How to Take Care of Yourself In and Out of the Abusive Relationship

Strangled on her wedding night, survivor, Transformation Coach and author, Stephanie McPhail endured years of a physically and emotionally abusive marraige.

After getting the courage to stand up for herself, leave the relationship and go on a healing journey that would change her life and help her meet the man of her dreams, she shared her story and what you can do to reach levels of fulfillment that perhaps you didn’t think were possible.

Transcript follows

Welcome back to another episode of Love and Abuse. This is a special episode where I have a guest on. Her name is Stephanie MacPhail, and she is the author of the book Being Loved Shouldn’t Hurt: Recognize and Overcome Toxic Relationships So You Can Live Your Best Life Now.

The reason I have Stephanie on today is because not only is she a coach in the field of emotional abuse, and narcissistic abuse, and she runs a support group, and she has retreats and all kinds of things to help victims to not only survive, but thrive after an emotionally abusive relationship, is that she went through some pretty tough stuff in a marriage that she was in herself.

And after several years of really abusive behavior from her husband, she had enough. And she had to do whatever she could to get out of that situation, because it was just too dangerous. She also went through a lot of healing after that. So whether you want to stay in the relationship that you’re in, or you want to leave the relationship that you’re in, Stephanie’s story will probably resonate with you if you’re in a similar type of situation.

We had a phone conversation that I want to share it with you now. The connection wasn’t the best so the quality is going to be affected just a little bit. But I wanted to air this for you because it’s really good information. Stephanie’s a great person who has not only healed through her stuff, but knows how to help you heal through yours, too.

Here’s our conversation right now. Hope you get some value from it:

Paul
I created Love and Abuse, because I noticed the emails I was getting were 90% about ‘My relationship this’, and ‘he or she is doing this’. And so I was just like, okay, I really need to expand onto that. And plus, I created a workbook called The M.E.A.N. Workbook that has really helped people identify if they’re in a toxic relationship or not.

So what I like to do with this show is get all the resources I can for everyone; people like yourself, that are out there spreading the word to the billions, because I’m only going to reach so far. There’s only going to be so many people that want to hear my voice or want to even hear a man’s voice so I prefer bringing in as many resources as I can for the masses because there are several people out there spreading this information about toxic relationships, unhealthy communication, emotional abuse and narcissistic abuse.

Then you get into psychopathy and sociopathy and all that stuff. But the people spreading the message of these toxic people are few and far between. It surprises me how few there are. So it’s nice to see people like yourself going out there with their own stories too.

Stephanie
I literally just spoke to someone yesterday, and she had a terrible story of being sexually abused as a child. And she was in a domestic violence situation in her marriage and, I said ‘oh’, because I think the same kind of thing is that I know that I’m not going to reach everybody so the more people that I interview that I can get on my show, the better chance I can reach more people.

So I was like, ‘maybe we should jump on and do an interview because there’re going to be people that really relate to it.’ She was not anywhere near healed. She wanted to go into coaching and I could feel the anger through her messages.

I said I can’t have that on my podcast; I can’t have that on my YouTube channel, because I’m trying to do the show from a place of healing, not from a place where there’s still all this anger and hurt and fear, and all these other things. It’s not going to teach the people what I’m trying to teach them.

Paul
That’s tough. And I think I’ve talked about that in the past where someone who hasn’t fully healed yet is trying to spread a message and trying to heal themselves too.

There’re a lot of people, and I’m not putting anyone down here, in therapy and counseling that are doing their own healing through counseling others. And I think it can be done. It takes a special skill to not let your own stuff get inside that. So that’s tough.

And I’m glad you brought that up, because I’m just thinking about it now, one of the subjects I’m reading more and more about is that when you go to therapy, what often happens is that the emotional abuser or the narcissist or whoever it is, the therapist will take their side and the abuser will start using their skills in a way that is not helpful to the victim.

Stephanie
Mm-hmm.

Paul
It sounds like you’ve heard this before…

Stephanie
All the time. I hear it all the time. And they actually recommend that if you do think that you are in a relationship with a sociopath, narcissist, or anything like that, where you’re fearful for your safety, do not go to therapy with them. They need to go to their own therapy.

From my personal experience, my therapist actually did not fall into believing anything that he was saying. But the therapist took me aside, and they were scared for my safety. She would say to me, “I don’t want you to go home. I am scared for you.”

And then he would come back in and say “See, you’re putting her against me! You’re only giving your side.” And then it would be a week’s worth of hell in between the sessions where he would give me a hard time, the silent treatment, he would get angry. And so it was just completely wasting my time and his time and actually would make things worse.

They recommend if you’re in a situation with a narcissist, etc, do not even bother with therapy, you will make things worse one way or the other.

Paul
That’s interesting, because it sounds like in your relationship, there was a little bit more danger involved from what you’re telling me. So what is your story here? Is this in one relationship or many?

Stephanie
Well, I like when I make a mistake. I like to make it a few times.

Paul
Ha ha! Just to make sure you get it down.Well, the best teachers out there are those that made a lot of mistakes. Okay.

Stephanie
Yeah, the universe sold me and it was like I needed to get back into my head a few times before I actually started listening. But so I spent 15 plus years going from one toxic relationship to another one and blessed day one really being my first marriage, and my husband on our wedding night strangled me.

And actually, yeah, he chased me around our honeymoon suite after I spilled water on the bathroom floor. And he’s telling me he wants to kill me and that he realized I was the worst mistake of his adult life marrying him.

Yes, I had seen lots of red flags beforehand. But I ignored them because I thought at 29 years old that I was getting older and if I wanted to settle down and have a family that maybe I was being too picky.

And because of my past experience with bad relationships, I thought, well, you know what, maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m the one who’s making these good guys go bad. And maybe if I just act a little bit differently and do the things that he wants me to do… Maybe he’s the one who’s right, and I’m the one who’s wrong.

So I kind of had set myself up that way. And so when the wedding night happened, I thought to myself, I can’t stay married to this man. I mean, he strangled me on our wedding night! I struggled and I started to lose the ability to fight back. My arms and legs started to go weak. And I started just tearing up.

If you’ve ever had someone just kind of lose themselves, there was a blackness in his eyes. And when he was strangling me, the blackness in his eyes… I’m struggling, I started to go limp. And then he just all of a sudden got off me and walked away.

