There’s a point of either intoleration or breakdown that you sometimes have to reach in order to finally make a decision that you need to make about a toxic relationship.
When that moment comes, it can be scary. There can be a lot on the line.
In this episode, I talk about what needs to happen in order for you to be in the right state of mind to make the big, scary decisions you might need to make for yourself.
(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)
Some of the things I talk about in the show will ask you to be sometimes a little bit confrontational. They’re going to feel confrontational. Those confrontations might just be you putting up a boundary. When you put up a boundary and say, “I don’t want to take this anymore. I don’t want that type of behavior in my life anymore. I’m asking you to stop,” I think most “normal” people will not be aggressive.
Most people won’t be violent or physically hurtful, but since some people could get a little bit aggressive, that’s why I say “Always pick your battles wisely” at the beginning of every episode.
Keep in mind that sometimes we don’t know someone else’s extent or capabilities. Hopefully, you’ll be around people that aren’t physically aggressive. It’s still helpful to know what their capability is; how far they could go.
Another reason I say pick your battles wisely is that sometimes the end is near. What I mean by that is sometimes you are going to break up, or break it off, or disconnect from someone in your life.
When the end is near, people tend to act a little differently than they’ve always acted. Some things come out of them that you may not expect. My friend Dean told me once that during a divorce, your soon to be ex will act very uncharacteristic of themselves. They will act uncharacteristically different.
What that means is you’ll see behavior that you haven’t seen before, behavior you won’t even recognize. Their actions might be so different than who they’ve been this whole time. That can happen when somebody is about to lose something, when they know or believe there is no way back.
Let’s just say that you’re going to disconnect or break up with someone and they know that there is no way to fix it. They’ve learned that they can’t convince you or guilty you into not leaving (because you won’t fall for it).
When you decide that you’ve had enough and you’re leaving, you might see that uncharacteristic behavior come out of them. You might ask yourself, where did this person come from?
It’s very similar to when you started a relationship with someone, especially a romantic relationship, if they have emotionally abusive behavior in them, it doesn’t come out for the first one to three, or perhaps several months sometimes. Then out of the blue, it comes out and you’re thinking I don’t recognize this person. Where is the person I love? Who is this person right now? What is this behavior?
And because you never saw it before, you might think what did I do wrong? That’s what you ask yourself, “What did I do wrong? What did I do that caused this?”
This is where the self-blame can start. I don’t want you to get into a cycle of self-blame. And I know that’s very hard advice to follow. I know because you can be going along just fine in any relationship then suddenly you start getting these vibes from the other person and you start seeing this behavior from them. You start getting these looks and you start hearing these words and it gets more and more severe over time. You might think, Wow, everything was going fine so it must have been something I said or did.
No, that’s not often the case. If you’re listening to this show, that’s probably not the case. What’s often the case is that something was not revealed or divulged in the beginning because there was an agenda. I have to be really careful here because sometimes the person doing the bad behavior doesn’t know there’s an agenda.
I speak from experience. When I was in my 20s and 30s, my experience was that I got into a relationship and treated my partner like they were a queen. I gave them love. I gave them gifts. I showered them with compliments. Everything about them was great. They could do no wrong. I treated them that way because I felt like that’s what I was supposed to do. Aren’t we supposed to “woo” or wow your partners in life? I thought so, so that’s what I did.
But after the honeymoon period, after I realized this person is going to stick around because they’re in love with me and want to be with me, I started to feel more secure that I wasn’t going to lose the relationship. But I started to feel insecure about them developing too much independent thought. I felt like their thinking could jeopardize the relationship.
When they started not wanting to be with me all the time, I felt a little insecure about that. I would have something to say about it. I’m not proud of what I’m talking about here, I’m just giving you the behaviors I did when I was younger.
When I would say something about it like, “Hey, can I hang out with you when you go out with your friends tonight?” They would feel uncomfortable about that because they just wanted to hang out with their friends but I would feel threatened and started thinking she didn’t want to be with me anymore.
That’s the extreme thought that went through my head: Maybe she doesn’t want to be with me anymore. Maybe because she doesn’t want to hang out with me as much as I want to hang out with her that the relationships in jeopardy. So what do I need to do? I need to either stop her behavior, or I need to do something else. Maybe I can make her feel bad about going out. Or maybe even worse, maybe I can make her feel bad about leaving me behind and abandoning me.
