Emotional Detachment: Surviving Ongoing Abusive Relationships
Emotionally detaching from an abusive relationship can be extremely difficult. Many men and women believe they still love their abusive husbands, wives and exes. Therefore, developing indifference and detaching from their abusers—even when they’re a consistent source of pain—seems antithetical.
Nevertheless, learning to detach is vital if you ever hope to regain your health, happiness, sanity and sense of Self. This also applies to people who have divorced or broken up with their abusive spouse or partner but have to maintain some degree of contact because of shared children, working for the same company or attending the same school.
Emotionally detaching requires that you change many of your attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Detaching is not about enabling your abuser; it’s about disarming your abuser by eradicating her or his ability to hurt you. It’s not about changing your behavior so that you don’t trigger your spouse; in fact if you successfully detach it will probably provoke him or her to become even nastier and controlling for a while.
When your spouse takes an ugly turn into consistent abuse and other controlling behaviors, attaching your self-worth to how they treat you and placing all your effort into them and the relationship guarantees exploitation and self-destruction. For your psychological survival in this kind of relationship, you need to develop and feel indifference and emotional detachment.
Before you can begin to detach, you need to accept the following:
- Love does not conquer all. What you’re experiencing in your relationship probably isn’t love; it’s a distorted, twisted version of it.
- You can’t fix or rescue someone from being abusive, sick, dysfunctional and lost in their own highly distorted reality. In fact, trying to rescue an abuser—particularly if they are a borderline personality, a narcissist, a histrionic or a sociopath—is akin to trying to rescue a drowning person who’s crying for help and then holds you under water until you begin to drown. The more you try to rescue them, the more they’ll drag you under.
- You give your abusive spouse or partner the power to hurt you.
- You can survive and thrive without your abusive relationship. You don’t “need” her or him. You had a life before this person and eventually you’ll have a much better life post Ms. or Mr. Crazypants.
- You’re not responsible for your spouse’, partner’s or ex’s happiness, failures, shortcomings or bad behaviors.
- The person who you want your spouse or partner to be is in conflict with the person she or he is in reality.
- Continuing to hope for the best from someone who consistently gives you the worst is a set-up for more pain and disillusionment.
- You are not helpless, powerless and incompetent. The relationship with your abusive spouse or partner causes you to feel that way, which is why it’s often so difficult to take care of yourself and break free.
There’s no shame in admitting that you need to walk away from a relationship that’s destructive and toxic. It’s vital that you begin to develop a rational perspective and distance yourself from an ongoing hurtful relationship that you can neither control nor change. Many people remain in abusive relationships well beyond a point of personal pain and devastation that defies reason. You need to come back to your senses and see your partner for who he or she is.
Here are some detachment techniques:
1. Make yourself solely responsible for your own well-being and happiness. Catch yourself when you begin to utter, “If only he/she could . . . If only he/she would . . .” and knock it off. Coulda, woulda, shoulda is the language of regret and pipe dreams. Keeping you in a beaten down and depressive state makes it easier for an abuser to control you. Feline predators don’t target the swiftest and strongest impala in the herd; the one with the limp usually becomes lion lunch. Take back the control you gave them over your feelings, happiness and well-being and start meeting your own needs by making different choices and acting on them.
2. Accept that you can’t fix, change, rescue, save, make someone else happy or love someone enough to make them be nice to you. Don’t just pay lip service to this. Really wrap your brain around the fact that no matter what you do, it will never be good enough. Understand that no matter how much you do for them; they’ll always expect and demand more. Acknowledge that the more you appease, compromise and forgo your own needs; the more entitled, demanding and ungrateful they’ll be: you’re throwing good energy after bad with no victory or end in sight.
3. Eliminate the hooks of your abuser. A hook is typically an emotional, psychological or physical stake that you have in the other person and the relationship. For example, GUILT is a big hook that keeps many men and women in abusive relationships with destructive narcissistic, borderline and histrionic partners.
“I don’t how they’d take care of themselves. What would they do without me? I’d feel guilty if I left because of the kids.”
The flip side of guilt is EGO. If you leave an abusive person, they’ll do just fine without you. They’ll probably try to suck you dry financially while lining up their next target to control and abuse. It’s not personal—especially if your spouse is BPD, NPD, HPD, ASD and/or APD.
These neurological/biological disorders view others as objects to be used. They’ll simply replace you with another object and do the same damn thing to the next guy. Guilt is a control device they use to keep you in line.
Other hooks include shame (e.g., of failing or not being strong enough), loss of status (e.g., being perceived as a nice or good guy), loss of material assets or access to children, perfectionism and your own need to control others, situations and outcomes.
4. Learn to control your body language. Your body language and facial expressions can betray what you’re feeling and thinking on the inside without you saying a word. Your spouse’s covert and overt attacks are designed to elicit a reaction, you need to learn how not to give them the reaction they are seeking.
5. Lower your expectations. Ordinarily, people expect the best from others to create a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. However, expecting the best from an abusive person will result in you feeling broadsided, perpetually disappointed and hurt most of the time.
For all their crocodile tears and hyper-sensitivity, abusive narcissistic, borderline, histrionic and sociopathic people are emotional predators and bullies. If you stay in the relationship, the best you can expect is more of the same. You may achieve some periods of “peace” (remember, they say they are not responsible for their behavior; you’re responsible for their behavior and your behavior and all the other problems in the universe), and maintain your boundaries.
“Happiness reflects the difference between what you expect versus what you actually get in life—so if you keep expecting good things to happen, but they never do or take a turn for the worse, you will suffer constant unhappiness.” (Sutton, 2007, p. 134) Your spouse is abusive. They probably have significant characterological pathology and are unlikely to change. Therefore, keep your expectations for their behavior low, but continue to believe that you will be okay once you remove yourself from the situation and/or stop giving them the power to hurt you.
6. Do something that removes you from the abuse and centers you. Meditate or whatever your version of meditation is—reading, walking, woodworking, painting, music—anything that’s restorative. Find pockets of sanity and safety with friends and family or physical spaces like your office, the gym, the pub or social/professional organizations. Find activities that will take you out of the line of fire and minimize your exposure to them and their abuse. Find a hobby or activity that makes you feel good about yourself and restores your confidence and esteem. Ignore them when they become jealous or puts down these new activities and friendships. They do so because they see them as threats to their control.
7. See the big picture and don’t get distracted by their minutiae. The ultimate goal is to not let their abusive behavior effect you anymore and to end the relationship. Expect them to hit even harder—emotionally and/or physically—when you stop reacting to their tried and true button pushing. It seems counter-intuitive, but if they become nastier in response to you setting boundaries and detaching, it means your new behavioral strategies are working because they are fighting harder to retain their control. By detaching, you’re taking back the power that you unwittingly ceded to them.
These new behaviors will take time for you to learn and perfect. It takes a while to develop indifference. It runs counter to our fundamental beliefs about love and relationships. However, if you’re in a relationship with someone who verbally and/or physically attacks you, devalues you, makes you feel less than and who raises themselves up at your expense, you must learn how to make yourself less vulnerable and eventually immune to them. Abusive neurological/biological disorders have no soul and they will destroy your soul if you let them.
Adapted from: Shrink4Men Coaching and Consultation Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.
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