It's My Life Now
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It's My Life Now

Starting Over After an Abusive Relationship

Meg Kennedy Dugan, Roger R. Hock

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eBook - ePub

It's My Life Now

Starting Over After an Abusive Relationship

Meg Kennedy Dugan, Roger R. Hock

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About This Book

Now in its third edition, It's My Life Now is a guide for survivors who have left an abusive relationship. It addresses—in clear, non-threatening language—various issues associated with abuse and violence, including post-relationship emotions, psychological impact, dealing with children, personal safety, legal problems, and financial security. Each chapter dismantles common myths about being in and leaving an abusive relationship and contains activities for self-exploration that survivors can complete as they navigate a new life free from abuse. Recommended by the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, this book is designed to benefit any survivor, no matter how much time has passed.

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Looking Back


Were You in an Abusive Relationship?

Myth: You must have done something to cause the abuse.
Myth: Abuse only happens to people who are weak.
Myth: Victims who don’t leave an abusive relationship right away must have something wrong with them.
Many explanations exist for the components of intimate partner abuse. Every intimate relationship is unique and each abusive intimate relationship is unique, too. However, as you look back on your relationship, you will discover certain signs, clues, and characteristics that should help you decide if yours was an abusive relationship. Two significant indicators are common to virtually all cases of relationship abuse: power and control.

Defining Abuse

Relationship abuse usually involves a pattern of abusive events. Except in rare cases, a single incident usually does not constitute abuse. Instead, victims experience a repetitive pattern of controlling behaviors that typically does not stop and escalates over time.
Abusive relationships are based on power and control. The abuser’s goal is to exert power over you to ensure that he is in complete control of you and of the relationship. Your partner’s controlling tactics may have been subtle and not easily recognized. He may have tried to convince you that controlling your time, the friends you have, and most or all of your daily activities was a sign of caring or wanting only the best for you. As time went by, however, the control you once had over your life disappeared. Gradually, using a wide range of strategies, he was able to render you powerless and place himself in control of you and the entire relationship.
Although all abusive relationships share the characteristics of power and control, the specific behaviors used by abusers to achieve their goals vary greatly. At the beginning of your relationship, you may not have even noticed the negative behaviors. You may have felt that some of the behaviors seemed loving and attentive. Your partner might have been so jealous of your time that it seemed extreme, but he convinced you it was because of how much he loved you. He was probably with you almost all the time and told you that he couldn’t stand to be without you. He seemed to put you on a pedestal, which probably felt wonderful. The relationship grew very quickly and when you were not together, he called or texted you a lot. You may have thought at the time that this was the best relationship of your life.
Slowly, however, some of those wonderful things began to change. Perhaps you felt as if your partner wanted to move ahead in the relationship too quickly. He may have pressured you into spending all your time together to the exclusion of other friends and family members. After the times you were apart, he constantly asked where you had been and what you had been doing. Sometimes this questioning may have erupted into outbursts of anger and jealousy.
Next, you may have noticed that your abuser was becoming more critical of you. The criticism may have been about whom you went out with, the way you dressed, how you talked, or even the music you liked. Each time, he followed the criticism by saying he was only telling you these things to “help you.” And each time he once again professed his deep love for you.
At this point, you may have grown a bit concerned, but probably passed it off as some sort of stress your abuser was under. He apologized for the jealous outbursts and promised it would never happen again. He convinced you not to worry. But as the criticism continued, you may also have begun to feel critical of yourself and your own activities as well.
Slowly, you began to realize that the troubling behavior was not going away: it was getting worse, it was becoming abusive. Still, even as this negative behavior increased, you might not have recognized it as abuse. You may not have liked what he did or said to you; you may have felt hurt and unhappy, but he convinced you it was a “normal” part of a relationship, a problem that the two of you could work out somehow. Or he convinced you that you were somehow to blame and if you could just change, his behavior toward you would change as well.
As the relationship continued, you probably read or heard stories about intimate partner abuse, relationship abuse, or domestic violence. These were horrific stories where a victim was murdered by an intimate partner or a victim whose partner’s violence sent her repeatedly to the emergency room. These overtly physically violent examples of abuse may have made it even more difficult for you to label what was happening in your relationship as abuse because it was not the same, not so outwardly violent. Abuse in your own life may have taken forms that were initially much less obvious. Whether or not you experienced physical abuse, you may have been the victim of verbal, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse. You may have never experienced any physical violence at all and yet you survived an extremely abusive relationship.
If you were the victim of abuse in childhood or in an earlier relationship, the process of recognizing the abuse may have been a bit different. If all you had ever known were abusive relationships, your abuser might have used this knowledge to make it more difficult for you to recognize a problem existed. If you had been abused in previous relationships, you may have hoped this one would be better, but you may not have realized what constituted a healthy, non-abusive relationship.
Because of what your past abusers told you, you may have believed you were just overreacting. Your abuser may have used his knowledge of your past abuse to minimize the seriousness of his own abusive behaviors. He may have pointed out all the “nice” things he did for you and how you were imagining these problems because you were “oversensitive.” You may have taken a long time to realize that this was indeed abuse, that it was wrong, and that you deserved better.
Because the abuse or violence may come and go, and the relationship alternates between terrible, abusive times and better or even good times, an abuser can use this back-and-forth to make you unsure and question whether you have an unhealthy relationship and a violent partner.