I would do things like that. I would make her feel bad for “abandoning” me. And it worked. My partners in life did feel bad so they would start to include me in more things. But of course, by doing that behavior, it started to create a wedge in the relationship. It started to cause them to distance themselves from me emotionally. So over time, this rift between us grew wider and wider until they didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.
I was clingy and possessive. I had issues. I had dysfunctions. So all my relationships ended because of these issues. This is what can happen. If the hurtful person doesn’t realize what they’re doing, the other person will start to drift away emotionally. When that happens, unless the hurtful person changes their ways, the relationship doesn’t have a chance.
The hurtful person has to change their ways. When the person that’s being victimized wasn’t exposed to that behavior from the beginning of the relationship, when they do get exposed to it, they develop this conflict inside of them. They feel guilty and they feel shame. They feel confused and they don’t know what to do.
For example, you have the first few months where that person doesn’t show up that way then suddenly, they’re showing up that way. You don’t know where that behavior comes from. You ask yourself, “Who is this person?”
This brings it right back to what I was talking about with agendas. When I was in my 20s and 30s. I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t consciously know that what I was doing was hurtful, or even wrong. That’s tough because there are people that are in my position right now that are doing behavior they don’t know is wrong. They just believe they need to do it in order to stay secure in their life or keep the relationship. But they’re going about it the wrong way.
I created Love and Abuse and my other show, The Overwhelmed Brain, in order to help empower people to understand what their own behavior does to their relationships and their life. If they don’t get it after I talk about it on both shows, I’m not sure what else to do.
Some people just need to realize what they’re doing. Some people need to have an epiphany of some sort like I did eventually. That was when my marriage ended. That’s when I finally decided to take a look at my own life and realize that maybe I was the common denominator of all my relationship problems. Maybe it was me! Maybe it was something that I was doing.
I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make any sense that it could be me. But I decided to finally take a look at myself. When I did, I realized a lot. I started asking myself questions like:
Why do I care if my girlfriend (or my wife at the time) goes out with her friends?
Why does it bother me?
Why do I have fear around that?
What is causing this fear?
Where did this fear come from?
Why am I Insecure?”
Then I started asking myself harder questions. Let’s just say that she goes out and she finds someone else: “Why does that bother me so much?”
That’s a harder question because I didn’t really want that to happen. I just wanted to know why. I think wanting to know why you feel the way you feel about things, and wanting to know where those feelings originated can be very helpful and empowering. It can help change your life on both sides of any emotionally abusive relationship.
If you’re the victim of emotional abuse and you’re the type of person that continues to receive hurtful behavior and there’s something inside you that says I have to stay no matter what because I owe him or her or I feel bad for him or her or I was always told you need to keep your commitments or whatever it is…
Where did that come from?
Are those thoughts still valid?
Are they something you can question or change?
Is there something that you need to heal in you so that you can change things for you?
That doesn’t mean you should automatically just get up and leave. It just means you start questioning yourself so that you can build resources inside of yourself so that you can have a better understanding of why you do the things you do and why you feel the way you feel. And also maybe why you tolerate bad behavior in the first place.
Ask yourself, why am I accepting of this bad behavior? Why do I tolerate it?
Those are great questions if you’re dealing with anything like that.
If you are the hurtful person, you can ask yourself similar questions:
Why am I doing this?
Why am I making him or her feel guilty?
Why do I want them to feel bad about themselves?
Why would I do that?
What’s important about that?
Why do I feel the need to hurt that person?
Where does that come from? I’m sure there’s fear inside there.
What am I really afraid of? Because what I’m really afraid of has nothing to do with them.
Almost anything you’re afraid of usually has nothing to do with anyone in your life today, unless they are an immediate threat or harm. I get that. But typically, it’s something from your past. It’s something that you carried in from childhood that you still hold on to today.
For me, for the longest time, I never wanted my partner to drink alcohol. I felt this way for the first 10 years of my adult relationships. Then one day I asked myself Why do I have a problem with my partner drinking alcohol?
The immediate, obvious answer came up. My stepfather drank alcohol since I was one. I was in that upbringing and that dangerous environment where he would drink and become abusive and scary and throw and break things. It was awful. I didn’t know any other childhood. I thought it was normal but it was still awful. So when I got out of that upbringing and into the adult world, I held on to those childhood fears.
