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When you are in love with the person mistreating you, is there a way to improve the relationship? Can you make them understand how much they’re hurting you? And if you did, would it change the situation?

In this episode, I read an email from someone whose emotional abuse turned into physical abuse, but she doesn’t want to leave him because she loves him so much.

Transcript follows

If you’re a brand new reader / listener to Love and Abuse, I want to let you know that this show was created mainly because people in toxic relationships have the hardest time identifying what’s going on in the relationship. Sometimes they’re not able to identify the symptoms of emotional abuse, manipulation and control, and all the other little nuances or negativity that can appear in a toxic relationship.

You can be in the toxic soup of a relationship and not even know you’re in it. You just think, “Oh, we had another fight.”, “He never believes me.”, “She always gets mad about this or that”, or “I’m always in the doghouse with this person.” You think it’s just normal difficulty in your relationship.

It is difficult, but there could be more going on.

I created this show to make sure that you know the signs of real toxic behavior. I’m talking about behavior that is designed to emotionally scar you for a long time sometimes. There are a lot of people in emotionally scarring relationships.

When I was married, I feel that I scarred my ex-wife emotionally. Near the end, I was able to make up for some of that, but I put her through some really tough stuff. In my marriage, my specialty, if you want to call it that, was guilting. I could make my wife feel guilty. And that’s very emotionally abusive.

We think that’s just a relationship difficulty, or at least some people think that’s just something that happens in relationships. Some people just think, “Oh, my partner made me feel guilty.”

We don’t even say that, we just feel it. You might say to yourself, I feel guilty for what I did. When it happens over and over again, you might have a pattern of emotional abuse.

I came up with this show to help you identify toxic behavior and poisonous communication so that you understand what you’re in – so that you have a choice.

Sometimes we think, “Well, I got married, so I’m stuck. And this is how it’s going to be.” Maybe you think, “I’m in this relationship and I don’t want to be in this relationship, but there’s nothing better for me out there.”

Your partner might say, “You’ll never find anything better.” That’s an emotionally abusive comment!

“You’ll never find anything better than this. You’re too old, you’ve gained too much weight, you’re not that attractive. You’re lucky to be here.”

If you don’t know (and you should know) but if you don’t know, those are emotionally abusive comments. Comments like that are designed to keep you where you are, so that the other person can keep you in their control space, just to have a partner for themselves that they can have dominion over.

These may not be the right terms, but maybe they are. Maybe there are people out there that want to control you this much. And when you’re under their control, they feel like they’re in control of their life, which makes them feel better. Because now they have everything they want, and they’ll make sure that you’re doing everything that they want you to do.

You don’t know what you’re in sometimes. It’s like being in the fishbowl not knowing there’s a whole world outside that fishbowl. “This is my world. I’m inside this fishbowl, and this is my life right now, so there’s nothing I can do.”

There’s a lot you can do.

There’s a lot more you can do when you’re in a bad situation, most of the time. I realize there are exceptions to this. Sometimes we do feel stuck, sometimes we literally are stuck. I don’t want you to fool yourself. Try not to fool yourself into thinking that you’re stuck when there really are options, but maybe they’re too unpleasant to think about. But there are options.

There are options that we sometimes don’t want to face because facing them might mean a life change that we don’t want to deal with, or that we’re too afraid of going through.

It’s that step into the abyss. And we have no idea what’s on the other side, so we dare not take that route.

I want you to know that when you limit yourself to that fishbowl and you see only this reality and you think this is all there is and this is all there will ever be, I’m just going to have to live with it, you’re wrong. It’s just not the way things are. We limit ourselves in so many ways because we think this is how it will always be, and it’ll never be any different. And it can be.

I want you to be okay being wrong. I want you to be okay with the idea. If you have the thought that you’re living in this fishbowl and there’s nothing outside of this reality and you’re not happy, I want you to be okay that you’re wrong, that there are more options. There are more options and the options aren’t always pleasant to think about, but they exist.