The Power and Control Wheel

One reason you may have found it difficult to identify what you experienced as abuse is the myth that only overt violence constitutes abuse. In reality, there are a multitude of means and tactics for exerting power and control in a relationship. Often survivors don’t recognize the abuse in their relationships because they have been exposed to a list of the various means abusers use to exert power and control over their victims. The Duluth Domestic Violence Power and Control Wheel may help you identify the multitude of ways he abused you.
In your abusive relationship you may have found that there were times when the abuse was not as obvious or overt. There may have been times of outward calm when no visible abuse was happening. You probably recognized this was a way your abuser found to keep you unsettled by alternating outward emotional, verbal, or physical abuse with times of compliments and quiet. A way to visualize this is to think of a roller coaster. During the “highs” you might have felt more able to move about your daily life while still having that inward dread of what was to come. Many victims talk about this period of “calm” as the worst times not knowing when the other shoe would drop. At times that freefall into violence occurred leaving you not knowing where it would end. Other times the “waiting” seems interminable. Once over, you had no way of knowing what would come next. Your abuser’s goal was to keep you off balance, unsure of him or yourself.
Figure 1.1 Power and Control Wheel
(Reprinted with permission of Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs [DAIP]).
Figure 1.2 The Rollercoaster of Abuse.

Emotional Abuse

If you are like many people who have survived an abusive relationship, you may find that, paradoxically, the physical abuse feels somehow less damaging in the long run than the emotional abuse you endured. Emotional abuse is so insidious and psychologically devastating that it can take the longest time to heal. Bruises, cuts, or even broken bones often mend faster than the wounds of emotional abuse. And your abuser probably used many strategies to take control of and manipulate your feelings and emotions.
Did your abuser make you feel unworthy of love? Did he work to convince you that you were stupid, ugly, or fat? Through these tactics, he persuaded you that no one would ever find someone like you attractive. By doing this, he was working to guarantee that you would stay with him.
Did your abuser make you feel that the abuse was all your fault? He probably tried to make you believe that something must be wrong with you because otherwise the abuse would stop. You came to hope and believe that if you were only more patient, better organized, a better lover, or somehow different, the abuse would stop. But no matter what you did, the abuse continued. You slowly began to feel worthless, hopeless, and helpless.
After each incident of abuse, your abuser probably tried to make it seem as though you caused it. It may have gone something like this: “I’m so sorry but if only you hadn’t …” This created a way for him to seem repentant while, at the same time, telling you it was all your fault.
Your abuser may have threatened you if you didn’t do exactly what he wanted. Threats can be a devastating form of emotional abuse. Sometimes an abuser’s threats are overt and clear: “The next time I see you talking to him, I’ll fix it so you’ll never talk again.” Other threats, though, can be more veiled and subtle: “Sure, go ahead and go out tonight. I hope your cat will be OK while you’re gone.”
Also, your abuser probably minimized the extent of the abuse in numerous ways. After an emotional assault he may have told you that it wasn’t all that bad, that you didn’t look very damaged, that you were just being a big baby. This tactic had the power of making you feel as though you were exaggerating the incident, but also let you know that if this wasn’t “all that bad,” much worse things were possible.
Here is a partial list of actions that constitute emotional abuse:
Entitlement (“I have a right to sex”; “I expect you to do what I say.”)
Withholding (“I don’t need to tell you what I’m thinking or feeling”; “Why would I want to make love with someone like you?”)
Emotionally misrepresenting (“You’re not hurt, what a joke. Y...

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