Right after my ex broke up with me, I felt heartbroken and devastated, but proud of myself for the love and generosity that I was capable of — I had no regrets, I had loved her deeply and fully. 3 months and 2 therapists later, I’m beginning to see what friends and family suspected long ago, that she was emotionally and sexually abusive to me. I love her still so much, I know the cruelty she treated me with was only because she had been treated so cruelly by others and turned that inward on herself, and I’m a casualty of that. But I’m beginning to see my love and empathy as a flaw. How can I trust myself again, when I know how many red flags I excused away, how many second and third and fourth chances I gave, how much I sacrificed my own self love in the name of “loving” another. Is that love, or just sickness? How can I feel good about any of it now?
The first thing I want to say is that I’m so sorry you had this experience with someone you loved, who you trusted. Being in an abusive relationship is very devastating and destructive, and I want to acknowledge your heartbreak over this upfront and tell you that it is completely normal and natural to feel those feelings.
It helps me to process things by hearing other people’s experiences with them, so I’ll share this: after having a free counselor for a couple of months, I graduated from treatment and had to find a new therapist. At the time I was in a relationship, and I went into therapy with the express purpose of being a better partner to the woman I was with. Over the course of a few months with my new therapist, I realized I was also in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship with my ex, and I started making my exit plan.
I had been convinced by my ex that all my behaviors were wrong so that I couldn’t see that she was isolating me, pressuring me into sex when I didn’t want it, and, toward the end, trying to control my finances. When I left that relationship I didn’t take the time to grieve it. I jumped into the next thing, and ended up breaking my own heart even more. I was pressuring myself not to grieve and not to mourn the loss of my relationship and robbed myself of that processing in the pursuit of “getting over it.”
I hope you have the support of those family and friends you mentioned through this. I also just want to highlight a couple of things you said.
It’s really gracious and important that you realized that your ex’s behaviors were a function of how cruelly she was treated by other people in her life. It is often a fact that people that abuse were once abused themselves or witnessed abuse in their homes. That reality, no matter how heartbreaking, is not a justification for the abuser’s behavior. Once a person crosses over into being a perpetrator they are responsible for their own actions and have to deal with the repercussions. This might sound harsh, and I’m not saying people who abuse should be robbed of all community, I think the opposite is true. Just as you have your family and friends for support, hopefully, your ex has the same and a mental health professional on her side to guide her through her own healing.
It’s okay to still love her, I would say it’s even normal. When you’ve invested your heart and your time in someone that way, the love doesn’t simply disappear after bad treatment by that person. It can linger, you can find yourself missing them. I often found myself wanting to call my ex when I got good news, even after months of separation.
Your love and empathy are not flaws. I know it is hard to trust yourself after you’ve been hurt this way, but you shouldn’t shut down your heart in the face of it. It’s important to keep your heart open during this time so you can receive love and care from those around you. The thing about abuse and abusers is that they often heavily rely on this kind of self-blame. If you are focused on what you supposedly did “wrong,” the person that abused you is granted a sort of innocence. We often ignore red flags when they are countered with loving actions after they are revealed. It’s an abuse tactic to pair cruelty with affection so that you as the person being abused say things like “it’s not that bad” or believe the offending behavior is a one-off.
The question of how you can trust yourself after this is complicated, it takes work. You have to shift from the self-blaming language of viewing your empathy and love as a flaw to viewing the abusive behaviors as a “flaw” of your ex. You can have empathy for the ways she was hurt while fully acknowledging that she hurt you. Blame is a harsh word, so I’ll say you have to lay responsibility with her.
You will certainly find yourself falling in love again, and when you do, and you notice some red flags, you have to be an unflinching judge as to whether that is a behavior you can deal with. That is a skill you will have learned from this experience. You may be in pain right now, but what you know is that you can survive an experience like this. Your therapist will be of immense help with this as well. It might even help to talk with your therapist about the specific red flags your ex exhibited and discuss ways to approach that in conversation if you see them in future partners. Ask your therapist about books on surviving intimate partner violence. Listen to podcasts about it. Spend some time learning about the experience from a psychological standpoint so that you feel less alone, and can begin to shift away from absorbing all of the responsibility yourself.
The last thing I want to address is your last question: how can you feel good about any of it now? In my case, my ex was my first love. After I ended the relationship I burned every love letter, threw away gifts, deleted all our pictures together. I didn’t want to feel good about any of it, I wanted to erase it. Now, a few years removed, I’ll occasionally get hit with a good memory. When that happens, I try not to feel shame or to strike down the memory where it stands. Because the truth is I was in love with her. No matter what she did to me I still consider her my first true love, and will sometimes think about our fond memories. That’s okay to do. If you find yourself laughing or smiling at a memory, don’t beat yourself up. You were in love, and cared about her very deeply, that doesn’t change even in the face of abuse.
Healing looks different for everyone. You might have to go no contact with her for months or years, especially if she doesn’t acknowledge how harmful her behaviors were. You might have to get rid of the things she gifted you, delete that text thread, block her number. I strongly recommend blocking the offending person in the case of abusive relationships but it may not be necessary for you. This sounds corny, but what your heart and head are telling you will let you know. Do you feel like you need no contact? If so, initiate that. You mentioned that you feel like you sacrificed self love in the pursuit of loving another, so spend as much time as you can replenishing the well of self-love you have. Treat yourself kindly during this time, it can be destructive if you don’t.
One other thing: there may come a time where you shift from being very sad to being very angry. I just want to validate that anger for when it comes. You don’t have to be afraid of it, because anger has its use.
I hope the next few months or years of your life are filled with the love you want to receive, that the love you put into the world and into others is reflected back to you. You deserve to be treated with respect and honor and grace. Remember that when you feel yourself doubting your heart and mind in the future.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.