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One of the constants in emotionally abusive relationships is when the victim tries to please an unpleasable person. 

No matter what they do or how hard they try, it’s never enough. Trying harder only makes the abusive one want more from them. 

(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)

Today’s topic is an important one if you plan on breaking up, getting a divorce, separating, or moving away from an emotionally abusive, controlling or manipulative person in your life.

When you leave, there are going to be questions. People are going to ask you why you aren’t talking to that person anymore. They’re going to ask why you left. They’ll ask things like, “What’s going on? S/he seems so nice. They seem like a normal person to me…” Or, “I don’t see the problems that you see. I don’t see the issues you’re talking about.”

This does happen, unfortunately. The majority of people in your life will probably not realize how much you’re dealing with. I came up with an episode a while back regarding how to explain emotional abuse to your friends, family, therapist, and others that will be helpful if you’re trying to make them understand what you’re going through. If you’re interested, it’s called Emotional Abuse Explained for your Friends, Family, Attorney, Therapist, or Anyone Else That May Need to Know What You’re Experiencing.

Today’s email came after I made that episode, but I’m going to address the subject matter again to give you some more perspective on it and perhaps some tools you can use for yourself if you’re in a similar situation.

Someone wrote in and said, “Perhaps you can cover this in a podcast when I leave my wife. I expect I’ll get a lot of grief from anti-divorce church, friends, and family. What can I tell them? If it was physical abuse, they’d be fine with that they’d understand but I don’t think they’ll see emotional abuse in the same light.”

I think you’re right. I think that the words “emotional abuse” probably don’t have the same meaning to other people as they do to you. I know in my life, most people I know don’t understand emotional abuse the way I do. When I first heard the term, I thought that’s when somebody yells at us or calls us names.

That can be a part of it as you know. But if you’ve experienced it in a relationship, or have done your research, or have been listening to this show, you know that emotional abuse runs so much deeper. It can be very hard to explain to someone.

In this person’s case, those around her don’t believe in divorce or separation. Many religions have these ideals that say that you shouldn’t get a divorce and that you should work it out no matter what happens. “You need to work it out till death do you part!” How do you deal with that?

That’s a tough question because there are going to be people in your life with values and religious beliefs that believe you should “try harder”.

I think you should absolutely do whatever you can to try and work things out. I believe you should exhaust all your resources, to an extent until you’ve tried all you can. But should actually you try harder? Should you get to the point where you are so exhausted that you have no energy left to do anything else? Where you have no energy left for happiness, self-worth, self-esteem, or even a healthy ego? Should you go the distance to the point where you are absolutely drained?

One thing that happens in emotionally abusive relationships is that you will try harder. Typically, one will try harder with their words. And, “try harder” is not exactly the best way to put it. It’s more like they try more.

I think the victim of an emotionally abusive relationship tries more. They’ll give more, they’ll be more generous, they’ll be more accommodating, they’ll be more pleasing, they’ll be more everything to this other person because they think ‘Maybe I’m not doing enough.’

If you think you’re not doing enough, then sure, you can try harder. Yes, you can do more, but I’m here to say that there’s a point where you have to stop trying and you have to stop doing more. You have to learn what that point is. You have to learn when to stop.

When you need to stop might be different for someone else, but I like to look at it this way: If I’ve tried harder and I’ve done more and it’s only gotten worse and the trend line of relationship bliss keeps going down and to the right (the relationship isn’t getting any better, you’re not communicating any better, your happiness is only decreasing), then it’s not about trying harder and it’s not about doing more.

when you keep trying to please your partner but it's never enough

It’s not about that at all because if you’ve done more and you’ve tried harder and things still aren’t right, it’s nothing you’re doing.

I can’t say that’s true for everyone but typically if you’re accommodating, and you’re more generous, and you’re more supportive, and you’re doing more in every way you can and it’s still not enough, it’s not you, it’s them.

So you have to find that stopping point where you realize, “Okay, I’ve tried. I’m done and there is nothing more I can do. I’m not going to do anymore. I’m not going to try anymore.”

It doesn’t mean you stop being nice or respectable, it’s just that you don’t overdo it. You don’t make it your priority to try harder and do more because you already know it’s not working.