And thank goodness, because who knows what would have happened. But then of course, he started crying. And then, you know, let me cry for a few minutes, I curled up in a ball and just started crying. And thought, you know, what am I going to do? This this is terrible.

So, he was a very good “salesman”, as I always said to him as he was able to talk me into going because we had spent all this money. And he used the shame and guilt. You know, “All of our family came from Europe and all over the United States to come to this wedding. We just got married in a castle was spent all of this money…” money that he wanted to spend. I wanted a little beach wedding. He wanted the big fancy wedding. So we got what he wanted.

And you know, all of these things, he used the money, used the guilt, used the fame, the embarrassment… My minister is the one who married us. So add that on top of everything else.

And he kept promising it’s never going to happen again, “I promise that we just need to stay married. If it ever happens again, I’ll walk away, and I’m not going to give you a problem after I leave.”

And a part of me was like I really need to send a message to my Minister and say “Just don’t even send in the paperwork for this wedding” I mean, that’s really how terrible it was. And I second guessing myself

I said, “You know what, I better just do it. We’re married, this is my husband, I need to suck it up.” And again, because feeling like there was something broken in me so we ended up going on the honeymoon.

After a few days, I started to relax a little bit. And he was good for about two or three months. And then throwing furniture, being cursed at, harassing me, calling me names was one of his favorite things to do. But also physical violence. I mean, I was spit on more than a few times. I would lock myself in my room and he would try to get into the room, broke the door actually, would keep me from being able to get from one room to the other, he would just block the space.

He’d wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me I needed to clean something at three o’clock in the morning. He would call the police and say that I had done something. It would be one o’clock in the morning and all of a sudden the police would be knocking at the door. I’d be sleeping.

So that just kind of happened until one day I decided… I was working a second job. He texted me that he quit his job. And then when I told him to get his job back, he cursed at me again. He said I never supported him. And I said, “I’m done.”

You know, whether I am by myself and alone is still going to be better than being with this person and feeling as alone as I feel. And so I can’t say it got better magically. It actually got worse. I ended up getting all these health issues and and had all these other big things come up for me. And then finally, about a year or two into it, all of a sudden, I got that A-Ha moment sitting in the emergency room with a sprained ankle.

I said, “I gotta fix this”. The common denominator in all of this has been me. So that means there’s there is something that I need to work on to stop attracting these people. And then that was where my journey of healing began. And I figured out what that is. And now I’m lucky enough to get to help other people on their journey.

Paul
Wow, that’s so loaded, what you just said, because there’s so much to break apart there too. Like when you were talking to someone else, that they still had their pain, they still needed healing to go through. And when you talk about it, it’s almost like “Hey, this happened. It’s a matter of fact, this is what I went through.”

And I noticed that when someone has gone through their healing, they reached that level of “Oh, yeah, you know, he did this to me, he did that.” Or “She did this to me, she did that.” and they talk about it as if it was just a part of their life. And this is their past and they had to go through healing, as opposed to when someone starts talking about it and getting in their “stuff”, they start feeling really internal, they start feeling like “I still have some anger about this, I gotta deal with this now. And, I wish that bastard was six feet under…”

I mean, you have all these thoughts and feelings when you haven’t fully healed from it. So let me ask you a question. You get strangled on your wedding night, when’s the first time you told that story to someone?

Stephanie
You know, it’s funny. The first time I think I completely told the full story was when I was interviewed for a podcast, actually. And one of my best friends is a psychiatrist. And we’ve been best friends since seventh grade. And I didn’t really tell her everything.

And whenever there is a fear of sharing other with other people, I say it’s when you feel shady. When you feel like you need to be shady, and you can’t share stuff about what’s going on, that’s a huge red flag.

So my best friend’s a psychiatrist, and I’m being shady. I’m not telling her much as I should have been. And I remember her saying that she listened to this podcast in her bathroom in tears. Crying cause “I didn’t know that you were going through that.” She says that I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you through that painful time. And I said, “I didn’t want you to know, I knew it was wrong. I was embarrassed. I was a strong, independent woman. And here I was married to someone who was making my life a living hell, I didn’t want everyone to know that that’s what I was going home to.”

Paul
Wow. So when you shared that story on a podcast, were you able to talk about it like you are talking about it now? Had you done a lot of healing?

Stephanie
Yeah, by the time I was ready to start sharing it, I definitely was ready. And I was ready too for the repercussions because that’s the thing too is that you have to know that the person, when they hear their name being used, or, you know, my ex, he knows who he is. So right away, there was legal stuff immediately.

He came after me trying to get me to shut everything down, to just try to be in control again. And I was so past that at that point, I was ready for the push-back. So after I did the interview, I actually had so much great response to that, that I finally decided, “You know what, I need to write a book.”

And of course, that really brought it to another level because that made him even more angry. I mean, still to this day, I actually had co-signed on a student loan for him. We’ve been divorced since 2012, and to this day, he has still not paid his student loan. And he has said to me that he will not and he doesn’t care that it’s ruining my credit, because he’s already been through bankruptcy and it doesn’t matter to him. And as much as it should probably bother me that it is affecting my credit, it’s so childish. It just such a good example of how much he still has not moved on. I’m not letting it hold me anywhere. Like you know, I get to see my credit report and I’m like up “Yup, still there”. You know that the anger for me isn’t there anymore so it’s been a long time that he’s still holding on to it.

Paul
Would you say that the anger is not there anymore because you feel like you’re out of a situation that was a much greater pain, hurt or fear, or whatever it was?

Stephanie
I’m so grateful that that’s the biggest thing. You know, talking about emotion, I will get emotional and I feel it already coming on. I am so happy with where my life is that it would be hard to be more grateful for the life that I get to experience because I made that choice.

I’m married to my best friend, we have two beautiful children. I have a 10-month-old little girl and a three-year-old little boy. And you know, I get to experience every single day with the people that I love the most and to just bring so much abundance into my life. And had I not gone through that pain and decided to leave, I would still be there. And luckily, we didn’t have any children together. If we had, I would have brought children into that terribly abusive, unhealthy relationship. And I would have been living every day wishing that I wasn’t waking up.

