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Fighting the Temptation to Go Back to An Emotional Abuser

Three important steps to help you stay strong when you are tempted.

KEY POINTS

  • It is normal to consider going back to an emotional abuser, but following three steps could help you gain clarity and courage.
  • The steps include asking yourself if you are considering going back out of fear, and noticing how you have felt since ending the relationship.
  • Another important step is remembering how you felt during the relationship.
Those who are finally able to end an abusive relationship often find that they are sometimes tempted to go back to their abuser. If this happens to you, it doesn’t mean you are weak or masochistic. It just means that it is difficult to let go of someone you love, difficult to leave the past behind, and difficult to start all over again. In this post, I address these difficulties head-on and offer suggestions as to how to deal with them in a way that exhibits self-care and a desire for a better life. This includes the following three steps:

Step 1: Consider whether you are tempted to go back because of fear—the fear of being alone, of not making it on your own, or the fear of the unknown.

Step 2: Notice how you feel since you ended the relationship.

Step 3: Remember what it was like.

Step 1: Consider whether you are tempted to go back because of fear—the fear of being alone, of not making it on your own, or the fear of the unknown.

You may have only negative associations or memories about being alone. For example, as a child you may have often been left alone and this may have been a frightening experience. You may have memories of deep sadness and loneliness because you often had no one to comfort you or keep you company, even in difficult times. You may have associated being alone with feeling unloved, unwanted, or unacceptable. Your thinking may have been: there must be something wrong with me, otherwise my parents (and others) would want to be around me. For any or all of these reasons, being alone now may catapult you back in time and bring up sad and painful memories. You may feel overwhelmed and desperate imagining being alone for the rest of your life.

You may also be afraid to be on your own. This is also understandable. It may be the first time in your life you have been completely on your own, especially if you went directly from your parents’ home to marriage. The chances are your ex-partner was constantly telling you what to do—even what to think. As much as this made you feel incompetent, his or her controlling ways may have also kept you from having to make your own decisions. Needing to make your own decisions now—about everything from what kind of job to look for to who you can associate with—can be a daunting task. Having to be completely responsible for yourself can feel overwhelming.

You may have spent your entire life feeling like life was controlling you instead of you being in charge of your own life. You may have felt like others were always the ones in charge, always the ones making the rules. If this is the case, it can be particularly challenging for you to be on your own—away from your partner, solely responsible for your own life, no one telling you what to do, needing to make your own decisions, and guiding your own path.

It is important that you come to realize that you are fully capable of directing your own path. You don’t need anyone or anything telling you what to do, or how to be. Your task is to find this out for yourself and the best way to do this is to step out, to take the risk of individuating—of stepping away from everyone; your parents, your ex-partner—and declaring yourself to the world. Like an artist taking the risk of presenting their artwork to the public, you now have the opportunity to present your true self to the world.

You can begin by saying what you really feel instead of what you think you should say, including saying “no” more often. You can do something you’ve always wanted to do but were too afraid to take the chance. You can focus on taking care of your mind, body, and spirit better than you ever have before.

It will no doubt be difficult for a while but instead of running back to your abuser, give yourself a chance to find out that you can make it on your own. In time you will begin to understand that you have more ability, more strength, and more personal power than you’ve thought you had. And in time, you can discover that being alone is not the worst thing in the world. Instead of associating being alone with abandonment, rejection, or a sign of your being unwanted or unlovable, it can become associated with freedom and independence.

Step 2: Notice how you feel since you ended the relationship

Although it will no doubt be painful to be without your partner and you will undoubtedly grieve the ending of the relationship, most people who end an emotionally abusive relationship soon realize that there are some positive things happening to them.

Exercise: What Seems Better

Write down all the things that you notice that seem better since you’ve ended the relationship. This can include things about yourself: such as how you are feeling emotionally and physically; the way you perceive yourself; your attitude; the way you operate in the world; the way you feel around other people. It can also include things about your children, such as: the fact that they seem more relaxed; that they are laughing and being silly more often; that they are doing better in school.

Here is a sampling of some of the things former clients have shared with me after a few months or even a few weeks of leaving their abusive partner:

  • I feel a quietness inside of me. I normally have a lot of chatter going on inside my head—critical self-talk, criticisms, and insults from my partner—but now I just notice quiet
  • I notice that I’m more often in my body and in the present. I’m not dissociating as much.
  • I believed what he told me without question. Now I’m going back in my mind and realizing that what he said about me wasn’t true. I’m seeing myself in a totally different light. I actually like myself now.
  • I have more self-confidence now that I’m away from her. In fact, I’m remembering that I had a lot more self-confidence before I got involved with my wife.
  • I’m not confused all the time.
  • I no longer feel hopeless about my life. Now I’m feeling more hopeful, even more optimistic.
  • I have more energy and enthusiasm than I’ve had in a long time.
  • I lost myself in my relationship with my husband. Now I’m re-discovering myself. I’m finding my way back to myself.
  • I always focused on his needs, on becoming what he wanted me to be. Now it feels good to focus on myself and my own healing.

As time goes by, you may forget about how different (and possibly positive) you feel since ending the relationship, so referring to your list of changes can be helpful. It will be especially beneficial to revisit this list when you are going through a particularly difficult time and considering going back. Also, if you end up returning to your partner but discover you made a mistake, having this list available can help remind you of how good it felt to be away from him and can give you the courage and strength to leave again.

Step 3: Remember what it was like

Anytime you have the urge to return to your ex-partner, keep in mind the damage the relationship had on your self-esteem, your health, and your sanity, as well as the amount of time it took you to regain your peace of mind. In my book, Escaping Emotional Abuse, I asked readers to keep a log of all the abusive incidents they experienced as a way of helping them to face the truth about their situation and to counter periods of denial and “amnesia” as to how bad it really is. If you haven’t made such a list, please do so now. I also encourage you to do the following exercise:

Exercise: Why I Left

  • List all the reasons why you ended the relationship. For example: fear, humiliation, loss of self-esteem, the fact that you had begun to question your perceptions and your very sanity, physical danger, the way the abuse was affecting your children.
  • Go over your list from time to time, especially during those times when you feel the strongest pull toward going back to your partner.

If you continue to struggle, you may need to review these lists more than once. I also recommend counseling at this point if you haven’t already started.

Before you seriously consider going back to your ex-partner, there is still one more important step: consider whether your ex-partner has made significant changes. I will write about this in my next post.

References

Engel, Beverly. (2020). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing the Shame You Don’t Deserve. New York, N.Y. Kensington Publishing Corp.