days. More likely weeks, months, or even years. Having a counsellor, if you’re able, makes this a much steadier process.
  6. You hire legal help, if necessary, to protect yourself when your emotionally abusive ex tries to exert control over you again. There are Legal Aid services in Canada and the United States. There are likely others in different places as well.
  7. You enlist a kickass accountant, if you are able, to make sure your finances are dealt with responsibly. Do NOT allow your partner to dictate this unless you fully understand the scope of the decisions being made. And please do NOT underestimate the importance of taking care of yourself financially. This was a much bigger part of leaving my spouse than I expected and was very hard to deal with during the sweep of intense emotions that came along when I left.
  8. You “get yourself free”, as Paul Simon says, and you manage the best that you can. That’s really what it comes down to.

Voila! You’ve left your lover. And it only took 8 steps! Easy, right?

No. It’s not easy. It’s 100% difficult. Especially in instances of emotional abuse, because people (including law makers and the like) often consider “emotional abuse” to be subjective. And depending on how skilled your ex-lover is at being charming or manipulating others, it may become even more difficult to get support as an abuse survivor. I know this firsthand, because when I left my marriage, I had to fight fiercely for my claims of abuse.

And isn’t that just the worst thing you can do to someone who has just escaped an abusive relationship? Make them fight for the legitimacy of their experience? Fuck that. The lip-service given to emotional abuse is not enough to protect survivors of it, should they choose to, or more likely need to, engage in a legal battle post-separation. If you don’t have children with your abusive lover, things may be different. I’m not going to say that they will be easier—that wouldn’t be fair to those whose legitimate struggles with abusive partners happen without them being parents as well—but I know that when I left an earlier partner who was also abusive, whom I didn’t have children with, it was still incredibly difficult. So difficult, that I’m still dealing with the feelings and fear that developed as a result of that relationship.

So, no. Not having kids doesn’t guarantee that it’s easier to walk out on your abusive partner. There’s still intense fear and risk involved. You still need somewhere safe to go and someone trusted to talk to. You may have to hire a lawyer and advocate the shit out of your experience in order to protect yourself. There will still be so many feelings and experiences to figure out afterwards. You will still be putting yourself in an incredibly vulnerable position by changing the status quo of your life and of your ex’s life.

Emotional abuse is just as scary and just as serious as physical abuse. So, despite what Paul Simon says, leaving your lover isn’t usually as easy as just walking out the door. Anyone in an abusive relationship should be able to leave that situation. Maybe that’s the one part Mr. Simon gets right in his song when he says, “Just get yourself free.”

I had the fight of my life trying to disentangle from my abusive partners. In fact, it still feels like a fight everyday.

If you need help leaving your lover, please reach out to someone you trust, or to one of the places below.

xxJ

Canada: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cj-jp/fv-vf/help-aide.html

Canada: http://www.awhl.org/home

Canada: https://www.sadvtreatmentcentres.ca/find-a-centre/

USA: https://www.thehotline.org/

USA: https://www.rainn.org/national-resources-sexual-assault-survivors-and-their-loved-ones

Worldwide: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_domestic_violence_hotlines

Let’s never underestimate the courage it takes to leave your [abusive] lover.

Au revoir!

When I left my husband, I realized that I had lost much more than a marriage.

Now I understand that successful relationships involve people growing together as they work through their issues, face difficulties, celebrate successes, and find a shared identity as a couple while maintaining autonomy as individuals. But when you are in a codependent relationship, things are very different and when I walked away from my marriage, I was struck by a deep sense of not knowing myself.

In my relationship with the man who became my ex-husband, I molded myself entirely to how he wanted, or how I thought he wanted, me to be. I stopped doing the things I enjoyed doing. I stopped saying how I felt about things. I questioned my intuition. I lost faith in my ability to do anything. I became exhausted by the effort of trying to maintain the status quo (i.e. keep the peace and/or keep my husband happy). I had done this in previous relationships and friendships before (had I ever!), and at the time of my separation, the only thing that felt true about my identity was that I had become an expert at being passively codependent.

Yay. 

I was so lost when I was left on my own. I didn’t know what I liked to do anymore or what I was capable of. I felt dumb and useless and tired. The overwhelming sense I experienced was of being a complete stranger to myself, and I spent more time feeling triggered or completely drained than anything else.