And there’s part of me that wonders if I would still be alive or if I would have become an alcoholic or started using drugs just to try to escape with what I was dealing with. So, my whole life – my life is so different. My husband said, “I’ve heard your story and I just can’t imagine that that’s you. That’s not the ‘you’ I know.” He said “You would never let me speak to you even remotely like that.” I said, “Heck no. No, I would not.”

Paul 
You’ve developed boundaries. And that’s what I wanted to bring up today is the idea of knowing who you are and standing up for what’s right or what’s wrong. I mean, how do you actually define a personal boundary for yourself?

Stephanie 
I remember when I started my divorce, I was 34 years old and I never knew what a boundary was. I remember going to therapy, and my therapist was like, “You need to work on boundaries.” And I’m like, “I don’t understand what that means.” And I really didn’t, I was like, “What? So I can tell someone what I need and let them know my expectations, and then I can remove myself, if they can’t follow through that expectation? Or I can set a boundary for myself, like ‘I will not allow people to curse at me’, ‘I will not allow people to put me in physical danger.'”

You know, things like that. Those are my boundaries. Those are my personal boundaries. So, when I learned what those were, I realized that I am not enmeshed with another person. I’m allowed to have that space. Like when we talk about personal space and in the States, it’s what 18 inches? It’s kind of like an arm’s length away. And when you have boundaries that are the verbal boundaries that you’re giving to other people to let them know, “Hey, this is my arm’s length, the way this is what’s comfortable for me and okay with me, and I’m gonna let you know when it’s not okay with me,” because we teach people how to treat us.

Paul 
And so, somebody comes into your proximity… How do you respond to them? Like you’re in line at the grocery store, you’re in line at the bank, and somebody’s like, right up next to you, or a similar scenario.

Stephanie 
It’s really about knowing yourself. So, when I start to feel that discomfort inside of my body, it might be in my chest, or in my stomach, or just this uneasy feeling. I’ll just speak up.

I was actually talking to someone who was running a Domestic Violence Awareness. I was talking to her about domestic violence and she was saying, “Hey, you know, people don’t really know how to heal themselves.” And I said, “Well, you kind of have to be selfish in some ways.” And so, she said, “Well, selfish. That sounds like something negative.” I said, “Honestly, when you’re healing, the pendulum kind of starts to swing in the other way where we are so often trained to be aware of everybody else and be careful of not offending other people and making sure that everybody else is comfortable. And as women, in particular, I find that we’ve been trained really well in society, to take care of everyone else, but ourselves”.

So, part of my healing was when people would say, “Hey, how are you today?” The automatic normal response was to say, “I’m fine, how are you?” That’s the automatic thing. And so, for me, what I started to do was, when someone asked me how I was doing, I would automatically just tell them and just spew it out, and just say, “Actually, it’s really terrible. Today, this is going on, this is going on.” And I would just say whatever I needed to say. And people would look at me like I had two heads, but it wasn’t about them. And it was about their comfort. It was about finally sharing the stuff I needed to share, and letting people know where I was coming from. And then whatever needs I had, I would just say it

I don’t do that anymore. I got to the place where the pendulum has swung the other direction and now I’m at a place where I can say, ‘Hey, you know, this person makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable so I’m going to remove myself.’ I don’t necessarily need to tell them. You know, I learned what’s comfortable for me and learned when to say something and when not to say something.

Paul 
It’s interesting because I use that “pendulum swing” analogy a lot for certain things in life. For example, when I had low self-worth, I was in high school, and I just let people pick on me and I was the biggest people pleaser. And I didn’t want anyone to be upset at me – I wanted everyone to like me. There was a lot of low self-worth inside me for me to look for that attention and validation from other people.

And so that pendulum swing was all the way on this end. And then one day, I got a muscle car. I was like 17 or 18 and my ego was like, “Wow,” you know, I feel really good. Everyone’s looking at me. I owned it for like six or nine months or something like that. And then I got rid of it. But what was interesting is that I went through a transformation process, it was really strange. It was like I inflated my ego for a little bit, bringing the pendulum back. And I felt really good about myself. And I hadn’t done that in a long time, if ever, feeling good about myself.

I was like, ‘Yeah, but you’re not supposed to show off! You’re not supposed to go out there and gloat and, you know, brag about what you are and what you have, and things like that.’ A little narcissistic, you might think.

So, I’ve learned that it can be, and this is my own opinion, I don’t know if you agree or not, it can be useful when you control this, to swing the pendulum the other way and go, ‘okay, what’s the opposite of low self-worth? That must be high self-worth. Well, how can I feel high self-worth? I’m going to go show off.’

I just had an example on the episode I did the other day where I thought, ‘How about if I just lift the couch and say, “Honey, look how strong I am! I’m lifting this!” Feels pretty good.’ And that can get me out of that funky state. So, I like that pendulum swing idea.

Stephanie 
And just to add to that, I think it’s so empowering to speak your truth. It takes away the power from someone else (the other people that might have been involved), and to not again have to hide it. So, we’re just putting it out there and deciding what we’re going to share with the world. And to stop playing small because a lot of times that negative voice in our head is saying nobody wants to hear what you have to say and it doesn’t really matter, and ‘who are you to think that other people need whatever it is the doubter says in your mind?’ But to just speak your truth is very freeing. It’s one of the most freeing experiences that I’ve had.

Paul 
I agree with you. And I think what happens is the people that listen to this show, the people that come to you, I would imagine, they are highly empathetic. And those highly empathetic people say, “I don’t want to put them down. I want to make them feel bad. So, I won’t tell them that I’m having a bad day.” And so, there’s that people pleaser coming – ‘I’m making sure we don’t hurt other people’s feelings.’

When you’re asked how you are today and you are having a bad day, do you just automatically just say, “Oh, no, I’m having a crappy day” or is there some sort of buffer like, “Hey, you really want to hear what I’m going through today?”

Stephanie 
I think that’s really important because you want to be able to give people the chance to give back as well. When we are caretakers, and we are empathic, and we do all these things, we’re so used to being the one saying, “Hey, give it to me, I’ll take care of it, I’ll take care of it.” But we’re human beings, we have bad days, too.

So, there’s sometimes that we have to just put that phone down, not answer a call, or have people that we reach out to. I mean, it was probably about three months ago I had a day where just everything happened: My father had cancer, it looked like he wasn’t coming back, my sister had something weird going on with her… Anything that was weird and not great happened. It all happened in one day.

