If you suspect that something is just not right in your relationship, your first challenge is to wake yourself up and take an honest look at your situation. Maybe you’ve been on “cruise control” for years in your relationship. Maybe the relationship with your partner has deteriorated over time and you long for the good times you once enjoyed with him or her.
We hear about and talk to so many people who have finally had enough mistreatment from their abusive partners after ten, twenty, even thirty years. What keeps people in these horrible situations so long?
Whatever the details of your circumstances, perhaps you’re ready to acknowledge that your situation has become intolerable. This acknowledgement is the same as the first step in twelve-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, where recovery begins when someone admits they have a problem that has become unmanageable.
Life would be so much easier if abusers announced themselves on the first date. But that’s not how they work. It’s like “the frog in the pot.” If you drop a frog in a boiling pot of water, he’ll leap out. But, if you put him in cool water and slowly turn up the heat, he may just allow himself to be boiled (no, we have not tried this!)
Abusers often seem too good to be true in the beginning. They secure their victims, and then slowly reveal their true selves over time. Things get worse and worse until the victim has finally had enough, or the abuser, having sucked the victim dry, “discards” him or her. Sadly, some victims never wake up and save themselves. Lisa wrote about how abusers secure their victims in this blog post.
Overcoming denial is a huge hurdle for people trapped in abusive relationships with narcissists and other Cluster B personality-disordered partners.
Whoa! “Abusive?” “Narcissists?” “Cluster what?”
Hold those questions for just a bit. Just because you’re “unhappy” in your relationship, that doesn’t mean it’s an abusive one or that your partner has a significant mental health issue. You can figure that part out later (and we can help.)
Denial is a coping mechanism. When you refuse, consciously or subconsciously, to acknowledge a major problem, you’re trying to protect yourself from something that you’re not emotionally equipped to deal with presently. That can be a good thing.
But if you stay in denial for too long, you allow an unhealthy situation to continue, perhaps for years. Lisa and I both did exactly that in our marriages, for well over a decade. As we say right in the title of our website, we’ve “been there”!
If you’d like to learn more about denial from a psychology standpoint, here’s a great article from the Mayo Clinic.
Resilience is another trait that’s a double-edged sword. In my case, I went through some painful stuff as an only child, when my parents divorced, and my father started a new family and largely dropped out of my life. It wasn’t until just a year or two ago that I came to understand how this experience helped turn me into an ideal target for the abuser I would eventually marry, but that’s a story for another time.
Resilient people can keep going in adverse conditions, which is a good thing. But, being so resilient that you try to endure horrific conditions, like an abusive marriage, can be harmful.
Think of resilience as a trait, and denial as a state of mind. The two go hand in hand, and both can be helpful in healthy amounts, but can keep you from acknowledging an unhealthy situation in excess.
Getting Over Denial
For right now, if you’re just waking up to the idea that something is wrong and you have an intolerable situation, the most important thing you need to do is get your head out of the sand and make a personal commitment to dig deeper; to explore - honestly - why you’re so troubled.
A primary reason people remain in denial is fear. Perhaps you’re afraid that if you confront the problems in your relationship, you may:
- Start down a path that ultimately leads to the end of your marriage / relationship
- Enrage your abusive partner if you start to stand up for yourself
- Expose children to conflict
- Discover that your partner has been unfaithful
- Discover other bad behavior, like financial abuse, by your partner
- Feel bad about yourself for tolerating an abusive relationship
- Be compelled to face up to some very big, scary issues in your life
Do any of these hit home? If so, you will probably find that, no matter which of those fears come true, it will be better when you know than it is in denial. As I used to say shortly after my marriage imploded, “at least the monster’s out from under the bed.”
It’s imperative to have a good support network - family, friends, a therapist, etc. People who you know with certainty will not betray your thoughts to your partner. Share your thoughts and fears with someone who cares about you. Talk about your partner's behaviors and ask for honest feedback.
Many abusers attempt to isolate their victims, cutting them off from friends and family. In my case, I’m extremely close with my mother, and the narcissist I was married to despised her and did all she could to come between us. If your partner has cut you off from those closest to you, go rebuild those connections!
Whatever support network you have, writing about your feelings can be incredible therapy. Keep a journal, and be 100% honest with yourself. Whether your journal is a physical book, or something you keep online, it is absolutely imperative that you keep it private from your partner. Ideally, your partner shouldn’t even know you're doing it. Two online journal services we like are Penzu and 750Words.
Emotional abuse is so insidious… for victims, it becomes “normal.” When you write down your thoughts and observations with complete honesty, re-reading them can potentially show you how non-normal your situation actually is.
Some Final Thoughts
Keep in mind that overcoming denial doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not a box you check and then move on. In my personal situation, there were many times I had to wake up to the realization that things were even worse than I had previously acknowledged, or there was some behavior on the part of the woman I was once married to that was even more insidious than I had previously thought possible.
Once you have made a commitment to honestly examining the issues in your relationship, you can start to understand the nature and severity of your predicament, which is the next hurdle you'll need to overcome.