The reason I’m talking about this, about having options, is that I received an email in May of 2019, and I created an episode on it called, Are they for real: Is it all lies and deception or are you just going nuts? It was based on an email from someone I called Janet.

Janet said, “I know he’s being emotionally abusive, and I’m contemplating on what I can do with my life. And he gets really angry when I talk about trying to improve the relationship or something that I’m questioning him about, and I don’t know what to do, but I’m just reaching out to run it by you.”

I created a whole episode on that, and it might be important to listen to that one first before this one, but it doesn’t matter. All of these episodes can stand alone, but I received another email from Janet, who said sadly:

I’m back with nothing good to say as far as my relationship when we last spoke. I admit I did not listen to what you suggested for me to do and things got worse. This love thing is really hard and will make you easily care for others more than you do for yourself.”

She goes on to say, “I ended up moving in with my boyfriend. The communication isn’t there from him. He continues to say that I am the problem and it’s turned into physical abuse after I nag too much when only trying to fix an issue or a problem within the relationship. I also admit at this point, I’m stupid to still be here, but I don’t have the willpower to leave. I love him too much. I think I can’t imagine my life without him. I don’t know when enough is enough.

I tried to go to couple’s counseling, but he says that I am the problem and he has no issues. I really need help. I want to recover, aid and save my relationship, but honestly, I think I keep looking for excuses to stay. What I would have wanted was to see a pastor or spiritual person with my boyfriend, so that he can finally see how things are also his fault, and that he isn’t perfect. And just hope that he finally changes.

As I wrote in my first email to you, I did leave him before, which was a surprise to him, but I think I came back too quick to the relationship. I really don’t know why I’m messaging you when I know the answer. I think I just like to discuss, hoping for you to push me to fly back home to my family. I’ve been praying to God and really putting this in his hands.

How can I save this? He gets an attitude when I try to communicate and talk through issues that I see. If I ask too many of the same questions, because I think he doesn’t tell me how he honestly feels, he ignores me. I mean, it can go on for 10 or 15 minutes acting like I’m not even there, and to me, it’s a sign of no respect.

I think he’s going to propose to me soon, because he started building rapport with my dad and most likely he’s going to ask for my hand in marriage. At this point, I want to say no, the relationship isn’t healthy. And how can there be a good relationship when he thinks I’m the only issue?

I don’t have enough money to see a psychologist myself, so I do appreciate you, Paul, I don’t want to skip out on my new job here either, because I may not get the same back in my hometown as quick. I’m behind in life, I feel. I’m not even independent yet, and my birthday is next month. Abuse will not be tolerated with me and I don’t know how to be taken serious with that statement.”

Janet threw a lot at me in this email, and I’ve thrown it over to you. And I’m sure some of you are screaming through your podcast players right now, saying certain things to Janet to support her, to send her in a good direction and to give her the advice that you know to be true, and that will help. This is a tough one because she says she doesn’t have the willpower to leave.

Janet, you’re in a space right now of such brain fog that you cannot see outside that fishbowl. You cannot see that there are so many options for you because you don’t want to take the chance. You don’t want to take the risk. In fact, you are risking on the side of abuse instead of the unknown. And to me, I don’t like taking those kinds of risks.

If I know one evil, terrible path is going to lead to some abusive behavior, then I’m going to take the other path, regardless, even if I don’t know where the other path leads, because I know this path leads to abuse.

That’s the first thing I want to say to you Janet, is that it’s important to understand that you already know one path leads to abuse, and you have no idea what the other path is, but it’s not the abuse. I’m not saying it couldn’t be abuse in another form but at least it’s not the abuse you know you’re going to receive if you stick around.

You mentioned physical abuse. If this has already turned into physical abuse, it doesn’t get better. It only gets worse.