And then my sister called me, she’s like, “Oh, your mom’s sick. Your mom gave some creditors or some fake people, all of her information. And so it’s like, oh, my God, I can’t take anything else. I’m at my peak. So, I put down my phone, I wasn’t looking at anything on social media. And then luckily, I saw that my best friend was calling. And I was like, ‘this is someone that I can talk to. This is my go-to person.’ And I knew that she was not going to bring everything down.

And so, when I picked up the phone, I said, Oh, it’s you. She’s like, I felt like you needed something. So, then we were able to talk, and I was able to share and lighten my load with her. Had it been anybody else, I wasn’t going to talk to anybody else. So, to have that go-to person that you can reach out to and give people the chance to help you instead of thinking that you need to handle it by yourself all the time, well, that also involves being vulnerable enough to tell your story without feeling like anything that guilt or shame.

Paul 
I mean, it’s hard to stop those feelings. Like when you were in that relationship, when you were married, you didn’t even tell your best friend, who was a psychiatrist who probably could have said, “This is what you can do. This is what you should do.”

But I’m sure there’re a lot of people listening now that are in relationships, as we speak, who are in a situation that, like you were talking about getting out of victim mode, they’re in a situation where they feel like there’s nothing they can do. They feel out of control and have no options.

And when you were married, you probably had very similar feelings. Because even though it was your choice to get married – that may have been a coerced choice – but even though you were in that marriage, and you’re going by that choice, by that commitment, and you were staying in that situation… How long were you married again? Five years? So, you’re married five years, there’s a point where you said, like the day you had that sprained ankle, I think, and you’re like, “I gotta stop this.”

But to get to that point, what does someone who may be not experiencing that level of aggression or violence have to do inside themselves in their life, to reach that point where they say, “I have to get out of this situation”? Because a lot of people don’t know, they’ll just keep going and going and going and say, “Well, I don’t know what’s on the other side of this. If I leave, I may not find somebody else. And they have all these excuses, excuse me, excuses, or reasons, or with some, there could be legitimacy to some of these reasons. Yet, they’re choosing to stay in a situation that clearly makes them unhappy…

Stephanie
Mm hmm.

Paul
…day after day after day. So, what do you suggest they start doing?

Stephanie 

I worked with women that were in the marriage for 27-30 years, and they stayed exactly like that. And then they decided to leave. The fear that is a huge reality is, “What else is there? What else is out there for me? Who am I without this relationship? What’s it going to be like? Can I handle it on my own?”

And so often, the person is so good at manipulating you, to make you feel like you are not able to… some of the strongest, most independent people that I know, have been in abusive relationships. So that’s got to tell you something. These abusers, they like the strong independent people, and then they like to tear them down. Because, like my ex would say, “I want a strong independent person.” But because he was not strong and independent, instead of trying to work his way to where I was, he would try to break me down to his level, which he would manage sometimes.

I mean, sometimes I’ve definitely gotten there. But it’s really about reconnecting to yourself and starting to realize that it’s not you that’s causing them to be this way. And to start looking at yourself from the outside. And to do the inner child work, and to ask yourself if you would allow someone to speak to your three-year-old the way that you are being spoken to? You’re allowing someone to take your life.

The biggest, most important thing we can give someone is our time, you know that we don’t know how much time we have on this earth. So every moment that you’re spending with this person who’s bringing down your shine is bringing down your energy and you’re allowing them to take that away from you, and to say, “Hey, wait a minute, you know, I deserve more, I was not put on this planet to suffer and spend my whole life wishing I was somewhere else or wondering what else is out there.”

You wherever you are, whoever needs to hear this, you have something really magical inside of you, that will be very difficult, if nearly impossible for it to come out while you’re playing small in this unhealthy relationship. You’re never going to make them happy. You’re never going to make them into the person you want them to be, or you see the potential for them to be. They’ve shown you who they are, believe them. And now it’s time to take care of yourself.

Paul 
Yeah, that’s good. And I think it does come down to something you focus on a lot, which is knowing that you’re important, that you’re worthy, that you’re significant. And understanding that this other person is trying to convince you that you’re not.

And they do such a good job of it. I mean, it’s interesting, because I come from sort of the other side. And I think we talked about this on your show last time, where, when I was married, I had emotional abusive… I was gonna say “tendencies”, but no, I was emotionally abusive. And in my relationship, I guilted her, I did the silent treatment to make her feel guilty, to make her feel like as long as she changed, then the relationship will be good. I did a lot of things I’m not happy about – I’m not proud of, but so grateful that she divorced me so I could find out this stuff.

And this is one of the things I love to tell people is that I think a lot of emotional abuse victims, narcissistic abuse victims, they think they’re hurting the other person and they’re so empathetic and so compassionate to the person that they’re with (the one that’s actually abusing them) and that’s just a strange dynamic there.

Stephanie 
But we enable them. Nothing changes unless something changes. And I actually just had a conversation with a client the other day, when someone is abusive towards you, and you stay in the relationship, what you’re saying to them is, “It’s okay that you are abusing me.”

You’re not actually saying those words, but you are saying it to them. And then what happens to that person who’s abusing you is they’re saying that themselves, “This person (the victim) doesn’t hold themselves in high enough regard that they’re allowing me to disrespect them.” And then they respect you even less, and it becomes this vicious cycle.

So, you’re thinking that you’re coming from a place of, “I’m helping them. I want them to be better. I know their possibility.” And the other person is saying, “Hey, this person is weak. They’re letting me walk all over them. I can do whatever I want to them.” And they stick around.

And then it just gets worse and worse. And that’s why the cycle will continue as long as you continue to be in it.

Paul 

Well, the enablement is a huge part of it. And I think what ends up happening is that there are cases like you just said, like, “I can just walk all over you because you let me and you know, you’re weak. And obviously, if you’re weak, I need to control you.” There might be that thought process going on “…because if nobody controls you, then you’re going to be out of control. And your life won’t be the way you want it to be in the relationship.”

For me it was more like, “You know, what you’re doing is making me unhappy. Can’t you see this? Can you see that you’re making me unhappy? This is your fault”.

