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How My Emotionally Abusive Partner Continues to Isolate Me

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

It’s common knowledge that one of the huge red flags that should tip a person off that they may be in an abusive relationship is when their partner tries to isolate them from the people who care about them. You read about how they will talk badly about family members, get angry when a victim tries to make plans with friends, or insist they move across the state or the country or the world. And this creates a situation where the victim feels totally cut off from their support system and ends up completely dependent on the abuser for all their emotional, financial and other needs. And so, the victim remains trapped in the cycle of abuse, unable to get outside perspective, having to rely on their own flawed and slanted feelings as the sole guide that allows them to continually excuse just how bad they are being treated. They are stuck feeling like they have nowhere to go. But there is another, far more insidious isolation that happens — an effect that I am living firsthand. And it’s not one he is creating or demanding.

The abuse in itself is devastating. There is an incident, whether it is berating, or threatening or physical violence. And as the person on the receiving end, you might know with 100% certainty that you need to get out. And so you swear him off (and I’m going to use “he” for brevity, but we understand that women can also be abusive). “This is it,” you say. “I am going to end it.” And maybe you spend a few days or weeks or months away. You cut off all contact (if you can) and you decide you will remain strong. Maybe you leave. But then he shows up and cries and begs and swears he will get help. He tells you he needs you, that he isn’t really like that, that it will never happen again. And your head screams “Don’t buy it! He’s said it before!” But your heart says, “he’s all you have. You want him to change. And he says he will change. Wouldn’t you want a chance if you made a mistake? Aren’t you capable of change?” And you gradually fall right back into it. And he is everything you wanted him to be. For a while. But the little moments of what feel like relief and closeness start to give way to more and more little snide comments. And you see it, you know you need to call him on it. But you’re afraid to talk about it. Because you know where it leads. So it simmers. Quietly. And you get more and more afraid. And then, there is a blow up. And another incident. And you try to walk away. But you are in a cycle. And the more times you go around, the worse it gets.

But here’s the awful part — the part no one talks about. The part I am living with the effects of. He doesn’t need to isolate me; he never really needed to. It started early in the relationship. I would tell my closest friends about some argument I didn’t think was a big deal, but they would react with utter shock — “He said what?!” — and they’d warn me this isn’t love. That I deserved better. But I defended him. I mean, he wasn’t like that all the time. And gradually, I just stopped telling them about his awful behavior because I knew he wasn’t as bad as they thought. And I didn’t want to hear that the person whom I loved (and honestly was becoming more and more obsessed with) wasn’t really a great guy. And so, I talked to them less and less because I didn’t want them judging the person I loved. And by extension, judging me.

My first “incident” was actually a long slide downward that climaxed with me at the point of feeling like there was no good option. If I stayed, I was going to lose myself completely. And if I left, I was never going to recover from the loss. I was suicidal. I went completely crazy. I had a total breakdown. He moved out. I found out about other women. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) during my first hospitalization (out of four hospitalizations in seven months). And he used that to convince me, in my completely broken and devastated state, that it was all my fault. And that I needed to work harder, be better, try harder to win him back. And I tried and tried while he psychologically tortured (for lack of better words) with cheating and lying and manipulation tactics that I didn’t recognize as what they were at the time. I honestly almost didn’t survive it.

Then one day, an article showed up on one of my social media feeds. It was about emotional abuse. And suddenly, everything made total sense. I wasn’t “crazy” or “broken” or “mentally ill.” I didn’t create any of this. And I went to my therapist and we changed my treatment plan. We weren’t going to focus on managing BPD. We were going to start focusing on me being a victim of traumatic abuse. I started focusing on building my sense of self back up, on focusing on what I knew was my reality and what was really happening and working hard on self-care and finding things I enjoyed that I had totally abandoned during my three-year relationship. Within a couple of months, it felt like the smoke had cleared and I was seeing his behavior for what it was. Every time I tried to talk to him about some comment or shitty behavior, he used the same old tactics and now that I saw them for what they were, I was no longer willing to accept it. And finally, I found the strength to break it off.

My friends were so proud of me for my progress. They really rallied around me and were happy to “have me back.” But it was hard. He tried every tactic in the book to get my attention. But with their love and support, I was able to resist replying or even acknowledging him. My friends checked in on me, were there in the middle of the night when I called them instead of texting him. They came and forced me out of the house and into my life again. And I felt like I was really capable of being OK for the first time since he moved out.

But then he showed up. There were tears. There were flowers and promises and proof he had been attending counseling. He said he missed “his best friend.” And I said no. I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t going to fall for it because I had read enough to know how this goes. But that deep, almost primal pull was there. And I gradually let him back in.

I didn’t tell anyone at first. I just stopped replying to texts and didn’t answer calls. I posted on social media about how busy I was and how great things were. But the people who had supported me most and who took care of me when I was at my lowest — they knew. They knew what happened. And I don’t know that they saw it necessarily as a betrayal but they definitely threw their hands up and walked away. And I didn’t chase them because in my self-blame for “falling for it,” I knew I had disappointed a lot of people who would have done anything for me and chose to give this person who had nearly destroyed me another chance. I had chosen to listen to the devil on my shoulder rather than the angel.

You know the rest of the story. It got great for a while and then got unimaginably worse. And I walked away again. And again, I went to some friends, the ones who didn’t totally abandon me. And they rallied around me and gave me their constant and loving support. But then I went back again. And again. And again.

And I am on the verge of falling back into the cycle again. Right now. As I am typing this. And I have literally one person left whom I can talk to. Who knows how awful it got. And it got bad. And scary. My friend is afraid for me, not just because of what I might do to myself but what he could potentially do to me next time. And I cannot tell my friend that I am falling for the empty promises and the guilt trips and the blame. He appeals to the deepest, most painful parts of me and promises to wrap them up and hold them tight. I know, rationally, that it’s not real. And although it might be sincere today, in a few weeks, the hurt will begin all over again. And yet, the prospect that there is even a sliver of a chance that it might be real is somehow completely and undeniably irresistible to me, or at least to my heart.

And so, here I am. Isolating myself. Not reaching out. Not talking about it. Unwilling to ask for perspective. Because I already know what I should do. And I feel completely and utterly humiliated when I hear it from someone else. And I have alienated all the people who care about me. By myself. Not because of his tactics of forced isolation, but because of my own shame for again being “stupid” and the guilt of knowing I have let everyone who loves me down because I keep choosing the one who hurts me and tries to destroy me over the people who would literally do anything to help me. This is not the isolation they talk about when they talk about abusive relationships, but it is very real and very common and it is worse than anything he has inflicted on me.

What advice or supportive messages do you have for Selena? Offer some support to this contributor by leaving a comment below.

Photo by Elisabetta Foco on Unsplash

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