I also developed controlling behaviors so that I could control my environment because I thought now that I’m an adult I can control what happens around me. As a kid, I couldn’t. But as an adult I can.
I shifted the roles. I became a controlling, hurtful person. I wasn’t only a controlling hurtful person, but I had controlling, hurtful behaviors because I had so much PTSD from childhood. I didn’t want a repeat of childhood to happen in my life so I had an unconscious agenda.
As I was talking about earlier, sometimes people don’t know they have an agenda. I didn’t know I had an agenda. I walked into all my relationships with this unconscious agenda. As soon as I realized the relationship was good and secure, and I felt safe knowing she wasn’t going to leave and that she was in love with me and everything was good, my bad behavior would start out of fear of what happened in childhood happening again.
I can look at that in hindsight and see that I behaved that way because of my childhood. So I had to learn how I could change today’s behavior so it no longer affected me or my relationships. It wasn’t working for me.
That’s a good question to ask yourself if you are dealing with old patterns that no longer serve you: “How can I change that behavior?”
It’s something to think about and good to reflect on. Just have some thoughts about it. Ask yourself questions like I was asking earlier.
This topic stems from something I talk about in The M.E.A.N. Workbook, which is the unconscious manipulator versus the conscious manipulator. I believe there are two distinct types of people that control and manipulate. One is very conscious of what they’re doing. They know they’re doing it, and they don’t care if you’re hurt or not.
Then there’s the other one which I feel that I was. I didn’t know that I was doing it. I cared if the other person was hurt but it wasn’t enough to change what I was doing. Because I didn’t believe what I was doing was wrong, I believed I was right. And that really put me in a bad position because that meant I never wanted to look at what I was doing as anything else but right.
That’s tough because when you’re around somebody like that, it’s hard to be around someone like that! It’s hard to be around someone who does not reflect.
I hope that whoever you’re around has the ability to reflect. Or maybe they’re listening to this right now and they’re thinking ‘maybe there are things that I do that I should take a look at.’
They may have the same questions like:
Why do I do that?
What am I afraid of?
What would happen if I didn’t do that?
Then their big fears will come up. They’ll think, oh, if I don’t do that, and he or she does what I don’t want them to do, then I’ll feel alone and maybe abandoned. Maybe I have abandonment or rejection issues. I need to deal with those things.
That’s all internal. It’s all about them. It’s all about that one person, not about their partner, not about their loved ones, not about the other person at all.
This can happen. People can have these realizations, they just often need to get there themselves. It’s very, very hard to convince somebody else that’s being hurtful that they’re wrong. It’s especially hard to convince somebody who’s unconscious of their behavior that they’re wrong. In fact, the most effective way to do that a lot of victims of abuse won’t want to do. The following is a powerful takeaway. If you’re going to take away one thing from this episode it’s this:
The most effective means of making someone conscious of their bad behavior is to remove yourself from the equation.
That could mean a separation. It could mean disconnecting for a while. It could just mean a vacation away from each other. I don’t know what it means for you and I’m not saying that you have to do this. Some people aren’t in a position to do this. But I’m just giving you my experience. The most effective means I’ve seen of helping someone become conscious of their bad behavior is to remove yourself from the equation.
Because you’re no longer in the picture, what this does is cause them to finally reflect on themselves. If you’re not in the picture, they get the opportunity to reflect on themselves. They may or may not take that opportunity, but from what I’ve seen, in my experience with people that I’ve worked with and from the people that have written to me, when they left the situation or disconnected or separated or whatever, the other person was given an opportunity to reflect on themselves and their own behavior.
Hopefully, they will have realizations like I did when my wife and I separated. And hopefully, they’ll have realizations that they are the common denominator for all the relationship challenges they’re having.
The problem is if they haven’t been in too many relationships, like maybe you’re the first or second relationship for them, that’s a challenge because they don’t have enough to go on. When they don’t have too many relationships under their belt, they don’t have enough experience in their life from which to draw. And because of that, they may not comprehend that their own behavior is causing their problems. They may still think the cause of their problems is outside themselves.
Most of our problems are from inside of ourselves. We just need to figure it out. We need to reflect and ask ourselves questions so that we don’t get stuck in situations that we feel locked into or where we feel like we can’t get out of because we’re so committed to it for one reason or another.