In my case, it was her emotional eating. So, she would turn to food instead of turning to me. Of course, I was emotionally dangerous back then. She would gain weight. And I would fear that I’m was just going to end up with some really – and these were my thoughts back then not now – “really big, fat, ugly woman” that I would be unhappy with.

And I had this fear inside of me that think, ‘Great I made this commitment. I better control this environment, I better control this relationship so that she conforms to the way I want her to be.’ And no matter what she did, no matter how much she (and this is awful. Now I feel bad. I mean, I’ve always felt bad about this. But thinking about this now…) no matter how much she cried, no matter how much she felt hurt, no matter how much she tried – she showed me so much unconditional love, then I feel really bad.

And for the first time after we separated, I was able to switch roles and imagine myself in her shoes, and ask myself would I want to be challenged with everything I eat? Would I want to get “that” look? Or what would I feel like if my partner was silent for two or three days?

And I was trying to reach out for love and connection and just want to know if we were still a thing. And so, I reversed those roles. And it really affected me. I was like, “Wow, I’m just an awful person!”

And so I say this in a sense to help others out there that might be in a space that I was in, if you are the emotionally abusive one that is, to know that if you have empathy, you can change. You can put yourself in their shoes and realize, “Oh, this is what I’m doing. I’ve got to work on myself.”

But like you said, with the enablement, I can look back and see how often she let me get away with this crap. And she shouldn’t have. She should have stood up and said, “Hey, look, you need to stop treating me this way. If you have a problem with it, that’s your problem, not mine. If she said that (and I’m not blaming her at all for this) but if she had said that to me, it would have helped straighten me out because I would have been like, “Oh crap, I’m not gonna lose this relationship. Oh, crap.” And so, I would have realized there was accountability for my behavior.

Stephanie 
Yeah, and you’re empathetic. I mean, you are someone that would be open to listening to that. A lot of people that are listening might need to remind themselves that if you’re in a position where you’re reminding, or you’re trying to tell someone your needs, and they’re not listening to it, you’re not going to force them to listen to your needs.

There are some people that are just not going to respect you no matter what you do. And part of that is, I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if, for you, it was part of what you learned. I mean, I have a three-year-old and I know how hard it is at three already seeing how difficult it is to be a parent and try to give all the information that we need to give them and how early it starts where they need to be their own person and everything else.

And so, you read all these books and you know, some parents think that they need to give their kids the silent treatment and ignore when there’s something they’re doing wrong. And a lot of it is stuff that we learned from our parents: that unhealthy, subconscious programming that we learned from our parents,

Paul 
Well, you just said the key-word, which is, and I said it earlier: Empathy.

If the person does not have empathy, I’ve seen this so much, where an empathetic person will be in a romantic relationship with an unempathetic person (or at least not the kind of empathy they’re looking for) and the empathetic person will say and do things and wonder how an unempathetic person can’t possibly see or understand that they’re hurting them.

And it’s not that the unempathetic person can’t see it, it’s just they don’t understand it; they don’t comprehend it. I mean, they can’t see it! They don’t see what they’re doing to you.

And then the victim, or the emotional abuse sufferer, is experiencing pain and then doesn’t understand why the unempathetic person isn’t empathetic and not stopping their behavior. I see it over and over again: If you have someone who doesn’t have empathy in your life, you’re not going to get through to them the same way somebody else might get through to you.

You just can’t convince them that your pain is important. If you can’t convince someone that your pain is important, then you might not be with someone that’s going to be healthy for you.

Stephanie 
Yeah, I agree. And I also wanted to add to that because you brought up something that I think is so important, it’s when if you have two empathetic people. I mean, my husband and I are best friends. I can finish his sentences, he can finish mine. I mean, I’ve never been as close to anyone in my life, except for maybe my best friend.

But other than that, my husband is my best friend. And there are times where I think the other partner assumes that we knew what they were talking about. And we didn’t.

So even in the healthiest relationships, a mind-reading technique doesn’t actually work. So we really need to make sure that we are also communicating our needs, wants and desires with the person that we are in a relationship with because as soon as we start thinking that someone else just knows what you meant, or that you’re feeling a certain way, and they just know, “You know what you did!” that’s going to end up as an argument and not a healthy situation.

Paul 
Those are dangerous words: “You know what you did to me.”

“Uh… what? Please explain it a little bit more.”

Stephanie
Ha ha!

Paul
In conclusion for what we’re talking about today, I love the idea of accountability. When you were reaching the end of your marriage, I don’t know if you got into a space of ‘if this ever happens again, I’m going to do this.’ Like you said, maybe “This is it. I’ve got to just plan my escape and get out of this situation.”

Was there ever a talk of accountability in your marriage? Did it ever go that way?

Stephanie 
We definitely tried the therapy, and I tried to explain it away and do all these things to try to have him follow through. He would start therapy on his own. And then he stopped going. And so, there was all of that.

And then towards the end, you know, before that final day, I did start actually preparing myself. So I spoke into a domestic violence shelter, I got myself ready, I got all the T’s crossed, and the I’s dotted and made sure that I was ready. I had an escape plan. I had money put to the side. So, I had really tried every single thing with him to keep him accountable.

And I have a background in psychology! I’m a crisis counselor. I mean, I’ve been doing that since way before I met him. So, I had all the abilities and I knew what to do, but when you’re in it, sometimes it’s hard to see it. So, of course, when there were all the things that were going wrong in the marriage, I was trying to be almost like a therapist. Say, you know, “Have you tried this? Maybe you should do this? Let’s figure out something together.”

And I kept really trying to get him to see the error of his ways. But the reality is, that wasn’t my job. My job was to be supportive and to help him as a wife, but not to try to fix it for him. And so, once I removed myself from that scenario, and instead started focusing on my exit plan, that’s when things got a little bit easier.

Paul 
I see that a lot too, with people trying to help out their partner. Yet, you know, this is what kind of happens when a narcissist tries to do. She or he tries to help you out so you can make changes the way that he or she believe you should make.

Stephanie 
Codependency is a little bit controlling, yeah, I’m not gonna lie. I mean, we mean well and we’re coming from a place of love. But it’s a controlling thing: “I’m going to make you into the person that I want you to be, not the person that you’re ready to be, but the person that I want.”