It only gets worse! I was reading a statistic in Patricia Evans’ book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship that says 90% of emotionally abusive relationships turn into physical abuse. I don’t know how accurate that is because there are levels of emotional abuse that never turn into physical abuse but it’s important to understand that statistic if you’re in any type of emotionally abusive relationship that seems to be getting worse.

It could happen in any relationship, absolutely. But usually, it’s the progression of emotional abuse, to physical abuse… to what? What’s the next step after that?

How much worse can it get? You don’t want to find out.

You’re asking me, “Maybe you can push me to fly home or something like that.” I can’t, but I want to. My personal viewpoint about this is a lot different than my professional viewpoint. If you and I were having coffee, and we were good friends, I would say, “Get the hell away.” That’s what I would say, because physical abuse doesn’t stop and it only gets worse.

Eventually, you’ll be so traumatized or worse. You could end up hurt in the hospital and you’ll be even more unreachable, not only from others, but from yourself. You need to be aware that the more you expose yourself to this toxic environment, the more unreachable you become. You become so distant, so far away from yourself and others, you won’t be able to connect with yourself anymore. It becomes all about your subservience to the abuser.

When you’re under that type of control, you lose. You were talking about willpower; you lose your willpower. If you don’t have any now, you’re not going to have any later, it’s not going to get better, it’s only going to get worse.

There’s so much I can comment on here, but I need you to listen to my episodes on The Overwhelmed Brain on self-worth, self-esteem, self-love, self-compassion. It all has to focus back on you; otherwise, you’re going to lose connection with yourself, if you haven’t already. It’s still there, I can tell in your email it’s still there. But it only gets worse. It doesn’t get better.

If you didn’t listen to me before, you have to listen to me now. You have to.

There are very, very few times when I will tell someone that they need to get out of the relationship, because it’s not my choice. It’s your choice. It’s still is your choice. If you want to reconnect with yourself and realize that you are worth so much more than being hurt the way you are, you need to get away from those who are hurting you.

When you’re in a relationship like this, it’s like telling yourself, “I love people that abuse me. I love people that don’t care if I’m hurt by their words or actions. I love people that actually want to hurt me.”

You need to really soak that in because if that is your belief system, then this has nothing to do with your relationship. This has everything to do with some faulty programming that was drilled into you at a younger age.

You need to start diving into yourself so that you can start healing from that, so that you don’t see mistreatment and abuse as love. You have to get out of that mindset.

You’re probably in a space of, “I love this person so much because when he’s great, he gives me so much and he makes me feel special.” Healthy people do that, too. It’s just that now you’re with someone and you may think you can only get it from that person. And that’s simply not true. You’re still in the fishbowl. If you believe that you can’t get all the good stuff that he provides from someone else, you’re mistaken. You’re in the fog, and the fog needs to lift.

The only way the fog can lift is by working on yourself, by focusing on yourself, by realizing you’re not capable of saving the relationship. You’re not.

You have no power or ability to save this relationship.

I’m not saying it can’t be saved. I’m not saying someday in the future, he’ll have an epiphany and he’ll be enlightened and figure out, “Wow, I’ve been a jerk all this time. I need help,” and then he gets the help. I’m saying right now, the way it is today is not going to change if you don’t change.

You’re the one who has to change.

He needs to change, too, but he needs to change for him, not for the relationship. He needs to change for himself, not for you. You won’t be able to convince him of that. The only way you can make him realize that you won’t tolerate his behavior, like you said at the end of your email, “abuse will not be tolerated with me, and I don’t know how to be taken seriously with that statement.”

If you want to be taken seriously, you have to show him that you won’t tolerate it, by making him accountable. What does that mean? It means that as long as you’re in the relationship, he’ll realize that you are tolerating it.

There’s your dilemma: You don’t want the abuse, but you stay in the relationship.

By staying in the relationship, what you’re saying is, “It’s okay if you abuse me because I won’t leave.” I know you don’t believe that. I know you don’t want to think that’s true, but it is. Put that in perspective.