In reality, if we reflected on what’s going on inside our own heads, then we’d start to understand our own behaviors and why we make the decisions we make. The disconnect that I’m talking about is when you remove yourself from the equation which removes you from the world you know too well: Your relationship.
When you remove yourself from that environment, you get to reflect on yourself too, without the other person involved. If there’s a victim of emotional abuse and a perpetrator of emotional abuse, the perpetrator no longer has that person around them so that time apart will give them a chance to reflect on what they’ve been doing all this time.
The victim no longer has the perpetrator around so they get to reflect on some of the responses that they’ve had to the perpetrator’s behavior and some of the reasons they might continue to tolerate that bad behavior. They will have some time to ask themselves questions and reflect. This is why removing yourself from the equation is often the most effective step you can take when it comes to changing the dynamic of an emotionally abusive relationship.
I’m not saying that you have to do this. I’m not saying this is the way out. I’ve seen couples work through this but it often reaches a breaking or intoleration point (I’m going to talk about that too).
For now, I’m going to shift gears and read you an email I received. I wanted to talk about the above first because I think it might be helpful to you. I hope it was!
A person who wants to be known as Rochelle wrote to me and said the following:
“Dear Paul, I’m writing to you after spending some time in a women’s refuge with my small children. I was so scared to leave my husband of many years because we had children together and I have multiple health concerns. But honestly, your Love and Abuse podcast has revolutionized my life.
I was suffering from the most insidious psychological and emotional abuse for years, which only came fully to light under the magnifying glass of Coronavirus and lockdown. Each week I listened to an episode and it was as though you were personally speaking to me about my husband and my inner turmoil. You gave me the tools to protect myself from further abuse while in the situation and empowered me to leave with my children and all my health issues.
As a licensed mental health professional myself, I have experienced a lot of shame that this has happened and still struggle to let people know. It’s also been difficult navigating what to say to the children as by and large, they have a good dad and love him dearly.
Further pointers on how not to feel shame and guilt regarding how much the children’s lives got turned upside down and what to say to them would be most welcome. Thanks again.”
Okay, so thank you so much, Rochelle. This is such a powerful message. You took major, scary steps. I am very proud of you. I hope you take that as I mean it. I really think it takes a lot of guts to do what you did. One of the reasons I read your email is because I need other people to hear this that may be in a similar situation.
Your circumstances were dire. They were scary. You needed to take a big step, and you did with children and health issues too. It sounds like you didn’t have anywhere else to go so you ended up in a women’s refuge. That is a massive step! And because you’re writing to me, it sounds like you made it through the toughest part.
I realize you still have to deal with this person and you still have issues to deal with like the shame and guilt you’re feeling. But the big hurdle was lept. You lept over this hurdle. You took this step and you found a way to remove yourself from the equation.
Your husband now has the opportunity to reflect and realize, Oh my god, my behavior is so bad. I should stop behaving this way. I should get help.
He may not do that. That may not happen. Maybe it’s too late for you to reconcile. Maybe you’ve had enough and that’s fine. But you both now have an opportunity to reflect on the decisions you made and also reflect on who you are as individuals without the other person in your life.
But let me focus on you and what you’ve shared here. The first thing that you shared was realizing how bad it was when you were in lockdown. I think a lot of people that realize there is bad behavior in the relationship develop a toleration or resilience of it for so long that it doesn’t get worse until you are exposed to more of it.
The lockdown exposes us to more of that, but I would tell anyone in any relationship if you are less than 50% happy most of the time then something needs to change or give. Or something needs to heal.
Something needs to happen if you’re less than 50% happy. If you’re more than 50% happy all the time or at least most of the time, then you’re probably in one of those relationships that are either up and down (which is normal), but most of the time you’re happy and it’s okay. If you’re good with that, I’m good with that. But if it’s less than 50%, then you’re not happy. You’re not in a good situation. You need to consider things. You need to think about things. You need to reflect.
I’m going to assume that she was definitely less than 50% happy. In fact, I would say that she was probably 95% unhappy most of the time. I might even be a little generous with that number but maybe there were good times, maybe there weren’t. Maybe there was never a good time, I don’t know, but she obviously realized that she’d had enough and she needed to do something about it.
I wanted to read this for others that might be in a scary situation and aren’t sure if they can take a big step like this. If you’re thinking about taking that big step. You can. If you have the ability to think about it, you can do it.
