I honestly believe that part of my...task...this lifetime is to be a teacher. I have to share what I have learned with those who might read this. Whether or not they choose to learn from it is not my responsibility. My sole responsibility comes in making the information available to those who are seeking knowledge. So what did I actually learn from my relationship with my former lady (and my ex-wife as of November, 2012)? What words of wisdom can I pass on to others who may find themselves in a similar situation? (In the following paragraphs, "you, your, yourself, etc." refers to the reader.) I may seem to repeat myself, but these all tie in so closely together, and yet they're separate points in and of themselves.
I have tried to explain to those who have no experience loving a survivor of abuse just how difficult it is to heal from this. And I came up with this analogy: try to untangle a dozen nylon fishing lines in the dark wearing gloves and you can get a sense of how difficult it is to untangle all the emotions around healing from abuse. The difficulty comes from the fact that one "effect" often feeds another and the feelings of self-hatred and self-blame become self-perpetuating. It takes a lot of strength and courage to face the demons of one's past and to defeat them. Patience is a virtue that a loved one of a survivor really needs in copious quantities.
So without further ado, here are some of the lessons I learned.
If you can recognize yourself or your loved one in any of these lessons, I strongly urge you to seek professional counseling. Many rape crisis centers offer free counseling to survivors of rape or sexual abuse. Some even offer free counseling to those who love survivors: partners, parents, siblings and even friends.
- Take care of yourself first. I know it sounds selfish, but if you're constantly giving and never replenishing your emotional and spiritual stores, you're gonna burn out someday. In reality, you are the only one who can give you what you need. You have to find that completeness in yourself before you can be in a truly equal relationship. And the only way to do that is to be able to enjoy life alone. Once you can do that, you can share in your completeness with others. Once you are complete in yourself, you'll realize that no one else can really "take care of you" anyway. That if you need someone else in your life, there's some soul work to do. There's a difference between NEEDING someone in your life and WANTING them in your life. Needs change...wanting can last forever.
- Set boundaries. You don't need to put up with behavior that is hurtful or harmful to you. Harmful can be something as simple as worrying all night because you know your partner is at a bar alone. Set consequences for overstepping the boundaries and follow through with those consequences. Boundaries aren't there for restricting someone's actions or for controlling your partner: they're a sign of love for yourelf and for your partner and a way of protecting yourself. It only hurts to see them drink too much because you love them: if you didn't love them, you wouldn't care how much they drank or if they killed themselves in an accident or lost their job because they got a DUI. You're not trying to control them, just to show them how much you love them and to protect yourself. It's the same reasoning that's used for setting boundaries for children: knowing where the boundaries are gives them a sense of safety. They (the children) know where they can and cannot go and they know if they stay where they're allowed to be, they won't get hurt. It's similar with adult survivors, but you can't really "allow" them to do or not do something. You can only allow yourself to remain in a situation where they are doing something you may not agree with or like.
As an example, one boundary I set was that our relationship never got discussed if even one drop of alcohol was consumed. It removed from my judgement any call as to how intoxicated they may or may not be. It protected me because sometimes issues were discussed after drinking had started and the decisions made during those discussions were not remembered the next day. Then when I acted on those decisions, I was accused of "changing the rules". My "consequence" was that I would get up and leave if a discussion about our relationship was started after drinking alcohol. If I was followed in an attempt to continue the discussion, I left the house or went into a room and locked/barricaded the door.
- Abuse is a learned behavior and it can be unlearned. If someone is abusing you, it may be that they don't know any other way to react when under stress. It is up to you to educate them. You have to spell it out clearly and say "This is abuse because you're taking away my free will." Once they know that you see it as abuse, if it continues, your choice then becomes leave (to stop it) or stay (and let it continue). Many would argue that you have a third choice: change the behavior. But since the behavior is something someone else is doing to you, you can't change it.
You owe it to yourself and to the one you love to stop it because it's not doing them any good going through life getting what they want by manipulation or abuse (even if they don't recognize it as such or intend it as such). They're going to be held responsible for it (natural consequences of one's actions) and the longer it continues, the more ingrained the behavior pattern becomes. Additionally, NOT talking about it allows them to believe that you think it's okay and when you finally DO speak up, they're going to say that you've changed or they're going to accuse you of shutting them out. (Of course, if you do speak up, you can expect defensiveness and being accused of not really loving them, so you're often between a rock and a hard place.)
Mind you, I'm not talking about perceptions here. If I hit you, for whatever reason (other than perhaps self-defense) then I am abusing you. If I call you names like "whore" or "bitch", then I am abusing you. If I attempt to control who you can or cannot talk to, where you can or cannot go, that is abuse. If I'm polyamorous, and you know this from the start but you're hurt when I fall in love with someone else, that's not abuse. If you have been talking about how bad your financial situation is and you go out and buy a microwave, and I question whether or not you really needed the microwave, that's not abuse.
- No one deserves to be abused and those who were abused should understand that better than anyone...but sometimes they can't see the forest for the trees. They honestly don't realize that what they're doing is abusive because it is so very normal to them. They see their behavior as completely normal and proper because that's what they grew up with. It's how they were taught to behave. It's up to you to tell them, "Hey, this is wrong". They don't have to agree with you, in which case you're back to the choice of taking it or leaving. But they may just say "You know, I never looked at it that way before."