And that’s not really healthy love. I mean, in my current relationship, I allow him to be. I mean, over the summer, I traveled all over the country without my husband. And he said, “I knew that when I married you, I was never going to keep you tied to one place. You’re going to be active and bring the kids everywhere and do all those things.” So, he wasn’t going to try to change me and who I was either.

So that knowing and appreciating who the other person is supporting them and letting them know, of course, that you have boundaries in the relationship as well. But allowing them to be who they are, and remember that you’re there to support each other and help each person being their own version of their best, not your version of their best.

Paul 
You’re probably preaching to the choir with this.

So, when you’re in that relationship, back to the accountability real quick, I look at it this way: When someone is in a relationship like this where emotional abuse is happening, and they say, “Okay, how about this? I don’t want you to do that again…” they’ll tell their partner, I mean, if that even comes up, if they even have the boundary within them to say that, “I don’t want you to ever do that, again, it hurts me”.

And whether they listen or not, my next question to a person is in this situation is, “Well, what are you going to do if they do it again? Because this happens all the time. And I don’t want you to do that. It hurts me.”

I mean, I’ll share with my audience, ask questions like, “Do you realize what you’re doing is hurting me?” I think it’s a great question. Because once you find out the answer, it tells you a whole lot about the person. I had somebody write to me and say, “I asked that question (“Do you realize what you’re doing is hurting me?”) and he said, “Well, yes.”

And she said, “Well, then why are you doing it?” And he said, “Well, because it’s fun.” And she said “Oh” and told me that she left the relationship. And that was all she needed to know.

I think we sometimes fool ourselves, thinking that it’s going to get better, even though the trend line of happiness is going down and to the right. It’s not happy anymore. It’s not fun. It’s mostly abusive. And so, we do have to ask these harder questions and get solid data.

“Do you realize when you do that, it hurts me? It makes me feel pain.”

And if they say no, then you can have a conversation about it. If they say yes, then there might be a much bigger decision to make there. So yeah, with the accountability factor, I look at, and you can tell me your thoughts on this, is it ever enough to say, “Okay, you know, what, no sex for a month if this happens again”? Or, “I’m going to be gone for a week if this happens again”?

Is it ever enough? Will it ever be enough? I mean, of course, it depends on the level of emotional abuse and how much the partners are willing to work on the stuff. Or is it more like, “Hey, you know what, I’m going to define a hard line in the sand here. This is my boundary, you cannot cross it. And if you do, XYZ will happen.”

What are your thoughts on that?

Stephanie 

Well, I mean, for those types of really hard boundaries like that, I mean, I would assume, if it’s something like physical abuse, emotional abuse, and people will curse and scream at the other person and say, “Well, that’s just how people fight.”

In a healthy relationship, that’s not how healthy people fight. People talk about what’s going on for them. So, I would suggest knowing before you even get into a relationship, what are the values that are the most important to you? And then before you get into the relationship, ask yourself “What will I do if people cross those boundaries?”

If you know ahead of time, you know yourself well enough, and you know who you are. Which is why we always recommend and I’m sure you do to, to take some time in between relationships and get to know who you are so that you can figure out what those values are.

Get to know what that is. So that way you’re already set up. You know, we always go to what’s easiest. “Hey, I’ve already thought about this. He cheated on me or she cheated on me, they cursed at me. They did this or that…”

And right away, you know if someone calls you a bitch, and you’re in the relationship for six months, okay, well, that could be a hard line if you ever call me a bitch, or if you curse at me ever again, I am out. I don’t care if we’ve been married for 20 years, it doesn’t matter to me.

That for me is a hard “No”. You’ve already thought about it. You’re very strict and precise with what’s going to happen no matter when that point is, so that way if they do violate your boundary, you’ve already let them know, then you have to follow through on it.

But if you let them know, because sometimes at the beginning for them, maybe they said bits before and it didn’t matter to anybody, but it really matters to you. So now all of a sudden, they’ve got their warning, they know what it is. That’s a hard one that’s not allowed anymore and now if they never do it again, then good! If they do, you know what to do ahead of time.

Paul
Reminds me of dog training a little bit.

Stephanie 
Ha ha! Kind of is, we’re all Pavlov’s dogs.

Paul 
Well, I do see it that way, because dogs do like to push boundaries and find out how far they can go before they’re disciplined; before they’re told not to. That’s a whole ‘nother subject.

But I fully agree with that. I think when you do say, I mean, your values are the most important things to you, and if you say “Well, this is what I value”, to yourself, “This is what I value in a relationship. This is what I value in life. This is how I value people treating me. I value respect. I value honesty. I value loyalty. Value fun.”

And if all of those values are being violated, you said the magic words, what are you going to do about it? And of course, now there are people listening that are in this situation, knowing their values are being violated. And, God, I see this over and over again: They get desensitized over time.

Stephanie
Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Paul
And they look at their values differently, or they change their values or, you know, I always look at the analogy of “He yelled at me, but we made it through it. So at least he’s not slapping me. ” (or “she”, this is all he or she), “He slapped me. But he made up for it and he takes care of the kids. At least he’s not kicking me…”

Stephanie
Having an affair.

Paul
…or having an affair, exactly.

We devalue our values over time, until we lose them. And then I hear it, and I’m sure you do all the time, “I don’t even remember what my values are. I don’t remember who I was, I don’t remember. I remember used to be a strong, independent, happy person. And now I’m in this relationship. And I’m a shell of my former self.”

It’s like those words are echoed over and over again.

Stephanie 
We human beings are really good at adjusting to our surroundings. It’s what makes us really amazing as a species and what makes us able to sustain life. But it’s also not good, when we’re so used to our surroundings, that we forget who we are.

And when we know our values, we know what’s important to us, that we’re able to say when we’re going to go but also when you start saying, “I’m losing myself.”

Well, then what are you going to do when you start to have those feelings? A strong person high in self-esteem and in a healthy place is going to say, “Hey, I don’t like this. I don’t like the person that I’m becoming. I am going to remove myself.” Where someone who maybe their self-esteem is not as strong, they’ll see all these things happen and be like “Well, maybe I need to change myself. Maybe I need to work on myself.”

And that’s just again, you know what I said before, it’s so important to know who you are. Because if you’re constantly trying to people please everybody else, then you don’t even know who that person is. So it’s hard to know with your boundaries where you start, and the other person ends, because you’re just so used to people-pleasing.

