You can't believe you're in this situation.
How did it happen?
Everything was so great in the beginning. You were so in love. You were such a great couple together.
But then things started to change.
The cruel comments. The controlling behaviors. The subtle threats.
The one person in the world who is supposed to love you the most, who's supposed to have your back and be your closest confidant, is emotionally abusing you.
At first you didn't know what was happening. Maybe you thought it was your fault. You hoped it was just an off week, or month, or year. But as time has gone by, you see a consistent pattern of abusive words and behaviors that have worn down your self-esteem and undermined your mental health.
Part of you wants to run away from your spouse or partner, so you never have to deal with the pain, anger, and heartbreak again. Another part of you holds on to the hope that things will change, your partner will see the light and become the loving, charming, kind person he or she was at the beginning of your relationship.
Right now, you're not sure what to do, but you know things can't keep going on as they are going.
You feel trapped and stuck. Too afraid to leave, too wounded to stay. It feels like no matter what decision you make, the consequences are unbearable. If you leave, you might risk your financial security. Your kids might suffer. You might never find someone else.
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But if you stay, you might lose your sanity.
How do you cope when you are stuck like this? How do you get through the days and deal with an emotional abuser who makes your life so difficult and painful?
Abusive relationships undermine our inner judgment, self-confidence, and decision-making abilities. When you are in a relationship like this, every move you make feels like a potential landmine.
You need some strategies to help you cope and manage the abuse so you can build your inner strength and make the best decisions for the future.
Here are 8 ways to cope and reclaim your power in abusive relationships:
1. Be completely honest with yourself.
Victims often have a difficult time recognizing the signs of emotional abuse. Abusers can be so controlling and manipulative that they cause their partners to question themselves and their sense of what is normal and acceptable in a relationship.
If you suspect you are involved in an abusive relationship, the first step toward managing the situation is being completely honest with yourself. You can't pretend everything is OK when it's not. You can't deny that the behaviors are happening consistently.
As painful as it may be to face the truth of your situation, the truth will ultimately give you power and confidence. When you know what you're dealing with, you have a starting point for making things better for yourself and your children if you have them.
2. Educate yourself about emotional abuse.
If you still question whether or not your relationship is really abusive, or you don't know much about emotional abuse, then your first order of business is to educate yourself.
Learn the signs of emotional abuse and the common patterns that abusers employ to gain the upper hand in your relationship. Read books or take a course on emotional abuse to help you better understand the mind of the abuser and your own behaviors that might perpetuate the abusive dynamic between you.
Knowledge is power, and the more you know about this challenging relationship issue, the better prepared you are to stand up for yourself and implement change, even if you can't leave the relationship right now.
3. Consider the impact on your children.
One of the biggest wake-up calls for victims of emotional abuse is realizing how this abusive relationship is affecting your children.
If you find your abuser's behavior hurtful, intimidating, and confusing, imagine how your kids must feel — especially if they have been victimized by your partner's bad behaviors or cruel words.
Simply witnessing the abuse of one parent by another is abusive toward your children. They don't have the emotional maturity or coping skills to understand what's happening and how to protect themselves from the pain and anxiety the abuse creates.
Even though you are struggling to cope yourself, you must put your children first and use your fierce desire to protect them as an incentive to speak up and stand up to the abuse.
Your children need at least one strong, mature, capable parent who is completely in their corner. Standing up for them will give you the strength to stand up for yourself.
4. Call out the abuse and let your partner know you are aware.
You and your spouse or partner may have danced around the big elephant in the room. You may have tried to argue or speak up for yourself, only to be diminished or shut down.
You may have timidly tried to ask your partner why he or she is behaving so badly, only to have it thrown back in your face as though you are the one with the problem
Maybe you have resorted to passive aggressive behaviors yourself, like pouting, stonewalling, or shutting down, in order to cope with your partner's abusive behaviors.
But now that you know more about emotional abuse, and you see the consistent patterns of abuse inflicted by your spouse, it's time to call a spade a spade. You need to call him or her out on the behaviors, and let your partner know that you see clearly what's happening.
This might feel frightening or intimidating, especially if your partner blows up or makes threats when you try to stand up for yourself. Unless your partner is physically abusing you, your calling out the behaviors won't hurt you. Remember that abusive bullies will often back down when you stand up.
You don't need to get angry or defensive. Start by talking with your partner when things are calm, and say something like, “I've been reading and learning a lot about emotional abuse in relationships, and your words and actions are abusive towards me. I want you to be aware that I know what's going on, and things need to change starting today.”
It's likely your abuser will deny the abuse, get angry, and try to place the blame on you. That's what abusers do. Don't back down or shut down. You might say something like, “We can talk more about this when you are calmer, but I want you to know that I'm on to you and your behaviors. Things are going to change.”
You might also give your partner a book about emotional abuse so that he or she can see exactly what you're talking about. Your partner may refuse to read it, but if you leave it lying around, it's likely your partner will skim through it when you're not around.
5. Set and communicate boundaries.
If you've gotten past that first conversation calling out the abuse by your partner. That's really hard to do, but you can't just leave it at one conversation.
You must set boundaries for yourself and call out the abusive behaviors any time they happen.
There are so many patterns of emotional abuse — like verbal abuse, emotional blackmail, threats, unpredictable behavior, gaslighting and sexual harassment.