That sounds a little New Agey I know. I don’t mean it to, but I want to let you know that the scariest steps in life often require taking.
What does that mean? I say that just to motivate you. Your scary steps seem scary because you haven’t done taken them yet. But once you do, they may still be scary but once you’ve taken the steps, you’re done. You’ll be able to look back and you won’t be so scared anymore.
Of course, you might have some consequences from the steps you’ve taken. That’s the scary part. But once you’ve lept the first big hurdle, then typically you can deal with the consequences as they come.
I say this knowing that everyone’s situation is different and some people don’t have the resources or the support structure in place to take such steps. Some people, like Rochelle, have to find a refuge. She was lucky to find one, I’m sure. Maybe there’s one near you. Maybe there’s not. Maybe it’s only for women – I know men listen to this too.
There are challenges. There are limitations. But there is always a way. And sometimes you just have to reach in deeper to find that way. Do your research and build a support structure. You might have to do some research and find people that can support you.
We all have access to the internet nowadays. If you don’t, go to the library to get access. Find a way to do it. Borrow a friend’s phone, get online, and look for resources that you might need. Even if it’s joining another group of people that are in your same situation. There are groups online that you can find. There are people that you can connect with that can be helpful to you.
If you’re in a harmful situation and want to build your support structure, you can find others that are like you, or are in a similar situation as you. Then at least you’d have some peer support, and that can be helpful.
I’m reading you Rochelle’s email to let you know that it was hard for her but she did it. And now she’s still in the middle of it. There are still things she’s going through. She’s dealing with some emotional aftermath. She probably still has to deal with her children’s father so that’s going on as well. What does she do now?
I think it’s important to get through and past the emotions that come up, for sure. She said she’s a mental health professional and that she’s experienced a lot of shame that this happened to her and that she’s still struggling to let people know about it.
This really stuck out to me because every type of person listens to this show. It doesn’t matter how much you learned in school. It doesn’t matter what you do for a profession. It doesn’t matter! You could be doing exactly what I’m doing now: teaching others about emotional abuse and how to heal from emotionally abusive situations, avoid hurtful people, and work through the challenges in your relationship. Even with everything I know about the subject, it could still happen to me and it could happen to you.
To you Rochelle, I’ve heard from many mental health professionals that are going through emotionally abusive relationships, so you’re not alone. I don’t want you to feel alone. In fact, a lot of mental health professionals have had experiences in their life that prompted them to become mental health professionals. I call those people superheroes.
I love that people who have gone through suffering have decided to turn it around and help others. I love that! I think you are real superheroes. If you’ve gone through any type of suffering, no matter what you do for a profession, and you’ve decided to turn that into helping others, you’re a superhero.
And let me add to that. You mentioned that you still feel a lot of shame this happened to you and that struggle to let people know. Your story is the inspiration that people need to hear! When you become empowered and take the steps that you need to take for you and those you love, that is the inspiration that others need.
I have much more respect for someone who’s gone through the challenges that I’ve gone through than somebody who hasn’t had any of the challenges that I’ve had and wants to guide me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have respect for those who haven’t had my challenges, but if somebody came along and said, “When I was young, I was in an alcoholic home and my mom was also a people-pleaser. I was afraid all the time. I used to wait in my room until it was all over and just pray…” If somebody came up to me and told me that, I’d be like, “You’re the one I want to work with! You know exactly what I’m struggling with.
That person is going to be my hero because they went through what I went through and they got through it. So when I hear from anyone that says, “I went through this experience and it went on for 10, 20, 30 or whatever years but I finally got out of it,” that’s the person I want to hear from. That’s the person with the most experience. That’s the person that’s going to guide me to a better place.
So Rochelle, you as a mental health professional are now a superhero because you have been through it. And the shame that you’re feeling, what is that attached to? Is that attached to the idea that maybe you should have made a decision to leave sooner? You did mention your kids. You felt like maybe you’re putting your kids through this. You said there’s shame and guilt because of that but I want to make sure that you understand what shame really is.
Shame requires intention. Shame means you meant to expose your kids to hurtful behavior. That, to me, is shame.
Shame means you purposefully and willfully chose to be exposed to this hurtful behavior and allowed your kids to be exposed to it too.
If that is true for you, then maybe you do need to feel some shame. I don’t think that’s true, but if it is and you wanted you and your children to be exposed to hurtful behavior, then maybe some shame does need to be in there to help you process things.
