It Felt Like… Part 2
I had a conversation with a wonderful woman recently about domestic abuse, and she asked me a question that made me feel like I really needed to write a part 2 follow up for my blog from December. I left something out of my December blog post that is really important. It’s important, because it speaks to the nature of being in an abusive situation, and an understanding of why people stay in abusive situations as long as they do.
The million dollar questions she asked me was: “Did you feel safe with him?”
Here’s the crazy part… The answer is a murky yes, in a way I did. That’s right, there was a part of me that felt comfortable, and even safe with my abuser. I know, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make any logical or emotional sense.
In clinical terms there are two ways this phenomena is generally explained. 1) It’s an addiction. Abusive relationships aren’t all lows. There are highs mixed with the lows. They are a roller coaster ride. You never know what you are going to get. Will you be met with the charming, affectionate, fun person you fell for, or the mean, manipulative, aggressive person that they sometimes show you? Are they apologizing profusely and trying to show you they’ve “changed?” or are they slipping back into the same old pattern again? This crazy cycle produces all sorts of chemical reactions in our bodies that create a similar effect as drugs, and we essentially form an addiction, or a trauma bond.
2) There is a crazy thing called cognitive dissonance that happens with abuse. When you are in a situation where you know you are not being treated the way you deserve, or making healthy choices, but you don’t see an easy way out, your brain tells you a little lie that says, “It’s not so bad. There are good things here. It’s better than it was.” Another example of Cognitive dissonance would be a cigarette smoker. Asmoker knows that cigarettes are bad for them, but they don’t know how to quit, so they tell themselves it’s ok, because they only smoke three a day now, which is way better than the pack a day they used to smoke. These little cognitive dissonance fibs do not make it good, they do not make us happy, they do not make it right, and they do not make it ok, but they are a survival mechanism when we don’t see an easy answer, or an easy escape.
Clinical definitions aside, my emotional experience of it was very mixed. You see, there was a part of me that felt safe with him. I had been with him for a long time. He had seen me at my worst (partially because he brought out my worst parts), and he had seen me at my best. We spent a ton of time together. That is part of an abusive relationship, early on they shower you with affection, and they want to spend all their time with you. They monopolize your time. You can’t give time to something without creating a bond, whether that bond is healthy or not. Spending that time together doesn’t just create a bond, it creates a habit. I was in the habit of being with him, and in that way, it felt comfortable, and it felt safe. We had so much invested in our relationship in shared time. He had seen me at my worst and not left. Even when he would push me away or leave, he would always come back. He was a constant of sorts. I may have never known what exactly I was coming home to, but I knew what to expect overall.
Now, this being said, I want to make it clear that I never truly felt safe with him. I did not feel emotionally safe, in the sense that my feelings were never validated. I could not approach him with my cares, and worries, or God forbid a complaint about something he did, because I wouldn’t be met with a healthy discussion or problem solving attitude. I was instead, met with judgement, criticism, blame, threats, guilting or other emotional blackmail. It could be as simple as him brushing off my sadness about something and saying I was overreacting, or as big as him blaming me for hurts that he’d caused me, and even calling me crazy to react, and threatening a course of action if I didn't let it go. Did I feel safe in the sense of being grounded, cozy, and stable? No. I was on eggshells with him. I never knew what would cause an issue, or what mood he would be in when we spoke or saw eachother. He could be fun and affectionate and appreciative, or he could be mean, distant, and play mind games. I was not emotionally safe with him. My ex was never physically abusive, so physical danger wasn’t something I worried about, but, if I were to be fully honest, there were moments once or twice in the 5 years we were together, that I had a strange sense of not feeling fully safe. He didn’t say or do anything to make me feel that way in the moment. The feeling was as subtle as the hair on the back of my neck raising for just a second, but it was there, under all of the idealizing that my mind wanted to do about the relationship, that uncomfortable feeling was still there, buried, but present.
Still, despite knowing that it wasn’t healthy. Despite knowing I wasn’t being treated the way I deserved. Despite never knowing what I would get from him. Despite feeling hollow, and numb, and frustrated, there was still a part of me that felt safe. Because I knew who he was and what he was. There wasn’t some big unknown. I couldn’t have the rug pulled out from under me, because it already was. I remember once after the last time we split up, I was seeing someone new, and shortly after we started dating, I panicked. He hadn’t called in a day or two, and I was so used to the hyper attentiveness that I’d had with my ex early on, that part of me thought the guy was bolting. And I remember thinking, “What am I doing? I shouldn’t be with this guy, I should just go back to my ex, he loves me, and he will never leave!” Luckily I had enough recovery at the time to have a second voice pop into my head that said “Brittany, he may always come back, and never leave fully, but he can’t even really be with you when he’s there. He might love you in the only way he knows how, but he doesn’t know how to actually love, and he doesn’t know how to receive real love, and it’s not healthy.” That was the moment I realized I had to go no contact for a while, and not speak to him at all. Because my habit was so adapted to going back, to caving in, that it was too risky to stay in contact. My brain and emotions were so trained by the habit and chemicals of being with him, that I couldn’t heal without getting completely away. I needed to create a new healthy habit and pattern. I had to give myself space and freedom to move on. I had to allow myself to be with someone else, and grow with someone else, and allow those feelings to develop, without him being able to intervene, and meddle. I needed to do that for myself. I needed to give myself that gift. And I did, thank God!
The easiest way to sum up the false sense of “safety” you get by staying with, or going back to an abuser is this, “It’s the devil that you know.” It can be so scary to contemplate the unknown. It’s scary to think of what could happen. Could you be met with a worse fate? Fears come up that tell you lies like, “You might not meet someone better. You might meet someone worse. What if they cause trouble even after you leave? What if no one else sees you or wants you? You are failing them.” It can be scary and sad to feel like you are giving up on someone you once loved; someone you invested time, and energy, and money, and promises into. But, the devil that we know is still the devil, and often, God lives in the unknown. God lives in the possibilities. Because for every what if, there is a positive. What if you meet someone worse? Well, what if you meet someone better? What if it hurts? What if it sets you free, heals you, and leads to you being happy again? Change is scary. The unknown is scary. But happiness lies in the possibilities, that lie in the unknown future. To stay is to stay stuck, it’s to stay in misery, numbness, and to simply settle. Life was meant to be lived abundantly. Love y’all!