Paul 
Yeah, you’re so spot on, of course. And let me ask you one final two-part question with this. With emotional abuse in relationships, the person that’s in a relationship like that, that might be considering either leaving or not, working on the relationship or not, in your experience when someone’s in an emotionally abusive relationship, and they think they might be able to work on it, what’s the success rate of working on that?

Stephanie 
I don’t have an exact number, but I can tell you it is pretty low. And the only way realistically that it’s going to work is if the other person, like maybe someone like you that’s willing to take responsibility for their behavior, then yes, if they’re willing to say, “Hey, I’m wrong, I’m going to go to therapy, because I know that I need to do a lot of work. I had all these issues as a child and I never worked through them, and I have anger.” And they actually follow through with it and do really hard work and stick to it no matter what, then there is a chance.

And even that’s not 100%. But if you’re saying to them, “You’d better go to therapy. You’d better do this” and you’re trying to give them all the ultimatums, then the chances are pretty good. They’re going to tell you that they’re working on it, and they’re going to tell you what you want to hear. And then they’re going to go right back to the way they were and what happens next is going to depend on your response. Because if they tell you the things you want to hear, and then they go back to it and you stay, you’ve just given them permission now to abuse you further.

Paul 
Oh, my God. Well, you just echoed my mantra. I did that in my marriage, which was “I’m working on it.” I used to say that: “I’m working on it. I’m working on it. I know, I know, I’m working on it.” Yet, in the back of my mind, or the front of my mind actually, I still knew I was right.

That was the problem. Is that I kept saying I’ll work on it’. She wants me to work on it. And I’m into self-growth and self-help. And so, I will work on this. Yet, I still know I’m right and she still needs to change.’

So, it was messed up. And some people think you just have to know this is how some people think, that they probably still believe they’re right.

The second part of my question is when someone’s in a relationship, and they’re considering their options. Let’s just say, like you said, the chances of working through this depends if they’re an empathetic person or not. Are they willing to work on themselves? Or are they the type of person that says “I will change for you.”? Which is not a good sign.

However, if instead they’re like, “I need to change for me regardless if this relationship works out or not,” that’s a very healthy statement. Let’s just say that they’re in this fearful place, like you where you reached that bottom line. You were like, “That’s it. I can’t go any further with this. You reached the breakdown before the breakthrough and not everyone is in that space because they’re always like on the edge: “Is he or she really being mean? Or is it just me misinterpreting it?” They’re not sure what to do with it. And they get confused. And there’s also gaslighting and they go crazy. And they’re not sure what’s happening.

What is the, like you said, best way to reconnect with yourself? Do you have any examples of that? Or just a practice that someone can use?

Stephanie 
Well, start figuring out what your passions are. You know, one of the things I teach my clients in my six-week healing group is, “Are you finding joy every day? Are you happy that you woke up today? And that you get to breathe air and see the beautiful sky and experience the conversations you have with different people and live the life that you love? Are you waking up every day feeling that lucky to be alive and to be here?”

If the answer’s “no” on most days, you’re probably not in a relationship you should be staying in. And sometimes it’s a lot of work on you, no matter what, it’s always a lot of work on you. And that’s some of the things I think sometimes clients and you probably notice this too, people get frustrated, because it’s hard and it gets harder, before it gets easier.

It’s pushing through that pain. And I say to my clients all the time, “Sometimes you have to be ready to break your own heart in order to get to the other side. So, you have to know that it’s going to be difficult. But if you’re feeling most days that there is no joy and that you don’t know what your passions are, then that’s a good sign. So rediscovering your passions, figuring out what makes you tick, what makes you excited, what brings joy to your life, reconnecting with other people, and having connections.”

I mean, so many people that I talk to, that’s actually why I’m doing it. I hold a woman’s empowerment retreat in February to Costa Rica, because so many women don’t even have a friends. They say, “I don’t have anyone I can even call. I don’t have that go-to person. I’ve lost everybody along the way trying to please this other person.”

So, they’re really reaching out, and that’s kind of what I started to do. I reconnected to high school friends. I called them up and said, “Hey, do you wanna start doing a girl’s night?” And those kinds of little things became big things over time. And I’m going to add too, if you’re not sure if it’s healthy or not, then reach out to your local domestic violence shelter and say, “Hey, this is what’s going on. And I’m feeling confused. And I don’t really know what’s healthy anymore. I don’t really know what’s happening.” Talk with them. I mean, there’s 1-800-LIFELINE, that’s just a regular hotline. There are all these other hotlines that are there for free to be at your disposal. So, if you’re ever confused, that would be a great outlet to go to.

Paul 
That’s a good add. And you know, there’re some people I know that are saying, “I’m not in an abusive situation, I’m not in a violent situation, I’m not going to call a domestic violence hotline, I don’t need all these things.” And I can see you shaking your head (we’re on video on the other side of the world here). So, I think there’s a certain level of vulnerability that when you call these lines, that you feel like you’re admitting to yourself that you actually are going through something that impactful.

Stephanie 
Yeah. And when I finally spoke to someone at the local Domestic Violence Hotline, and they had someone come with me to the police precinct to write a report, so I could actually bring it to the court to get an order of protection, this woman sat with me and she said, “Let’s write this together. Tell me the things that happened.”

And so, I told her the story of getting strangled at my wedding night, and she stopped and looked at me. She was in shock. And I said, “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

She said, he strangled you. Do you realize how quickly he could have killed you? And it was the first time that there was like that moment in my head where I thought, “Oh, wow, that’s right.” Because I had minimized that he didn’t punch me. You know that I never had a broken bone. I never had a black eye.

Yeah, he spit on me a few times. Yeah, he pushed me. Yeah, he strangled me twice. I mean, yeah, those things happen. But for some reason, he wasn’t beating the crap out of me. And that’s what I thought a domestic violence hotline was for. And so, you know, for anyone that again, who’s listening and saying, “Well, he’s not doing anything like that, but he’s calling me a whore.” Or he is, you know, all these things that are words meant to scare you or meant to intimidate you, those kinds of words. That’s definitely violence. That is violence. It’s emotional, that is still considered abuse. And if you are not sure, I mean, go on the internet and look at all the different types of abuse. I mean, there’s sexual abuse, there’s emotional abuse, there’s financial abuse, I mean, the list of abuse is not just the physical part.