As you learn more about these patterns, you'll see the behaviors that your abuser tends to exhibit most often. Write them down so you have clarity as you begin to set boundaries with your abuser.
The next time one of these abusive events occurs, or in a separate conversation during a calm time, call out the specific behavior and let your partner know that it is unacceptable.
For example, you might say something like, “I do not like the sarcasm you are using. It isn’t funny, and it’s not teasing. It is hurtful and unloving. I want you to stop using it from now on. I want you to speak to me kindly and respectfully, and if you can’t, I will end the conversation until you can.”
Consistency is key when it comes to speaking up for yourself. You can't let the behaviors slip by unchecked. Your partner may not change the behaviors right away, or maybe ever, but you will feel empowered by letting your partner know that you find the behavior unacceptable.
6. Create and employ consequences.
Your abuser may have zero desire to change and laughs in your face when you communicate your boundaries. He or she may be completely oblivious to your pain and your requests for behavior change.
The truth is, you can't change your partner. You can only request change and do your best to protect yourself. That's where consequences come in.
If you've asked your partner over and over to stop a certain behavior, and he or she won't stop, then you must take action to show you mean business. Of course the ultimate consequence is to leave the relationship, but for your own reasons, you may not be ready to do that.
So what kind of consequences have any real power or impact with your abuser?
A consequence is either removing the desirable or adding the undesirable to your partner’s life as the result of crossing a boundary and repeating abusive behaviors.
Consequences are logical, appropriate actions that force your abuser to make a more conscious choice about his behavior and that reflect your new state of mind and inner strength. They are about allowing realistic cause and effect so that your spouse will experience the pain of irresponsibility and then hopefully change.
Think ahead about consequences that are appropriate for the offense, as well as when you are willing to implement them, how many chances you will offer, and whether or not you intend to follow through. Never state a consequence that you don't intend to implement.
Here are some examples of consequences listed in my book, Emotional Abuse Breakthrough Scripts:
- Saying no or refusing a request.
- Refusing to reply until the abuser is calm.
- Ending a conversation.
- Leaving the room.
- Leaving the house for a short time.
- Leaving a restaurant, party, or other public place.
- Calling out the abuser’s bad behavior in front of others.
- Refusing to participate in or attend an event.
- Sleeping in a separate room.
- Ending sexual contact until an issue is discussed or resolved maturely.
- Hiring a housekeeper, lawn care person, cook, or babysitter if partner doesn’t help out.
- Leaving for a few days to stay with friends of family.
- Going on “strike” (from housekeeping, preparing meals, chores) until the abuser steps up.
- Talking with friends or family members about the abuse.
- Going to a counselor on your own to talk about the abuse.
- Meeting with an attorney to discuss your options.
- Meeting with a financial advisor to discuss your options.
- Getting your own job or changing jobs.
- Filing for a legal separation.
- Moving out of the house.
- Filing a restraining order.
- Filing for divorce.
- Moving to another state.
7. Set up a strong support system.
Victims of emotional abuse can feel isolated and alone with their pain and suffering about their relationship.
They might feel too embarrassed to talk openly with friends or family, or the abuser might have threatened them with some harsh consequence should they speak up about the abuse.
Isolation only leads to despair and hopelessness. You need support, compassion, and understanding as you try to navigate all of the pain, fear, and difficult decisions related to an abusive relationship.
Finding a therapist who is trained in working with emotional abuse issues is the best kind of support you can get. A therapist can help you cope with the anxiety and insecurities you are facing, as well as help you navigate the difficult decisions you must make moving forward.
If you can't afford a therapist, reach out to a close friend or family member you can trust, or find someone in your church or religious community to talk to.
You can also find support groups online, like my Facebook support group, where you can connect with others going through the same relationship challenges.
Also, if you are considering ending your marriage, set up a meeting with a divorce attorney, so you're armed with exactly what you need to know related to your financial and legal rights.
Abusers often threaten to take away money, the children, or the house should the victim try to leave. In most cases, these are empty threats that would never hold up in court should you end the relationship.
8. Practice daily self-care.
Living through an emotional abusive relationship takes a tremendous toll on your mental and physical health.
The energy you expend simply trying to get through the day is enough to drain you and weaken your immune system because of the ongoing stress.
That's why it's imperative that you treat yourself with tender, loving care. If your partner isn't treating you with love and kindness, then you need to treat yourself this way.
Exercise is more important than ever, as it helps you burn off the built-up stress and frustration you're feeling. It also keeps you mentally sharp and physically strong.
Focus on all of the good habits that help you stay healthy, centered, and calm so you have the energy and inner composure to speak up for yourself, set your boundaries, and implement consequences if necessary.
Eat healthy meals with lots of fruits and vegetables. Avoid fattening “comfort” foods that make you sluggish and tired. Consider learning to meditate to help you manage your anxiety. Work on an engaging hobby to keep your mind occupied. Spend time with friends doing things that are light and fun.
You've spent so much time focused on your abusive partner, trying to keep him or her happy. It's time you focused on your own needs without feeling guilt or fear.
Abusive relationships can make life unbearable at times. You feel that your world is out of your control and that you have no power or real place in your relationship.
That is the trap your abuser is trying to impose on you. Whether they are doing this consciously or not, you abuser is invested in keeping you under his or her thumb.
Only you can take the actions necessary to manage the abuse and reclaim your strength and self-esteem. Start with one small action to reclaim your power, and you'll see that your confidence grows more and more over time.