“I’m going to show you that your behavior is not that bad. And how am I going to do that? I’m going to stick around. I’m going to stay by your side. I’m going to continue working on this, showing you that abuse is okay.”

That’s the message he’s receiving.

This has nothing to do with your willpower to want to leave or not. Nothing. This has everything to do with how you view yourself as so inferior and so unworthy, that you believe the only way to be with someone is if they’re mistreating you.

You do need to talk to someone, but not together. You need to talk to someone alone because this is your journey. This isn’t a relationship journey for you, this is a personal journey.

For you to stay in a situation that you continue to be hurt by, you continue to be held back from being the best version of you possible, for you to allow someone to control you to this extent, and you showing that you will tolerate the abuse by staying, tells the abuser that no matter how angry or upset or sad or hurt you get, it will never be enough for him to stop.

I’ve seen this over and over and over again. I would say a good 95% of the relationships that I’ve seen where the person finally leaves the abuser, is when the abuser says, “Oh, there’s accountability for my actions, I better do something about that.” This is only if the abuser wants to heal. There’s a good percentage of them out there that don’t want to heal, and the abuser always blames the other person. That’s where you are.

The abuser is blaming you for their abusive behavior. The abuser is blaming you for the relationship falling apart when the actual blame needs to go to the abuser. You know this. You told me, “I need for him to see that this is also his fault.” He’s not going to see it. I’m going to tell you the same thing I told you in the first episode. He’s not going to change. This behavior doesn’t change, it only gets worse.

I know I’m being hard on you and I apologize about that. I want you to understand that there are thousands of people right now that are supporting you, that are rooting for you, that want you to be in a better situation. Some of them have gotten out of toxic relationships and finally saw outside the fishbowl and the fog finally lifted. They asked themselves, “What was I thinking? What was I thinking?”

My mom went through that and she asked herself that same question. She said, “What was I thinking? I can’t believe I stayed married to him for so long.”

The only way to get out of that mindset is to separate from the person and be away from them for a long enough period of time, so that their influence no longer has control over you. Where their influence doesn’t seep into your every thought. Where you are exposed to their influence, good or bad, so that you get sucked back in.

You do have to withdraw. It’s like a drug; you want the drug because you’re addicted to the feeling that it gives you. Then when you’re off the drug, you go through withdrawal and you want more, and it makes you feel like crap when you’re off of it. Then you go back and forth with it. You need to sober yourself from the toxic person long enough so that you can detox, so that you can get into a space that is clean. You need to clean your environment, that means cleaning your mind. That means focusing on yourself.

This has nothing to do with saving the relationship, you can’t do it. It takes two people to save it, each doing 100%. Yes, 200% into the relationship, you are 100% they are 100%. You both work on the relationship. It’s never one person’s problem, it always requires both partners. The thing is you can’t convince him of that, he will always believe it’s your fault because some people just don’t want to lose that control.

Right now, he has control over you and it’s only going to get worse. I don’t have much good news for you unless you’re willing to take risks, and I don’t even see much of a risk here.

If you stay, it’s a risk. If you leave, it’s a chance.

That’s the only choice I see. If you stay, you’re risking your health and your sanity. If you leave, you have a chance. That’s what I see. At minimum, talk to someone.

The longer you try to change someone else, the more you take away from being able to heal yourself and finally see what you need to do. You can’t tell what you need to do until you start focusing on yourself. The more you stay focused on the other person, the more you want them to change, the longer it’s going to take for you to find happiness and peace within yourself.

In fact, if after you focus on yourself and focus on self-love and self-compassion, and listen to those episodes I’ve done on all of these topics such as self-worth and self-respect – After you’ve done all that, and you’ve really connected with yourself again, then look at the type of relationship you want.

I can almost guarantee you that when you get into a space in which you love yourself, and you know you’re important and you know you’re worthy, you won’t want to be within 1000 miles of a relationship like that again. And you’ll finally realize what love is.

