Ep 58 – My Story of Covert Abuse

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Hi Stepparents,

First of all, I want to apologize that I didn’t produce an episode last week. I got sick with a nasty cold, and decided to live what I preach, that self-care needs to be a priority. I often talk about how important it is to meet your own needs first so that you can better support others.

So, I followed my own advice, unplugged from everything, and answered my body’s plea for rest.

Since October is domestic violence awareness month, I am sharing a bit more about my 16-year long relationship that was riddled with covert abuse. The abuse was mostly emotional, though there were incidents of physical abuse as well.

Abuse Susceptibility

I’m talking about it, because I felt so alone and confused about how I felt about what I was experiencing and that no one could understand. So, I’m hoping that by painting this picture, it may help someone out there who is experiencing the same thing I did.

For a long time, I was ruled by emotions like feeling inadequate, stupid, incapable, and like a failure. And I had to start to learn to hear, listen to and believe that small voice deep within that was fighting to be heard. That deep desire for more, the strong urge to do more and be more.

I was in a relationship during a very vulnerable and confusing time in my life. It was a difficult time anyway, because I was a teenager. Additionally, I felt particularly raw and alone because we were immigrants from a culture that had very different values and outlooks than the American culture.

The point is, we all have something that makes us particularly vulnerable at some point in our life.

I was an only child, and my parents and grandparents couldn’t relate nor help me to understand, process, or feel better about my experience. Discussing feelings is not something we did in my family growing up.

The Temptation Leading to Abuse

So, when I found someone who would listen, could relate, was interested in helping me navigate it all and shoulder the load – I was All In. I felt like I found the holy grail. Which interestingly, I now recognize was a clue that something was off, because, clearly, the power dynamic was not equal.

Throughout the relationship I felt like I was less than. Looking back at it now, I can see that both of us played a role in creating that dynamic. It takes 2, the person taking the power, and whether they realize it or not, the person giving their power away.

I was made to believe that everything that was wrong was my fault, and that I had to be better. Even making a sign to put next to my mirror with the words “Be Better” written on it to serve as a constant reminder for me.

The Tactics of Abuse

There were lots of different tactics used to get me to see things this way…

1. Manipulation

There was emotional manipulation. He would give me loads of compliments and profess his love for me, only to pull the affection away and grow distant. Then he’d say he can’t be with me because he loves me and gives so much and I must not love him because if I did, I would do x,y, or z.

This cycle of giving me his adoration and then pulling it all away and telling me that we’re over had me physically and emotionally distraught. I would feel sick to my stomach, like my insides were being twisted and pulled by a torture device. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and felt like I couldn’t go on without him.

After many hours, or a day of torture, he would throw me a bone by offering to come see me or pick me up. By then, whatever needs I had been advocating for that caused the fight initial altercation – whether it was to see my family, or take time to do homework – was long forgotten because I got my “air” back and needed to hold on to it with all my might. “Air” was what I thought he was to me, since I was convinced that I couldn’t live without him.

He had nothing but the worst things to say about my family and then would tell me that I’m just like them. Everything was so confusing and all I longed for were more good times and for him to see me in that positive light like he did before. I was consistently trying to win his approval and his love.

2. Isolation

He wanted to keep me all to himself, to have most of my time, and didn’t like it when others entered our world. Painting a very enticing picture, for a teenager and young adult with abandonment issues, convincing me romantically that we didn’t need anyone else.

He wanted us to be each other’s everything and for it to be “us against the world.” Our relationship became very interdependent. We played multiple roles for each other simultaneously, which further confused our boundaries. Playing for each other the role of girlfriend/boyfriend, brother/sister, parent/child and best friend. 

He would often refuse to go to important work events with me or celebratory events. And then would fight with me about leaving him alone for too long and would guilt me about not spending time with him one on one and not prioritizing him.

It felt like I was his puppet he experimented with to see how far he could push me and what would happen.

Early on, if I would open up to friends and bring back the feedback from our discussions, he would convince me that they didn’t understand our love and how special our relationship was.

This eventually prevented me from sharing anything with friends. Which only served to further isolate me from the outside world, and, unbeknownst to me, kept me in this cycle without realizing how toxic it was.

3. Make Me Look Bad

He would get mad at me and berate me for not having his back and standing up for him to his family, his mom in particular, for how they treated him. But, when they blamed me and made me out to be the bad guy for calling them out, he would side with them against me and call me terrible names.

He would bad mouth me and pick fights with me in front of our friends to make me wrong and to make me look bad, so that he would look good by comparison.

4. Made Me Play “Fixer”

This is also where I was pressured to step into the role of “fixer” to come up with solutions for situations I didn’t create.