However, if it wasn’t willful, if it wasn’t intentional, if you didn’t want that, then I’m taking shame out of your psyche. I’m taking it out of your reality because shame doesn’t apply.
I know you might feel it. There are things about it that you need to process. But I want you to relate intention to shame because you need intention to feel shame. I know it’s easy for me to say “Don’t feel it,” but shame doesn’t apply!
I know that’s easy for me to say as well because you still may feel it. This is why I’m going to tell you to ask yourself the following:
What exactly do I feel shameful about?
If you answer, “ I should have done this sooner. I should have taken my kids out of this situation sooner,” then I’m going to come back and say there is no possible way you could have done this any sooner. You didn’t know how. You couldn’t have done it sooner because you didn’t have the tools. You didn’t have the mental capacity to do it. If you did, you would have done it!
If you had the tools and the mental capacity and the support structure, and everything else you needed lined up at that time, you would have done this sooner.
If you had no fear and you had all the strength and agility and the finances or whatever else you were missing, you would have done it! I know you would have because you just did it. Which means things had to line up first. Things had to be in place in order for that to happen. Even if the only resource you needed was mastering the mental game needed to make it happen, inside your own mind, you still have to line up with that.
This would have happened earlier if all of those things lined up, so there is no possible way you could have done what you did sooner. So I want you to be okay that things finally lined up inside you and maybe outside of you. Everything lined up and you were able to take that step. But that step wasn’t available before because this wasn’t lined up before.
I’m going to say it again: If it was lined up, you would have done it sooner. But they weren’t, so that’s not on you. That’s just the way things were.
My girlfriend has a garden outside our house and she grew cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and all kinds of things. I love cucumbers so she made me lots of them. But there is no way I could have gone out there on day three of her planting seeds and started picking cucumbers.
Why is that? Because it wasn’t all lined up yet! The seed had to sprout and grow up from the ground to create a little tiny plant, which grows into a bigger plant, which starts to blossom, which starts to create the initial stages of a cucumber. All of those things take time. There are stages.
This is how life works too. Things come in phases and stages. They need to be perfect and lined up. The plant needed sun. It needed water. It needed fertile soil. Successful gardening goes through a lot of stages.
Like gardening, you need all the resources in place to take certain steps. Sometimes that takes time. So forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for anything you blame yourself for because there is no way that things were lined up at that time. If they were, you would have picked the cucumbers. If you could have done that on day three, I’m sure you would have. But they weren’t ready.
You weren’t physically prepared, mentally prepared, spiritually prepared, financially prepared, or whatever you needed to be prepared for it to happen, therefore I want you to forgive yourself.
There’s really nothing to forgive yourself for, but if you are blaming yourself for not doing things sooner then you could forgive yourself for that. Or how about we go back in time even further for choosing the wrong guy?
Sometimes we do that. Sometimes we pick the wrong person and we think oh crap, I just picked the wrong person, now I’m stuck.
You’ve got to forgive yourself. You have to move on because self-forgiveness is one of the things that has to line up for you. That is one of the ducks that has to be in a row in order for you to take some big steps. If any one of these things are out of whack or not in alignment, it might take a little longer.
Or, you might have to take a big risk meaning taking steps when things are not in alignment. Sometimes we have to do that. I don’t have a problem with that either, but that takes a whole different set of skills. If you can do that, you’re a different type of person. Maybe you aren’t built like that. It’s very scary to take a risk, especially with children. When you have kids, you want to do everything the right way so the kids won’t get hurt. What you did was take your kids into protection.
I want you to hear that clearly: What you did was take your kids into protection. It doesn’t sound like you’re trying to keep those kids from seeing their dad. In fact, it sounds like you’re taking them out of a toxic situation and into a safe place so that not only will they have a place to feel comfortable and be safe from harm, but they will also still have a relationship with their father.
How much better could you have done for your kids!? There’s nothing I can think of that might be better than that. Whatever regrets you have don’t matter right now because you’re taking steps that you need to take today. What you’ve taught your kids is it’s not a good idea to stay in a toxic situation and it’s better to take steps to protect yourself so that you can create a life that’s more copacetic, loving, and supportive for everyone.
Believe it or not, you, your family and your husband a great gift. You have given him the opportunity to choose to heal or not. He may not take that opportunity, but you have given it to him.