Thank you for writing, Janet. I wish you much strength and determination through this. You’ll get through this. My advice is don’t think, just do. Just do what’s right for you. 


Shortly after I recorded this episode, “Janet” wrote back with this update:

I gained the strength to purchase a flight ticket back home. I don’t think I could have left on my own willpower. I had one family member on my side and one family member on his side, telling me to leave. And I think that’s what really pushed me. I’m just curious to know, what if they didn’t know? Would I have been strong enough to make that move back home on my own? Now, the next steps are to move on and forget about this person that I want to fight for me back in his life. I realize how messed up this sounds, but that’s how I’m feeling.”

I want to tell you this, thank you so much for writing back and giving me that update. I didn’t even have a chance to tell you that I created this episode yet, so I wanted to follow up on your update and say good for you. This is a step that you initiated, that you felt empowered enough to do. Regardless of who pushed you into it, who motivated you, you still took the steps to do it. You initiated this, you had the strength to leave, and the hardest part sometimes is taking the steps that you need to take for you so that you become healthier.

I wanted to tell you that first and foremost, is that you have the strength in you to make decisions like this and take action like this. When you take action, it means that you care about yourself, and you want better for yourself. I also understand that you wanted this relationship to work.

In my opinion, leaving helps the relationship become what it needs to be because it gives both of you a chance to look at your lives and figure out what you need to do for you. He needs to figure out what he needs to do for him, and you need to figure out what you need to do for you. While you’re in the fishbowl together, you can’t see your problems from the real world looking into that fishbowl. In other words, you can’t tell what you’re in when you’re in it.

I’m just going to give you a heads up, while you’re apart, you’re going to feel the draw. You’re going to feel the pull back toward him and back toward the relationship. What history shows is that he will now become the person you want him to be, at least in appearance. I want you to be very aware of this, because when someone is being emotionally abusive, and they lose control of that which they are controlling, they will play to your empathy and compassion. They will play it to the point where you feel so reconnected to them, that you’ll invite them back into your life.

That’s what can happen often. I want you to be aware that this is part of the process. I want you to know that the average length of time for you to become clear, when leaving any type of abusive relationship, is about two months. That varies from person to person. Some people will feel better in a week, and they will think, “What the heck was I thinking? I’ll never go back to that situation again.” Some people will take a little longer. I’ve seen on average, when someone leaves an emotionally abusive relationship, it takes about two months for your head to clear and for you to start thinking straight again and to start thinking outside the sphere of influence that you were in.

While you’re away, it’s very likely he’s going to reach out to you and apologize. He’s going to want to get back together and say things like, “I’ll get help. I’ll do whatever it takes to have you back in my life.” These are all part of his dysfunction. What I mean by that, and I’m not trying to put him down, I don’t know anything about him except what you’ve explained, but his dysfunction is wanting you back in his life before he’s healed.

I’ve done this in my own life. I wasn’t healed and I needed to heal because the reason for the breakup in the first place was something I was doing. I wanted the people in my life back so badly because I needed someone to provide me happiness instead of seeking it on my own. Instead of knowing that the source of my happiness wasn’t outside of me, it was inside. Not that other people can’t make you happy, but when you look for one person to be the sole source of your happiness, it can be very dysfunctional.

If someone sees you as their sole source of happiness, they will often attempt to get you under their control. If that happens, you get into this weird dynamic called trauma bonding, where there’s love and control, emotional abuse, manipulation, blaming, accusing and the guilting. All of these components that make up an emotionally abusive relationship, and also make up the craziness that you can feel of not knowing what to do next and not knowing what to say, and not knowing how to convince him that it’s equal work in the relationship.

Two people have to work at it to make the relationship great.

