Sarah is struggling to escape a traumatic two-year relationship with a charismatic man. This intelligent woman feels she has lost her voice and her ability to maintain boundaries. Can you offer advice to help her close the door to him, permanently?
*** Sarah’s story has been published with her permission. Names have been changed to protect her identity ***
I seem to have found myself in a ‘relationship/friendship’ with a man and I can’t seem to escape from the dynamic, which continues to cause me much pain, suffering and trauma.
I met this man a couple of years ago. At that time my marriage was coming to an end. When we met, this man came in very seductively and powerfully. He talked of how our meeting was ‘cosmic’, of the powerful connection we shared and so on. He is charismatic, powerful, charming, funny and we seemed to get on well.
The whole experience was really intense and I believed that he was very into me. But I never felt quite secure. I felt anxious much of the time and coupled with a difficult home situation I felt quite overwhelmed.
He started to blow hot and cold. He’d be all intense and then withdraw. At the same time he’d tell me he couldn’t make commitments, about his problems with his ex-wife, that he liked to date lots of women and so on. But I thought we had a real connection, I thought I was different.
The push/pull dynamic seemed to intensify. He’d make plans, then pull out, couldn’t make plans, was available then unavailable. Then suddenly, with no warning, he completely cut me off. By this time I was a complete nervous wreck and hardly able to eat. Unfortunately I suffered a nervous breakdown and my trauma was badly triggered. I attended a clinic for trauma for several months.
Then out of the blue, I got a text. We resumed contact. At this time, I still put him in a pedestal and thought he was a great guy. I thought we were friends and hoped that we’d reignite the ‘relationship’.
We had a brief period of sexual contact and ‘going out’. Though we never had full sex – he withheld that from me. But though the sexual part ended through mutual decision, he wouldn’t leave me alone. Suddenly he’d be everywhere I was, texting me and being really nice, even inviting me to his place overseas.
Abruptly, his manner toward me changed when he met a woman. It seemed as though he didn’t want me around, I felt belittled in public by his comments, he wasn’t available, he was quite dismissive. He told me the relationship was over – but he’d still call me and we’d talk.
Then he asked for my help with a project of his. Somehow I have been unable to refuse his requests for help and have ended up doing things for him – including helping out with his project and lending him a lot of money.
I have tried to break away numerous times but when he contacts me I can’t hold a boundary. During this time he has lashed out at me several times. Called me a c**t and heaped quite a lot of abuse onto me. He never says sorry for these outbursts, instead I say sorry. It’s all so upside down. My self esteem has taken such a battering that somehow I haven’t been able to stand up for myself, though in every other situation I am capable and intelligent.
The characteristics of this relationship are:
- I feel like a passenger in his life. He’s not interested in me really.
- He has regularly used the threat of cutting me out of his life whenever I speak up or challenge him.
- Everything is my fault. I am to blame for everything that has gone wrong because I am ‘difficult’.
- Refuses to talk through any conflict. If I try he puts the phone down on me or says I’m ‘going over old ground’.
- Has once threatened to call the police on me, though I had done nothing! I said sorry! It’s crazy! I always end up pacifying him. It seems easier.
- Seems to have lots of secrets. Everything’s very vague. He has recently, or maybe I just realised it, started lying about where he is or even what country! It’s all a bit shady. Whenever I ask direct questions he gets really angry.
- If I express even the slightest need he gets angry with me. But he depends on me a lot for practical and emotional support.
- Everything is on his terms. As long as I comply then things go smoothly. But if I ‘step out of line’ I can be on the end of some severe anger which is extremely hurtful.
- Constant criticism about me and my behaviour, I am the sick one. But I am never allowed to refer to or have any feelings about the impact his behaviour has on me. If I do, I am cut off. It’s my fault though because I’m ‘sick’.
I have no voice in this relationship. It’s all about him. I cannot say anything. I have become scared of his anger and threats. I’ve suffered so much hurt over this. And yet, when he’s ‘nice’, he seems so genuine. I think he’s trustworthy. I feel hope.