I’ve always had a high level of self-awareness. In fact, even in the worst periods of my life, when I was shrouded in intense depression and anxiety, when I was beholden to my abusers, when I was contemplating suicide, I still had the knowledge that something was wrong and that I needed something to change. But since I framed my identity using the parameters my boyfriend/husband/parents/friends gave me, I couldn’t determine what was true and what wasn’t.

After many years of counselling, an amazing mental health day program, a consistent treatment plan, incredible support from some of the quality people in my life, and an unwavering sense that I absolutely could NOT give up, I began to unpack my experiences and rediscover myself.

And I realized a few key things…

  1. I could recognize that there were parts of me from my past that were still true, but that my experiences had fundamentally changed me. The core parts of me were still there, but they had to be rediscovered and given a new, healthy framework to exist in.
  2. There were things I had considered “core” parts of myself that I needed to throw out and replace with other things that came from a place of authenticity.
  3. I couldn’t continue trying to be the person I felt other people thought I should be.
  4. I had the capacity to discover my identity again, if I chose to work at it.

So I began to work diligently at figuring out who the hell I was now and who I wanted to be post-separation, post-abuse, post-youth, post “Life 1.0.”

It started with identifying how I had allowed myself to be defined in the unhealthy relationships I had before. What, if anything, was true about me based on those parameters? I started trying to throw out old, bad habits… goodbye passivity! See ya later mandatory politeness! Au revoir overextending myself!

I also grabbed some of my “bad” traits that had been misused and misinterpreted, and created new, healthier frameworks for them. For example, I had bought into the belief that being sensitive and empathetic was a bad thing. It led me to be overly emotional, hot headed, and too accommodating. Not true! Being emotionally sensitive and highly empathetic is a gift! I just had to learn how to use it well! I renegotiated a new understanding of that quality in myself and have set to practicing this new way of thinking.

The second (or third?) step was to unearth good qualities that I wanted to embrace. This wasn’t an extensive list…more like, an exclusive one! I prioritized things and made sure I was focusing on a few, core traits that I felt were latent in my being, but which were also underrepresented or misunderstood. Basically, I dug up the good qualities in myself, like independence and determination, dusted them off, and put them back in my emotional tool-belt so that I could grab them instead when I went for one of my old, unhealthy, codependent habits.

And I realized that there were some skills I really wanted to have that I would need to work at embodying. I had to learn how to be assertive. I had to learn how to be alone. I had to learn to be angry in healthy ways. I’ve put time into teaching myself these new things, folding them into my identity as they become more and more familiar.

Leaving my emotional abuser was the catalyst in finding a new and healthy identity for myself. I am in no way complete, nor am I an expert in self-discovery. And I don’t expect myself to stay exactly as I am right now, but I do expect myself to keep working on living in a healthy way that supports a healthy sense of self.

It’s possible for you to do this too, no matter your relationship status, your history, or your future plans. Abused or not, we can all love and accept ourselves while striving to improve.

Your identity is not something that should be handed to you.

It may seem easier or more familiar to continue existing in the frameworks other people craft for you, but over the long term, you’ll do yourself a disservice in allowing others to define you.

So take a moment, envision yourself as you wish to be, and start taking steps, small or big, towards your a truer, more vivacious self!

xxJ

2018-08-23 18.46.25
The flowers in my garden, like this Teddy Bear Sunflower, remind me that I’m always growing and that sunshine can always be found if you look for it.

A Bundle of Sticks

I’m fortunate to live a very privileged life. Saying that makes me want to throw up a little bit BUT I’m leaning into my discomfort and admitting that as an upper-middle class white person living in the western world, I’ve been afforded an existence of material comfort and relative luxury. I’ve never had to question where my next meal was coming from, whether I’d have a roof over my head, if I could afford to go to university, or if my parents could help me out when I got into trouble financially or otherwise.

Materially speaking, my life is fantastic and because of this, I often feel guilty talking about my problems. When looking at what’s happening with things like the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ2+ rights, the wars across the world, victims of natural disasters, the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples, and so many other massive and terrible issues, my struggles seem like nothing. I mean, what right do I have to complain when I’m sitting on top amidst the current socio-economic and political climate around the world? What right do I have to talk about my problems when there is someone else who has it worse? How dare I not finish my asparagus when there are starving children in Africa? Amiright???

In the last two years, I’ve come out as a person who survived domestic abuse. In the last two years, I’ve practiced saying those words and owning them, adopting at first the persona of a victim, and now one of a survivor.