And a lot of us are taught what the physical one is. But even that, because when we’re in it, we’re trying to survive, we minimize what we’re going through, because it’s survival mode for us.

Paul 
My mom told me a story of my stepfather throwing a hammer at her head. And I was like, What? I never heard this story. And she goes, “I heard it go by. It was that close”

I was like, Oh gosh, Mom, you could have been dead if he hit your head. She said, “Yeah, I know.” The way she minimized that story, and so many other things that have happened, because they were married for like, 40 plus years – Wow.

It just shocked me. I mean, when this happened, and knowing all of this stuff that you and I know, and a lot of other people know out there about emotional abuse, about physical abuse, and all the kinds of abuse that you just mentioned, boy, if we saw that happening today with our parents, I mean, the kind of thing that we could help them with.

There are all kinds of ways we can spread this message. And I want people to visit your website and your Facebook group (links to Stephanie’s pages below). You’ve got a lot of things going over there. I know you have a YouTube channel; you wrote a book called Being Loved Shouldn’t Hurt. Yeah, I love that title. It is absolutely 100% true.

And if anyone listening, likes what I teach here, you’re going to love what Stephanie teaches, too. It’s a lot of the same stuff and a lot of her own spin. And you work mainly with women?

Stephanie 

Yeah, there’re men in the group, but it’s mostly women.

Paul 
Okay, so when you hear Stephanie and I talking about “her” and “she”, it’s because Stephanie works mainly with women. And, of course, this applies across the board to anyone dealing with emotional abuse, or any kind of abuse. Emotional abuse is usually part of all these other types of abuse as well. 

Thank you, Stephanie, for joining me today talking about this very important subject matter. I am so grateful that you are here alive and well, to share your message to share your story.

It’s obvious you’ve gone through not only a lot of pain, but also a lot of healing. And I think healing is the main component of getting to this place that you’re in today. You feel good, your life is better. And there are so many people right now that are listening that are saying “That’ll never be me. I can’t ever see myself in that position. It’s too late for me, I’m too old, I’ll never have anyone else in my life.”

There are all these stories that we tell ourselves that are usually drilled into us from someone else and they’re usually false. So Stephanie, any final words for anyone listening that might be in a situation that makes them not so happy?

Stephanie 
I was one of those people who thought that maybe healthy love was not for someone like me. And that’s what kept me trapped. As I thought I saw these other people that were in healthy relationships. And I saw the people that were in unhealthy relationships, and they were living their lives. And I thought, “I’m just one of those people that is just never going to have a healthy relationship. This is the best that’s ever going to happen to me.”

And that negative thinking is why I stayed for so long. And I can tell you from the other side, I am someone who’s able to have healthy relationships. But I had to do the right work on myself. And you can get there too.

Paul 
Excellent. And just a quick final question. After you get out of your relationship. I’m just curious about the amount of time it took for the fog to clear out of your head. So, that you could actually see a positive future for yourself?

Stephanie 
Well, it was two years. And then three. It was three years where I started being more serious with dating and just starting to say, “Hey, I might not ever find anyone and that’s okay. But I’m ready to start just kind of dating and seeing what’s out there.” So, it was about three years.

Paul
Excellent. The reason I asked that is because a lot of people get out of these relationships, thinking that they’re not going to be happy and not gonna find love or happiness anywhere else. And think that maybe they should go back in to the relationship.

Stephanie
Don’t do that!

Paul 
Yeah, I know, you didn’t want to! But that was certainly a different scenario for you. But there are a lot of people coming out of these relationships that aren’t necessarily so convinced that they shouldn’t go back. And I always say, give it at least two months. Give it two months of being away from the person – be in your own space before you make any decisions that will affect you going back or not.

Stephanie 
Yeah, let the fog clear and honor yourself. Hire Paul. Hire myself. Hire a coach that you feel comfortable with to help you get through the detox, because that’s what it is.

That’s why we keep going back there. They are a drug and we are so used to the drama, we are so used to that drug and that back and forth. “They don’t love me if they don’t come after me with that back and forth.”

If you have that coach set up, and you’re prepared, then you’ll be able to stick to your plan. If not, it’s very easy to go back to what you know.

Paul 
All right, excellent. Thank you so much for your time today. Stephanie, I appreciate you.

Stephanie 

 You’re welcome.

Paul 

Thank you so much for joining me today. If this is your first time listening, I don’t normally have interviews on this show. So, it’s a little departure. But continue listening, because there’s so much more coming that I want to talk about. And it’s all about helping you become independent in yourself

You can be interdependent with someone else as well. I look at that as you are independent, they are independent, and you work together in a partnership. This is definitely possible and can be very beneficial to both of you and create a lot of happiness and a lot of synergy.

So, continue listening to this show and continue learning as much as you can about any situation you’re in and anyone that you have to deal with. I use the words “deal with”, like “I have to deal with this person, I have to deal with this behavior,” that’s what it can feel like. Just continue learning as much as you can, because it’s all about how much knowledge you have, that’s going to help carry you forward into healthier relationships, better communication, and an overall improvement in your wellbeing

And an improvement in those you love as well. Because sometimes the people we love, they can bring toxicity into our life, they can bring toxicity into their own life. And we do want the best for most of these people. I say most but sometimes we don’t.

But we want the best for most of these people, because we’re in relationships with them in some way. Or we have connections to them in some way. And so, the best for someone else might be something that we mentioned in this episode, which is to stop being the person that allows someone else’s bad behavior.

If you stop allowing it, they’re either going to stop doing it, or they’ll get worse. That’s not much of a choice, I know. But if they get worse, then it might be enough motivation for you to finally put your foot down, if not for them, for you.

And of course, I want to let you know I’m not here to say you need to break up with someone or you need to get them out of your life. This show is all about you. It’s all about increasing your mental and emotional strength so that you have a choice in what you want in your life. When you have a choice, you have options. You can show people the line and tell them not to cross it. And when they do the, accountability sets in and you aren’t afraid to enforce it.

So glad you’re here listening. I appreciate you. share this with others that might benefit.

Links for Stephanie McPhail:
beinglovedshouldnthurt.com
Facebook page
YouTube channel
Being Loved Shouldn’t Hurt podcast
Codependency and Healing Support Group 

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