In the last couple of years of my marriage, the situation with my ex-husband had gotten so extreme that I was afraid to share any of what was happening, even with my closest friends. I had been through several rounds of couples counseling, which only made me feel more hopeless, had finally found a therapist for myself, but was still so confused, and felt utterly lost.
Even with the therapist, things got worse. She couldn’t tell me what to do – that would have been unprofessional – and I finally shared some of the details with three close friends, who unfortunately were not equipped to give the best advice.
One was super optimistic and tried to come up with every hopeful scenario, urging me to stay the course. The others, shocked and disgusted, tried to offer support, but my situation was so out of the realm of what they were familiar with.
Here I was: educated, intelligent and independent. I had backpacked through Europe by myself, written a book, built and managed several businesses. It was embarrassing to be capable of these kinds of achievements, yet have such poor judgment when it came to relationships.
After two years of torture, it became clear that the marriage was truly over, and I finally started opening up, but some reactions I got were stunning. One friend, after hearing the grisly details, merely blurted, “Wow, I’m going to miss playing cards with him!” A close relative didn’t believe me, and actually tried to call him at work for an explanation.
I joined a divorce support group, but nobody’s circumstances came close to what I was experiencing. Where their partners had fought to maintain a relationship with the kids, my ex ignored our children from the moment he moved out, later insisting that he just “couldn’t deal with them.” Other people’s exes rented apartments with bedrooms for the kids; my children’s father permanently moved in with a relative 40 minutes away, and never once did visitation, even with joint custody.
Our legal situation was also a nightmare, as the ex completely refused to cooperate with a mediator, or come to any kind of agreement over the next twelve months. I became familiar with the term, “high-conflict divorce” and scrambled in my sudden role as sole parent to two confused and traumatized teenagers. On top of that, I was bleeding money that I didn’t have to pay for an attorney who spent months chasing after financial records which were never produced, running up insane legal costs.
It felt like there was no one I could relate to.
I desperately missed the feeling of being understood. Some of my long- term friends had stepped back because they had no idea how to comfort me in the midst of such never-ending chaos. Plus, they had their own lives and families to deal with.
So many of us in toxic relationships are isolated by abusive partners, but sometimes, even when the opportunity to talk arises, we turn away from it, because we are accustomed to not being heard. It’s only natural to want to keep things to ourselves when we are met with failure to understand, and worse, judgment.
But tough times like these are exactly when we require more human connection than ever, as it can offer immediate benefits to our emotional and physical health, leading to a faster recovery.
The feeling of being deeply connected to others who know and understand your most important feelings is a basic human need, Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist in Colorado, says in the article, What Does Emotional Intimacy Feel Like In A Relationship? 7 Ways To Know If You & Your Partner Are Connecting by Suzannah Weiss.
“Usually it involves a feeling of safety and having your inner thoughts and feelings known and accepted.”
Research suggests that when meeting new confidantes, a key factor is similarity. When you find others in much the same situations, you are more apt to like each other, which contributes to your building higher self-esteem.
In his blog, This Is How To Make Emotionally Intelligent Friendships: 6 Secrets, author Eric Barker says that, “you should also look for people you want to learn something from.” You want to find others who can guide you in a positive direction.
Yet the thought of sharing details of our personal lives can be pretty frightening, especially when someone has already violated our trust.
For me, a powerful experience of intimacy occurred in a hospital meeting room on a Sunday morning, two days after my ex finally moved out.
It was in the form of an Al-Anon meeting, a support group mainly focused on people dealing with loved ones with alcoholism. However, the group has proven extraordinarily useful for others in relationships with addicts and narcissists as well. According to Al-Anon’s website, most people show up with a deep need to connect: “Many newcomers are most interested in hearing about situations and relationships that are similar to their own.” Sharing common experiences naturally fosters understanding and support, which leads to healing, and for me, the people in that group were a godsend.
Deep communication has four primary elements, according to Barker. These include the following, and anyone you choose to open up to – group or individual – should have them as a foundation:
- Creating safety: You should not feel judged, or pushed
- Vulnerability: If you feel a little scared at first to share your personal feelings, that’s ok. But talking to others with similar experiences usually fosters a sense of reciprocity, which might make it easier to open up
- Emotional expressiveness: Make sure you not only feel comfortable sharing thoughts, but feelings as well
- Active listening: If the listener makes you feel heard, you will feel better
The article How to Understand and Build Intimacy in Every Relationship by Maisha Johnson takes it a step further, with seven key factors necessary in an emotionally intimate relationship, including:
- Compassion, or feeling cared about
- Affection, such as the unspoken ways another will “show up” for you
- Good communication
Emotional intimacy and connection is the foundation for overall health and happiness for everyone, not just those in extreme situations. Some of the benefits, according to the University of Utah’s article, Seven Reasons Why Loving Relationships Are Good for You, give scientific proof that these connections, on various levels, can help you:
- Feel less pain
- Cope with trauma
- Become less likely to succumb to anxiety and depression
- Reduce your stress hormones (cortisol) and increase the feel-good hormones (oxytocin)
- Quit bad habits
- Boost your immune system
- Lower your blood pressure
- Reduce your risk for heart disease
- Become more physically fit (with the support of a good friend!)
- Build your resilience during tough times
- Heal more quickly, both physically and emotionally
Conversely, according to the article, The Health Benefits of Strong Relationships by Harvard Health, a study showed that those who lacked connection in their relationships “increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50%…an effect… comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day,” echoing the notion that feeling cared for can “trigger the release of stress-reducing hormones.”
Emotionally intimate connections also help foster a sense of purpose and belonging. It’s not just babies who require closeness to thrive – the desire to connect with others remains with us our entire lives, especially during difficult, transitional periods.
I was so wrong in thinking I should have been able to figure out things myself.
In the timeless article, Intimacy: The Art of Relationships, psychologist Lori H. Gordon asserts that, while conventional wisdom says to start with understanding yourself as a basis to improving relationships, she found the “opposite to be true,” and that people exploring personal history often experience such intense feelings, that without someone to talk to, they can end up feeling much worse.
This is why it is so necessary for those of us in, or dealing with a toxic situation, to deeply connect with each other, rather than hide what we perceive as shameful.
Note: At Been There Got Out, we’re creating a comprehensive course for people suffering in or struggling to get out of toxic relationships. A big part of that will be our “Detox Talks,” which are online community support meetings offered over Zoom.