You’ve also given your kids an opportunity to experience both of their parents in a healthier place. They will learn what their dad is like when he’s healthy. They’ll learn what he’s like where there is no toxicity around.
Hmm, that might be a very good situation for them. They’ll learn what their mom is like when she’s not in a toxic situation as well. They’ll see her happier.
You have a formula that works. In this family, in the dynamic that’s been created here, it could be the very thing that keeps everyone the happiest and the healthiest. I know there are still challenges ahead but you have taken steps to irradiate the toxicity, the radioactive elements, of the family unit that you were in. There were radioactive elements in there. It doesn’t even matter what the origin of the hurtful behavior was anymore. You just had to protect everyone from the toxicity. The steps you took did just that.
What you might say to me is “He’s going to be upset, he’s going to be angry. He’s going to say that I ruined the family.” Yes, he may say things like that.
Remember, he’s going to say a lot of things to try to make you feel bad or guilty because that’s his role right now. So we need to let him play his role out. Not that it’s fun. Not that it’s pleasant for you at all. But don’t take that personally because he’s still coming from a place of fear.
When somebody comes from a place of fear, especially a hurtful person, they’re going to do and say things that hurt. That is the role he’s playing. He may or may not ever take the opportunity to look at himself and want to heal from that. He may not want to address his fears or his childhood, or maybe his upbringing, but that’s his choice. But at least he has that choice.
While you’re still in the relationship, the abusive person doesn’t often look inward. They don’t often reflect. And that keeps the toxicity alive because as long as you’re around, there is no accountability. They feel like they can maybe do anything they want or control you because you’re not leaving. They just keep doing the same behavior.
But when you take yourself out of that, they can’t do their old behavior anymore since you’re not around so they have the time to do some self-reflecting and figure out what’s going on inside of them.
Again, that’s if they choose to do so. But that’s his battle. He might say some hurtful things to you, but don’t take them personally. That’s easy for me to say, hard to hear, but I want to let you know that the behavior you may get from him isn’t personal. It’s just fear. He has a lot of fear, so he needs to deal with that. And he will deal with it. He’ll figure it out. He may not get better or he may, I don’t know. But he’s an adult so he can work through this. He’s not a kid and you don’t have to take care of him anymore, he can take care of himself. He’ll figure it out.
Where your focus needs to be is where it’s already been: Making sure that you and your family are safe. It sounds like they are. I understand that you may have some shame in there and you may have some guilt but those may be originating from things you really shouldn’t feel shame or guilt for because everything you’ve told me seems like the healthiest way to raise children.
You might think that since your kids were exposed to this toxic element that they might have problems when they grow older. Yeah, it’s true. They might have problems when they grow up. I won’t lie to you. I had issues when I got older. You heard my issues at the beginning of this episode.
In every episode, I talk about something that happened in my life or something that I did. Maybe you’ve heard me talk about the therapy I’ve gone through or the depression I had. There are certainly things that I went through for sure. But as long as you keep showing up for your kids and letting them know you are there for them, they are going to be willing to talk to you about anything.
Tell them things like, “I know you had a challenge. We all had a challenge back then. I didn’t have the tools and the resources that I needed to leave earlier so I’m sorry if you experienced any hardship growing up. If you have anything you want to talk to me about, I’m here for you.” When your kids can talk to you about anything, I’ve found that is the most powerful and effective form of parenting.
You should hear my girlfriend talk to her son. He tells her almost everything, things that are sometimes uncomfortable to hear. He’s like 19 years old and he’s telling her things that I would never have told my mom at that age. He has no problem telling her all the stuff that he does because she doesn’t judge him for those things. She doesn’t put him down. She doesn’t say, “Hey, you’re wrong and you’re a bad person for doing that.” She just stays open. She is there for him. She knows that he has a hard time dealing with his dad so she stays open to everything that he tells her.
She may not like some of the stuff that he does, but at the same time, she doesn’t judge him for it. She might give him a little nudge in a different direction, but they have a fantastic relationship regardless. And that’s because she’s always there for him. She always listens.
I think that’s one of the most important steps you can take with your kids is to listen and ask questions. When they share something important with you, ask them, “How do you feel about that?”