- If someone honestly loves you, they won't ask you to change for them. They might ask you to change for your own sake (like to stop drinking because it's unhealthy), but they won't ask you to give up your beliefs or to compromise your standards just so they can be happier.
- You can't beat yourself up over a relationship that ends if you've done your best and tried your hardest. A relationship is a two way street. On some things there is no compromise and only you can determine if giving up what you want for your partner is worth it. On the things you can compromise on, remember that a compromise is when everyone gives up a little of what they want to get a little of what they want. If you have to give up everything and get nothing, it's not a compromise.
- You can't control how someone perceives what you do. You can explain why you did what you did or what you meant by what you said, but in the end, they'll believe what they want. Even written proof or a witness won't change their perception until they're ready to change it. Although proof (ie, a letter you saved on the computer or an email you sent) my help YOU if you begin to doubt your memories of what actually occurred or what you actually said.
- It's not your job to rescue or save your partner. They have free will and you must respect that. It's one thing to point out that they're getting ready to walk off a cliff. It's another to prevent them from doing it if they're fully aware of what they're doing and what the possible/probable consequences are.
When one attempts to take control of their partner's life, one is putting themselves in a position of power over their partner. Any relationship where one partner has power over another is not a relationship that will survive for long. You may not like the choices your partner makes, but you have no right to impose the choices you DO like on them no matter how well-intentioned they might be.
If you try to get them to do it your way, you're saying, in effect, "I'll only love you if you do it my way". You're trying to change who they are...and who they are is who you fell in love with. So if you change that, they're not going to be the person you fell in love with and the relationship will end.
Conversely, if you're trying to change them into what you wanted them to be, you didn't fall in love with who they really are, but with who you wanted them to be. A relationship is between equals...where the free will of both parties is respected and honored. If you can't handle the choices your partner is making, change YOUR actions, not your partners.
There is also the fact that when someone is abused, control is taken from them. Many survivors have an almost obsessive need for control because, in their past, loss of control meant they were abused. So if you attempt to control your partner, they will eventually come to see you as just another person who abused them.
- Loving someone with all your heart doesn't mean that you're gonna be with that person forever and always, always and forever. Or even forever and a day. It takes two people to make any relationship work and one cannot do all the work alone. One cannot always be the giver. One cannot always be the one whose needs are unmet. One cannot always be the one blamed for the problems. Do your best, accept responsibility for your own shortcomings, learn from your mistakes and be willing to compromise, but unless your partner is willing to do the same, the relationship will either end or become toxic to both of you.
- The effects of abuse last long after the actual abuse has stopped and affect virtually every aspect of a survivors life, from how they perceive your words/actions, to their ability to trust, to their need (in some cases almost an obsession) for control, to their ideas regarding intimacy, to their ability to open up with their emotions, to the physical ailments that accost them, to their own self-image, to their ability to hold a job.
A survivor's self-esteem is often very low and they may see themselves as failures: failures as a child, as a spouse, as a friend, as a parent. They can very easily see what is wrong with them (and often "make up" things that are wrong with them to prove to themselves they're a failure like everyone has told them they are) but can very rarely acknowledge what is right with them. They often have self-destructive behaviors: anything from overeating to drug/alcohol abuse to over-exercising to bulimia to self-mutilation. Some of them even go on to become abusers themselves, thus continuing the cycle of abuse.
- Those who love someone who is a survivor of abuse are secondary survivors. The one they love often does not trust them, will not confide in them, will constantly test their love, will expect the worst of them, will always be waiting for "the other shoe to fall". The survivor, not believing they deserve to be happy, often subconsciously/unconsciously sabotages the relationship: telling lies when none are needed, doing things that are "off limits", having affairs, keeping secrets, etc.
While you can get frustrated as hell, there's nothing you can do for them. The healing won't begin until your loved one wants it for THEM. If they start to heal for you, it won't work. If they start to heal to save the relationship, it won't work. If they start to heal to make YOU happy, it won't work. They have to want to heal: to realize that, yes, the abuse has affected them in ways they never realized and that they don't want to live with that kind of pain in their life anymore. When they reach that point, then they will start to truly heal.
There are other resources out there, even for those whose income is limited. Both Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services offer counseling services, often on a sliding scale based on income. Most counties in most states have mental health facilities and many also have sliding scale fees.
While I firmly believe that a professional therapist/counselor will help the most, you can also use self-help books like those listed on the "Suggested Reading" page.
If you are a parent who discovers that your child has been sexually abused, do NOT wait to get them into therapy. The sooner the child gets into therapy after the abuse, the less impact the abuse will have on his/her life in the long run. Do NOT try to cover it up to "keep the peace" in the family if the abuser was a family member. The average child molester, over the course of a lifetime, will molest more than 100 children. Do not think that simply because it's your husband/wife or your uncle or your cousin that they can't be an abuser.
And finally, educate yourself about the effects of abuse and the warning signs that someone you love has been abused. I have heard from so many parents who say "I didn't know what to look for!" and who beat themselves up with guilt for not recognizing that something was happening to their child.
Good luck on your own healing journey.