But…

Even as I’m writing this part of me wants to erase the whole damn thing and stop talking because I continue to be afraid that I will be called out as a liar or a phony or a drama queen.

Many people take their problems and sensationalize them. Or maybe I should say, many people in a position of privilege take their problems and sensationalize them. Real problems are not something you post on Instagram #firstworldproblems Real problems are ones that affect your life at its core; they undermine your sense of stability and your sense of self-worth. They may be violent and they may include trauma. They reveal your capacity to handle yourself in times of crisis, or they make you fall completely apart.

In my life, I experienced emotional abuse at the hands of a number of my romantic partners. Like I said, it’s hard for me to admit that, but I’m putting it here because I’ve realized that what I experienced, although it may seem subtle or questionable to outsiders, is part of a much bigger societal problem and therefore worthy of attention.

For example, the fact that my ex-husband can’t and won’t recognize that his behaviour was and remains abusive, speaks to the fact that he exists in a position of even greater privilege than my own. It’s a testament to the fact that no matter what financial threshold you exist in, our society as a whole is continuing to fail at addressing its systemic problem with misogyny. While the law where I live identifies emotional (“mental”) abuse as legitimate, my experience with the law showed me that many lawyers and judges and bureaucrats really don’t understand it or know how to handle it.

It’s not just that I need to talk about this for my own sense of catharsis; it’s not just about my story and my journey and my experience. This is about having more voices speaking up and talking about emotional abuse. It’s about engaging in meaningful conversations about all abuse. It’s about changing the landscape of our lives so that we feel more empowered to fight for change and help others. It’s about helping perpetrators of abuse, no matter what their status or rank in the world, learn how to behave differently. It’s about writing this all anyway, not just because I need to write it, but also because I can use my privilege to help others. It comes down to owning my story, knowing that it’s different from anyone else’s and recognizing that it’s still valid and still meaningful.

There’s an Aesop’s Fable called “The Bundle of Sticks” which tells the story of a father who, laying on his deathbed, hands his fours sons a bundle of sticks and asks them each to try breaking it apart. When none of the sons are able to break any sticks, the father unties the bundle and gives each son a single stick to break, which they do easily. The point of the story is to show that we are stronger united than we are apart. We can imagine that we’re each one little twig, snapped easily on our own, but bundled together, our twigs become much stronger. Lending my voice to the conversation about domestic abuse can only strengthen the bundle that so many in our society are trying to break, and I’m not going to let my stick get broken, even if I’m afraid to put it into the pile.

xxJ

Why the hell am I here?

By all accounts, I shouldn’t be here. I’m well aware that the world is already overwhelmed with plenty of bloggers, most of whom fall into one of the following categories: perky and insta-perfect, or cynical and raging. I’d like to think that I hit a sweet spot somewhere in between those two categories. Don’t get me wrong, I have some deep-seated rage lurking within me and I can be pretty damn chipper sometimes! But those aren’t really the reasons that I’m adding my name into the deep, dark pool of online writers.

I’m here with head/strong because my life has profoundly changed in the last few years. As I’ve been learning and fighting and changing and trying to sort my shit out, I’ve also been looking for people who have struggled in relatable ways. In early 2016 I escaped my marriage with no job, no clue what might happen, and two small children who had no idea why their comfy life was being destroyed. I had a complete mental breakdown. I was suicidal. I got forced into a two-year court battle that devastated me emotionally and financially. I lost things that were incredibly dear to me. I lost myself for a while too… But in the end, I survived and that’s why I’m here.

I don’t profess to be an expert in the things I’m going to write about. In fact, the only thing I can claim expertise in is knowing what the fuck is happening in my own life. So that’s what you’ll get here: a big pile of me, wondering and sometimes worrying, writing down the things that I wish I could have read. Offering the support I wish I’d had. Sharing all the things I wanted to find when I started disentangling myself from my abusive, codependent relationships and started learning how to live a new and unfamiliar life as a single parent, an abuse survivor, and a person with anxiety and depression.

We all have shit to deal with, but it’s so much easier to get through that crap when you feel a sense of community and can connect with other people who share some of your experience. I hope that you’ll participate in the learning and exploration I’m putting here. I hope you’ll question me and challenge me and goddamnit I hope you’ll stick with me through it all and find that you, too, can be headstrong and badass. I’ll share more of my story going forward, but for now, I’ll give you one of my favourite quotes and leave it at that…

_There are two powers in