Of course, that may backfire on you because the emotionally abusive person wants you to continue doing more and trying harder. Often, they will want you to continue doing everything you can until you are exhausted. You probably know what happens when you keep trying harder to please someone else, it can be exhausting. You do everything you possibly can, you try as much as you can, and you just get tired. That tiredness usually comes with sadness, depression, and anxiety. When you’re exhausted, you become overwhelmed and confused.

Think of all the states you could be in when you’re tired. When I’m tired, I get emotionally triggered easily. You might become triggered easily as well. When that happens, the emotionally abusive person might think you’re too sensitive, but it’s likely because you’re so damn tired from doing all this other stuff trying to please them! Your own efforts work against you.

Everything I just said is hard to explain to someone else. It’s hard to put into words what you’re experiencing, at least in a way that makes sense to them. I’ve said on the show over and over again that it’s very difficult to explain what’s happening to you to someone else. You can tell them “S/he does this to me, ” and that person will say, “That doesn’t sound so bad, ” or “I can’t see them doing that. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s not the Bill / Mary I know.” (I’m just making names up).

This person who wrote, he goes to church. I am sure that there are a lot of people that see his partner in a different light. People dress up for church. They put on a smile for church. They want to show up in a way that puts them in a more positive light, typically. Not everyone does that, but a lot of people do. They dress up, they smile, they act nice. They are nice to other people. They’re generous, they’re kind and supportive. But who are they at home?

Everyone at this person’s church sees his wife as “this” person. But when he gets home, she’s different. She’s not the same way to him in public as she is to him at home. Or maybe she is emotionally abusive to him at church too, but it’s so subtle. She may give him that look. She may say hurtful comments to him that other people wouldn’t catch, but they are triggering words or phrases that he experiences at home. She could say something seemingly benign like, “We’ll just have to deal with that when we get home.”

Something so innocent to others in the room might trigger a PTSD episode in an abuse victim. When he gets home, he might have to deal with a nightmare scenario that unfolds often. But how can you explain something like that to anyone else? A simple comment can carry so much pain.

To the person who wrote this email, listen to that episode I mentioned earlier about how to explain emotional abuse to others. It will be very helpful to you. Also, let me give you maybe a little bit of extra help. The scenario you describe is about the beliefs, ideals, and values of certain people and how you can explain to them what’s happening or why you’re leaving. Let me address that.

First of all, you don’t have to explain to anyone why you’re doing anything. I want you to own that.

You don’t have to explain to anyone why you’re doing anything.

I know what some people are thinking: “Paul, that’s not going to work!

I realize it’s not going to work with everyone. They’re going to want to know why of course. Those in church are going to want to know why. In this emailer’s case, the church is going will likely try to talk him out of it. But I do want you to own that you don’t really have to explain anything to anyone, especially if you already have your own personal connection with God, or whatever you believe in.

Your personal connection with your spirituality and your religious beliefs are yours. They’re no one else’s. So when you own your decisions, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone. Whatever your beliefs are, they’re going to synchronize with your decision because if you do have a belief in God, then God already understands why you’re making the decision you’re making. There’s already an understanding by the only entity that you need to feel understood by. So, be okay with that.

Let’s get to my second response to this because most of us know that the first response won’t work very well, unfortunately. But let’s just say that people do ask, which they will, and they are saying things like, “You should stay married. You should not leave this person. You should not distance yourself from them. You should work it out. Our religion says that you should do things a certain way. Our values and beliefs say that you should do things this particular way, and that you should try harder and do whatever you can to make it work.”

I’m a full believer in exhausting all your resources to do whatever you can to make things work. Absolutely. I want your efforts to work for you! I want that to happen for you. I want both people to see the light and connect in new ways that they hadn’t connected before. I want that to happen but it doesn’t always happen. When it doesn’t happen, and you’ve exhausted those resources, and you’re just tired, and you’ve had enough, it might be time to part. When you do that, this is where the question comes in: How do I explain this to the people that want us not to part? Those that have religious ideals or beliefs and values that they want to lay on us?