“I seem powerless… my self-esteem is so skewed”
I’ve broken off contact a few times and received a lot of anger. But when he contacts me again, I seem powerless not to respond.
It’s ruining my health, my spirit, my well being. I feel emotionally battered. My self-esteem is so skewed that I feel grateful when he accepts an apology for something that he has done! I feel relieved that he wants me in his life. I must be special to him if he wants me to do things for him. I used to think that I was the only woman, his special friend, but I’m starting to suspect that there are a few of us for different purposes; sex, friendship etc.
I have not been able to be present in my own life, be a present mother to my children. I have got through and suffered innumerable trauma cycles. You may think, ‘Why do you keep going back?’ And I don’t know the answer. I can’t seem to say no. Now I don’t know what’s right behaviour or wrong behaviour. I’m scared of him and ashamed of it.
I want so much to break out of this and to get to a place of perspective and indifference where he has no power over me anymore. I’m trying but I find it hard to maintain the boundary. If he keeps contacting me and I don’t respond I feel I’m being ‘mean’ or cold.
I’ve done lots of therapy around this. I know the true me is really very strong and powerful. I still keep faith that I will get out of this abusive relationship. I know I have it in me. I really am glad I shared. Any perspective would be gladly received.
Avalanche: It’s hard to ‘give up’, but the only real choice
From your descriptions of this man and your relationship, I picked up major red flags which could point to narcissism (not wanting to commit to you, but wanting to maintain his side supply), emotional violence, gaslighting (telling you that nothing is his fault, it is yours because you are crazy), trauma-bonding, hoovering (invading your boundaries).
It sounds like you understand that this man is toxic (lots of kudos to you for reaching that stage, by the way!), but you are struggling to break free completely. I understand how hard that can be. It is hard to ‘give up’ on someone in whom we feel we have invested so much. I think we, as women in particular, feel that when we give so much and do so much for another person, we will one day be rewarded with the love and appreciation that we deserve.
“Abusive individuals never reward investment”
Unfortunately, with abusive individuals, this ‘payout’ never comes. That’s because their view of relationships is essentially warped – they don’t see it as reciprocal, give-and-take, but rather a twisted power/weakness balance. They are so deeply insecure that they are like an emotional black hole – they try to cram the void inside themselves with someone else, they try to prove their power and importance by demeaning, controlling, destroying another person.
Much as we try to ‘save’ this person, to demonstrate our worth, to get them to recognise that what they are doing is wrong, their abusive behaviour will not stop. Their mentality rarely enables them to accept responsibility and take action to resolve their issues.
In truth, only you have the power to improve your situation, and you can do that by closing the door on this man forever.
I believe you already realise this, because you have tried to cut him out of your life. A big well done to you for that! Now don’t give up! In my last abusive relationship, it took me several serious attempts and countless smaller attempts before I was able to get free. Check out my post on some of the steps I took to make sure I didn’t go back.
“No Contact can give you space to assess”
Of all these, I think the most important to you is No Contact. It is so very important because it would give you thinking and breathing space, it will set a boundary in which you can start a your recovery process without the chaos that this man deliberately creates for you.
You describe feeling “mean” or “cold” in ignoring him. That’s a natural way to feel. I felt exactly the same way, especially since my abuser was the father of my child. But, I eventually realised that leaving the door open to contact was giving him more opportunities to grind me down, to weaken my resolve, and to suck me back in to the avalanche of abuse.
In the end, as a mother like you, I refused to allow him to destroy my child’s life. Maintaining No Contact was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life, but it worked.
Now, I say that my son (just a baby when I left) saved my life, because what I couldn’t do for myself, I did for him. I’m able to be fully present in my child’s life, and I feel so much stronger and fulfilled for having made the break. If I can do it, so can you.
I’m so happy that you see that strength in yourself, and that you have built the self-awareness that you have. You have already made so much progress in your journey. Please keep going, onwards and upwards!
What’s your advice to Sarah? How did you make a permanent break from a toxic, painful relationship? Did No Contact work for you? Hard as it was to let go, what did you gain from doing so? Please share in the Comments!
© Avalanche of the Soul, 2013-14