Rochelle, you’re a mental health professional so you know what to ask. That will be very helpful in their upbringing. But everything you’ve written in this letter tells me that you’ve raised your kids the right way. Yeah, you ended up in an emotionally abusive relationship. But when things lined up, you still did the right thing. There’s nothing wrong with any of the steps you took that you shared with me. Everything you did was exactly the things that needed to happen in order to for you to get to this point.
If you wrote to me and said, “My husband beats my kids daily, and I’m not going to leave because I like where we live,” I might have something else to say. I still wouldn’t say that you were wrong. I would just probably nudge you in a different direction because I wouldn’t want that to happen to the kids. So everything you’re doing is, in my opinion, the right thing.
I think you’re a wonderful mom. It sounds like you’re doing exactly what the kids need so believe me, if anything, you have shown your kids what needs to be done when challenges come their way.
I hope it’s helpful to you to hear this from someone who’s dealt with a lot of emotionally abusive situations, not necessarily my own life, but that too, but with many people that I’ve worked with. You have done all the right things.
Let me just say this in closing. If you have any fear about sharing your struggles or your stories with other people and your friends (and I don’t know if you’re allowed to do that with your clients or not in your profession but I do. I share my history with my clients all the time), if you have any challenge sharing your struggle regarding all the years you had to endure an abusive relationship, and you think people are going to ask you why you didn’t leave earlier, all you have to do is tell them is this:
“Things weren’t lined up for me to leave earlier. I just couldn’t do it. I had to wait for things to line up. I had to wait for my emotional state to be in the right place. I had to wait for other things outside myself to line up. It was all about timing. Yes, I wanted to leave earlier. Yes, I should have left earlier, but I just couldn’t. I wasn’t mentally prepared. Then, when I became mentally prepared, I took the steps I needed to take. Sometimes things like that take time.”
When you start sharing your challenges in life and the decisions that you could have or should have made at the time but things just weren’t lined up, you are being vulnerable. And that vulnerability allows others to be vulnerable with you.
This is what happened to me when I started my other show The Overwhelmed Brain back in 2013. About a year into it, or maybe less, I started choosing to be more vulnerable. I started telling my stories of times where I was embarrassed, or felt guilty, or felt shame. I started sharing that stuff and the emails started to pour in. I received messages from so many people that also felt guilt, shame, fear, or embarrassment. They felt all of the same things I felt but were afraid to tell other people but then they heard somebody on a podcast start speaking about it and that opened the door for them to share their challenges with me.
Being honest about my challenges has freed me from the fear of my own truths and my own history. It has allowed others to open up about their fears, shame, and guilt. Here you are writing to me now saying you feel shame and guilt. What I share on the air has also helped you to feel safe to share your struggles with me.
Imagine if I never shared my history and I came off as impeccable and told you that I never went through any of these challenges myself? It might be a different show. Or maybe not. Maybe you would still feel like you could share this with me because I have a show like this. But I really do feel like the more transparent I am with people, the more transparent they are with me.
That’s not the reason I do this, it’s just what happens when I do it. That’s the result I get. It creates a connection that facilitates trust. It creates relief for those who have been holding on to things for a long time.
Sometimes people hold on to things forever. Then they die with this regret or this guilt. I don’t want that to happen to you. I just “own” my stuff. I own my history. I own all my mistakes and all my bad choices. I tell people, “Yep, that’s what I did. I should have done differently.”
I had an eight-year relationship. The first four we were together then the second four, we were married. I was in this relationship for eight years and I treated my wife badly. I treated her well and I also treated her badly. The bad part caused her to be more unhappy than she was happy. And because of that, she left.
I share this knowing that some people won’t be comfortable with that. I know some people will hear that and think this guy made a lot of mistakes. Why didn’t he change back then? He should have changed earlier.
They’re right, I should have. But I didn’t have the resources. I didn’t have the tools I didn’t have the knowledge. I wasn’t emotionally prepared. I simply wasn’t ready because things weren’t lined up for me to do what I needed to do.
I remember it was the day after she left that I started reflecting on my own life and the choices I’d made. That was finally the day that everything started to line up for me.
We all need to have that day. We all need to have a moment of clarity when things start to line up so we can make better decisions for ourselves.
To Rochelle or anyone else that this episode was for, I hope it has helped you in some way. I hope you are well. I know that you already have the mental strength to take the right steps. And I know you’re going to continue taking those steps because it sounds like what you want is the best for you and your family.
From my perspective, you’re doing the best you can with the resources that you have. And it will get better.