The challenge is the person who wrote the email may actually have the same beliefs and values! This person may believe that “Yes, we should stay together because that is what we are supposed to do. We should not part. We should not distance ourselves. We should not get a separation or a divorce.” Somebody listening to this show right now might say they believe that too.

But what do you do when you feel bad all the time? What if the relationship is awful no matter what you do? This is where my second response comes in. When you’re made to feel bad all the time, don’t tell people, “I’m being emotionally abused,” or “I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship,” or “They’re abusive,” because as soon as you do use those, what some might think of as “buzzwords”, they may have preconceived notions of what those words mean. They may already have their own labels and definitions for the words you’re using.

Emotional abuse is suffering to you, but it might be something minor to them. So what do you have to do is tell them the outcome of that emotional abuse. Tell them the experience that you’re having with the other person instead of the label.

Your experience may be what I just said: “They always make me feel bad.” But I like to go one step further which is absolutely true in most cases. It’s to tell others, “That person always makes me feel bad about myself. When we get home and we’ve had a great day, they always find a way to put me down. You don’t see the person that I see in public. You’re exposed to this nice person who’s generous and kind. But I get home and I’m made to feel like a child or a dog that’s being disciplined.

“I try to do the right thing all the time but it’s just never enough for them. I know I’m doing the best I can but it’s still not enough for them. No matter what I do, it’s never right in their eyes.”

I’ll admit, what I just said may not work for a good reason, which is because if you say anything bad about the person, they may retaliate. They may make your life a living nightmare. So we have to be really careful about the words we use about hurtful people. If they want to keep their control and “win”, they will find a way to hurt you back.

This is one of those “pick your battles wisely” moments. If you were to tell someone what the hurtful person is doing to you, or mention their behaviors, or say that they’re emotionally abusive or manipulative and controlling, and the abusive person finds out about it, they might make your life very difficult. They may turn all your friends against you. They could run a smear campaign against you (basically making you look like the bad guy, making it look like it’s all your fault and you’re the one doing bad behavior).

I’ve seen this too many times to say that it may not happen. It might or it might not. But it is probable so I want you to be careful there because if you start telling others what this person is doing to you, your words may not matter if they retaliate. They can make you look terrible to everyone else. And of course, that’s not a good thing. That’s just not something anyone wants to go through. ]

The first two responses I’ve given you so far may not work. This is tough stuff. I don’t know how to say it any other way, it’s just tough stuff. When you’re dealing with somebody who is capable of doing devious things (and I’m not saying that every emotional abuser is devious, but the possibility is there), you never know what you may have to deal with in the aftermath of standing up for yourself.

For the person who wrote to me, hopefully, his wife will just move on. But since you’re writing to me, you probably aren’t going to experience that. You’re probably worried about what will happen when you decide to leave.

You didn’t ask me what she would do when you leave, you were asking me how to explain your departure to your friends and people you know at church and others. So let me give you my third and final response to this, which is probably the safest way to go considering all your options. Unfortunately, you may not be able to get out of this unscathed no matter what you do. You may not be able to explain what’s happening to people in a way that satisfies them so all you can do (and this kind of stems from the first response as well) is simply not to explain it to anyone, but instead say, “I’m just unhappy. It’s time.

That sounds like sort of a cop out. That sounds like there are no reasons whatsoever. But if we remember that you don’t have to tell anyone anything, and add on to that, your friends, family and other people at church, if they really support you, if they really care about you, they’re going to honor where you are with this.

I want you to remember that. The people who really care about you will honor you when you’re confident and you say, “I’m just not happy and it’s time.”

If they reply, “What’s going on? Did you guys have a fight?” Just go right back to that original reply: “I’m just not happy. It’s time. It’s just not working out. It’s time.”

That’s not going to be enough for some people I know the church may say, “ that’s not reason enough. Did they hurt you? Did they cheat on you? What did they do? You don’t have to explain it. You can own this and be confident in what you’re owning nobody has to know your reasons I hope that anyone that you know, well, and cares about you will support that reason, even if they don’t understand it. I’m just not happy or you can even say we’re just not happy. We’re just not happy.