Coming back to what I said, you just have to be aware that he will probably do everything in his power to make you feel compassionate and empathetic toward him. It’s going to hurt and it’s going to feel pretty bad. You’re going to feel like reaching out to him. You’re going to feel like responding to everything that he sends you, you’re going to feel like answering the phone, and you’re going to feel like talking it out. You’re going to be so desperate to hear the words that you want to hear, and those words are, “I’m sorry, it’ll never happen again, I promise I’ll change.”

You just have to watch out for that because those are the words that we all want to hear whenever something like this happens. Sometimes these are desperate actions taken by a desperate person to get someone back under their control. You do have to keep your compassion and your empathy in check.

What I mean by that is don’t automatically give in to the temptation to connect, because someone who really cares about you is going to want to stop hurting you. Someone who really cares about you is also going to realize that they were hurting you and that they do need help.

They need help. Not to be a better person for you, but for them. What that means is you want to hear things like “You know what, it’s a good thing you left because I need to work on myself. You were so right about me.”

That’s what you’re looking for. But you don’t want to just hear the words, you want to see it happen as well.

You may not have any communication with him whatsoever, and I think that’s healthy. After the two months, when your head is clear, then it’s safer for you, it’s safer for you to reconnect* (if you even want to go that route). What normally happens is that after that fog lifts, and the person that’s been in that situation starts realizing, “Oh, these are my thoughts without this person around. This is clarity. This is how it feels to think in a healthy way.” Then the longing and the pining for the other person’s approval or the other person’s validation, or the other person to just ‘get it’ disappears.

You may be in that space I’m talking about in which you long for that validation, looking for that acknowledgement, and hoping that he realizes what he did, so that he actually makes the changes he needs to make. These changes take time. Even if he starts seeing a therapist or working on himself in some way, these changes take time. Until he gets to a certain point, it’s vital that you don’t get into that sphere of influence again, because once you’re in that sphere of influence, then you’re filling those gaps in yourself of self-worth, self-esteem, self-love and self-compassion.

Someone like that will know how to fill those gaps for you temporarily to lock you back in. I just don’t want you to be locked in a situation like that; I want that situation to be your choice. I want that relationship to be a choice. It’s so much healthier for you to say, “Okay, you know what, I’ll try this for a week, but if I see any bad behavior, I’m out of here.” He can be good for a week, I’m sure he could, which means you might give yourself the choice to try for a month. But you have to be strong enough to stop.

What happens is most people feel locked into that relationship again, because they’re always looking to fill the gaps that they have missing in themselves. They get those gaps filled by the other person, and in an emotionally abusive relationship, the things that fill the gaps are temporary. They are to lock the person back in, so I just want you to be aware that it does take a little while for you to get a clear head.

It takes even longer for the person who’s been emotionally abusive, if they want to change, to seek help and do it for themselves. While they’re healing, they’re not begging for you to come back, because that is the one thing, if you come back, that will prevent their healing completely. I’m only telling you this because I know there will be a temptation to want to connect and to contact him. I don’t believe that’s the best thing for you. I think what you need is separation, disconnect, and being far enough away for a long enough time to start realizing how worthy how valuable, how lovable, and what a wonderful person you are.

When you’re away from that environment, where the only source of that information is coming from the person that’s also being harmful, the data gets confusing in your brain. Then you don’t know who to believe or what to believe, so you go back to the source of trauma, and you’re stuck there again.

Bottom line, take some time for yourself, take advantage of this time. You will probably cry; you will probably miss him. You will go through a lot of emotions and know that it’s part of the process. Also realize that he is going to probably do everything he possibly can to try to get you back during your time of healing. During the time that he needs to have some sort of revelation where he finally says, “Oh, I should probably work on myself, too.”

*If the relationship has been physically abusive, assume it will never be safe to reconnect. Physical abuse doesn’t normally stop once it starts. And once it happens, it opens the door for it to happen again.

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Paul Colaianni

Paul Colaianni is a Behavior and Relationship Coach, and the host of The Overwhelmed Brain and Love and Abuse podcasts.

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