For example, one time he bought a video game console on my credit card, and though he waited too long to return it, he pressured ME to find a way to return it to the store for a full refund. When I attempted and was unsuccessful, he had a lengthy conversation with me that was part blaming and shaming, and part pep talk to have me try again to “get the job done.” This cycle went on for several hours.

5. Circular Looping

When there were arguments, they would be circular and it felt like there were multiple threads that would get crossed and tangled and confused. He practically never stayed with the same topic until we saw it through. The fights/disagreements/arguments would last for hours.

If I needed to go to the bathroom or eat, he would engage me and harshly guilt and shame me for daring to take a break during such an important discussion. Then, he would jump to saying I must not love him and not want to be in this relationship.

I remember feeling cornered and desperately trying to hold on to logic as it would, elusively, slip through my fingers. I even tried to resort to his tactics of speaking and reasoning to try to get on the same page with him so that we could work through a conversation.

But my attempts proved futile and, somehow, I would again be wrong, confused, feeling stupid and like everything was my fault.

Many of these arguments would last from the time I got home from work, around 5pm, till 2am or 3am. And sometimes they would last till 7am the next morning, leaving me just enough time to shower and get back to work.

I was completely exhausted, running on fumes and barely able to function. I was the only breadwinner at that time, and he was a hermit, so he had plenty of time to rest up to do it all over again the next day.

The Wake Up Call – “It’s Abuse”

I would constantly read articles about relationship dynamics and was sure that I would be able to spot any signs of being in an unhealthy relationship. 13 ½ years in, during a mandatory exit interview with a counselor at the day program he was completing for substance dependency, she opened my eyes to how co-dependent and unhealthy our dynamics had been.

I met with her a handful of times and that’s when the wake-up alarm sounded. I felt like I was hit by a bus square in the face. It took lots of deep self-reflection and soul searching for me to realize that the only answer was to separate, at the very least, temporarily for an extended period of time.

When we did, I was ashamed, and embarrassed to tell anyone. I was sure they would see everything as my fault. It felt like I was a failure, stupid, and like I had squandered this gift of a loving relationship.

It was so confusing. As I thought of describing the events to someone, I felt ridiculous and incompetent for staying in it and falling into the trap for so long. I’ve realized since, though, that this encroachment on my boundaries, didn’t happen overnight or all at once.

It happened through little moments that imperceptibly moved the line closer. And these little moments, perfectly timed and executed, happened again and again. Each time, my emotions were so intense and the events so confusing that I rationalized the behavior and the movement of that line.

And one day, I found myself unsure of myself, feeling like I couldn’t survive without this person, and feeling like I didn’t have anything to offer and wasn’t worthy of being loved.

The Aftermath of Abuse

If you’ve listened to episode 56 where I share my backstory, you’ll notice similar themes from my early childhood to those playing out in this relationship. Find the show notes for that episode at synergisticstepparenting.com/56.

Those themes are, trying to win approval and love, the directive to obey and to “be a good girl” by doing what I’m told. Sadly, I now see how my upbringing contributed to my falling into this trap.

However, I’ve come to view all of this, not through a lens of blame and bashing the person who may have done wrong, mis-stepped or had flaws just like the rest of us.

 As Dale Carnegie says in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Clear Hindsight

Instead, I recognize that observing and dissecting the patterns that led to an unhealthy dynamic and seeing clearly how both parties contributed to that.

I see, that much like I brought my own painful experiences and patterns into this relationship, he too had unhealed wounds.

Throughout his childhood he was manipulated and devalued by his parents who often used him for their own gains and didn’t support him the way every child deserves to be supported.

His parents gambled away money for food, went on drug binges, kept him up at night because they wanted company, and then blamed him for not getting up early and not wanting to go to school.

They had many unresolved mental health related issues and allowed themselves to unleash those demons on him.

I recognize that the unhealthy ways that he related to me were the coping skills he acquired for survival during his own tumultuous life. This is not to condone them, but to say that he was doing the best he knew how at the time.

An Attitude of Gratitude

I also recognize the opportunity that this painful experience gave me…

I am grateful for these lessons, and for discovering and strengthening my values and boundaries through this expedition that allowed me to clarify who I am and who I want to be.

You can Heal and Have An Amazing Life After Abuse

It was a long road to get here, but I’m here to tell you, no matter where you are right now…

how low you may be feeling…

how confused or small you might be made to feel…

you CAN make it to the other side and have a beautiful life!  

Yes, you too can step into your power, you can heal your pain, you can fulfill your dream of being the magnificent creature you were always meant to be.

You can have a wonderful loving family that appreciates you, what you bring to the table and champions your uniqueness, celebrating you as the precious gift you are.

If you’re ready to take the first step towards creating the joyful, peaceful and powerful life you want, book a clarity call with me to discover the next best step to start creating your brightest future at synergisticstepparenting.com/work.

Until next time, be well!

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