Your wife may be asked the same questions you’re asked. She may reply to them, “I don’t know what the problem is. He’s the one with the problem, not me.” That could happen. There may be no way to avoid looking like the bad guy when you leave some abusive people. They set you up to fail while you’re in the relationship, and they set you up to fail when you leave it. And because you could be a no-win scenario, you might just have to pick the best course of action for yourself regardless of what people think about you.

You know what my girlfriend did when she was getting a divorce from her ex-husband? (She was married to a piece of work). She would never say anything bad about him but she would hear from other people like his family saying how bad of a person she was and how bad of a mom to her child she was, and what a terrible, terrible thing that she was doing to her husband and child.

She never said a bad word about him. She just kept going. She kept moving forward and kept doing her thing, moving in the direction that she needed to move and realizing who her friends were. She was figuring out who supported her, and who cared about her. She was learning all this stuff as she went along because all these other people that she once considered her friends and family were convinced by the manipulative person that she was a bad person.

This happens, unfortunately. Sometimes the emotionally abusive person will make you look bad, and sometimes they won’t. I like to think that everyone has it in them to just break up peacefully, gracefully, and move forward without having to hurt each other. I don’t even understand why a person would want to hurt someone on their way out. Because if they really wanted to stay together, wouldn’t that work against them? If you left someone and they hurt you as you were parting, your last memory of them would be of them hurting you!

The chances of you going back to someone that did that as their final move is much less likely as opposed to someone you left who treated you kindly on the way out. There are slim to no chances of going back to someone if they hurt you, so why not just be a nice person about it?

I have a feeling in this case with the person who wrote this email that there will be hurt and there will be explaining to do with friends and family, but just want know that you don’t have to explain it to anyone, even to your church friends. You need to get to the point where you develop so much confidence in your decision that you move forward knowing it was the right thing to do even if no one understands.

That is the last thing I’ll mention: Be confident in your decision. I know you may not be right now. I know there may be questions and confusion from others. But be confident and own your decision because when people start asking you questions, if you sound like you’re not confident, they’re going to hear it in your inflections. They’re going to hear it in your words. They’re going to think that maybe you’re not sure, so they may start saying things to you like, “Have you sought therapy? Have you talked to the pastor? Have you worked this out in another way?”

When that happens, you’re going to think, No, this is not what I want to do. I don’t want to have to explain everything I did to everyone. I’ve already sought help. I’ve already exhausted all my resources! Why would I want to explain myself again?

But if you are confident and say, “No, it’s just time,” and leave it at that. You may confuse people, but they’ll hear the finality in your voice.

That’s what my first girlfriend said to me. She said, “It’s just time. I’m not happy. It’s not working. It’s time.”

You may just have to stick with something short and simply like that. I’m not saying this is the magic pill. I’m not saying this is even going to work. I’m just giving you some food for thought. I want you to realize that it is often difficult to leave an emotionally abusive person because they make it hard. They make you feel guilty. They make you feel bad for leaving. It’s like they’re saying to you, “I don’t care what you want. I only want what I want. What I want is for you to stay. I want you to stick around, regardless if you’re happy or not.”

Remember this: If you are not being allowed to leave gracefully by your partner, friend, or family, or whatever situation you’re in where the other person is not honoring you honoring yourself you are absolutely allowed to honor yourself and make your own decisions without anyone else needing to know your reasons.

Even if you have trepidations about those decisions, when you’re ready to move on, you make the decision to move on. Let’s just say that later on you change your mind. That can happen. You have absolutely every right to change your mind later. But when you’re ready to make a decision, do it. Just make your decision and move on in confidence so when people ask you anything like, “Have you thought about this fully? Do you realize the gravity of your decision?” You can say, “Absolutely! I’ve thought about it and know I am doing the right thing.”

Say it with confidence. “I’ve done my research. I’ve done therapy. We’ve talked. We’ve done everything we can do. And now, I’m ready. It’s time.”

I hope this helps the person who wrote and anyone else that needed to hear this today. Thank you so much for sharing this. Like I said, I know this is tough. I also know that you deserve happiness. You deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

You hear me say those things in every episode and I mean it every time. If you’re not getting treated that way, it’s time to treat yourself that way. Sometimes that means getting away from people who aren’t kind or respectful.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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