Getting Out of the Abusive Relationship

Getting Out of the Abusive Relationship

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.   @susanjae

It IS possible to be happy, healthy and find a loving partner after abuse

NOTE:  This entry covers all kinds of abusive relationships but before reading this for yourself or someone else, the most important thing to know when leaving a physically abusive relationship is that the most lethal time for an abused person is when she is trying to leave the abuser (most physical violence victims are female in heterosexual relationships, therefore this article uses the feminine when speaking of DV physical abuse victims, but see some of the non-physical types of abuse below for equal opportunity blame). Have a plan and get back up!  When in a domestically abusive situation, use precaution and assume anyone has the propensity for deadly violence.

The National Domestic Abuse Helpline has a safety leaving plan. CALL 1-800-799-SAFE for a safety plan and other help. They have a website, but be sure that your internet use is not being tracked by your partner before you go there. Delete your browser history.  Have a plan.  If your internet is not being tracked the website is or call 1-800-799-7233.

Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships

Abuse can be physical, mental, emotional, verbal and sexual. It can be but doesn’t have to be all 5. Just because someone isn’t hitting you doesn’t mean they are not abusive. Name calling is abusive, cheating is abusive. Feeling as if you’re walking on eggshells is abusive. Being put in no-win situations is abusive.  Here are some examples of abuse that do not belong in any loving relationship:

Physical Abuse

I was in abusive relationships from the time I was 13 until I was 30. That’s a long 17 years. I immediately gravitated, from my first junior high boyfriend, to abusive boys then men (although I shudder to label an abusive male a “man” since he is nothing of the kind. Coward is more like it.) I have come to feel, over the years, that any man who hits a woman or threatens a woman or even pretends to threaten…is not a man. Most of my relationships were physically abusive but all of them had verbal components of criticism, scapegoating and control. I remember my first boyfriend, in 8th grade, criticizing what I wore. The second boyfriend made up names and spread them around for others to call me. It was humiliating and awful. Both were physically abusive after the psychological tear-down was complete.

The number one culprit was my lack of  self esteem. This is not a blame-the-victim mentality. Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions. Abusers are responsible for their abuse. However, without a person willing to be a victim, their abuse has nowhere to go.  When I say “willing” it is not in the truest sense of the word. It means that you don’t know how NOT to be a victim. Most victims are trained to be just that and an abuse victim doesn’t know how to “remove the victim.”

For years I did not know to do this and wished that someone, somewhere, would have told my story or given me a hint as to what to do and how to get out.  I was 30 years old when a caring but tough-as-nails therapist shared her story with me and her journey to wholeness. She became the person I wanted to be and I would have stood on my head and spit nickels to achieve that.

That is why I included my story in my first book, Getting Past Your Breakup (GPYB). I got out of a very abusive relationship and, through techniques I outline below, went on to be happy and healthy and to eventually find a loving, wonderful and incredible partner. I have the requisite degrees and experience as a therapist, but most importantly, I have the personal experience of having done it. I have had reviewers (mostly men) bemoan the fact that I wrote my story at the beginning of my first book. It’s my story and it’s necessary for people who are desperate for hope to know that it can be done. If something you read is not helpful for you, try to consider that it might be helpful for someone else.

One man (whose review comes up as the “most helpful negative review”) on Amazon wrote, “I think the lady doth protest too much” because I wrote about my abusive marriage.  Really, dude?  I think there is NO SUCH THING AS PROTESTING TOO MUCH ABOUT AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP.  If you don’t like that I tell my story in order to help domestic violence victims, don’t read it. 

Anyway, do not EVER let clowns like this keep you down or KEEP YOU FROM TELLING YOUR STORY!!!  Especially if you are a FORMER victim, if you read the comments here and other places, there are people who need to know there is a WAY OUT.

I Didn’t Know That I Didn’t Know

Leaving my abusive husband was the most terrifying and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. But before I left, I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I DID NOT KNOW I could be treated any better and I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t causing the abuse by not doing things right. I also did not know that putting your hands on someone else was WRONG.  I honestly did not know this simple concept. My therapist said, “Do you know what it means to be loved unconditionally?” and I broke down and cried because it was such a foreign concept to me. But after several years and much work, I did come to learn what it meant, to give and to get. Recovery from abuse is possible.

My Partner Acts Badly Because I Screw Up

I did not know that I didn’t know because I thought everything was my fault. I had been raised in an abusive environment and was told that I made my mother crazy enough to beat the crap out of me. Even my siblings told me, “If only you kept your mouth shut…” Even when I was in therapy in my 30s, I attempted to confront my mother about it and her answer was “You were not the easiest kid to raise.”

My mother drilled into me that her abuse was my fault.  Therefore I gravitated to boys, and later men, who abused me and blamed it on me.   I obviously made everyone do everything.  After I left my first husband, I was in a support group meeting one night talking about how my behavior sent my mother, every boyfriend and my husband over the edge to the point where they became unglued and beat the hell out of me. A recovered person said, “Gee, you’re so powerful. You make everyone do everything.  So why don’t you make them do good things? And why is your own life so screwed up?”  It hit me like a ton of bricks. They took credit for the good things they did and blamed the bad things on me.  Wait. What?

Abuse victims tend not to question what the abuser is doing. IF ONLY you were less or more or taller or shorter or older or younger or cleaner or neater or thrifty or friendly or not shy or want so much or expect so much or look in the direction of others or not do this or more do more of that or cranky when it’s raining or moody or perturbed or WHATEVER excuse explains why you are abused or criticized or not cared about (and why it’s all your fault!)

It makes as much sense as saying, “How can I care about someone who wears yellow on Tuesdays? I’m sorry but I can’t.”

But that is exactly the CRAZINESS of the messages that we receive.

It’s your fault I act like a complete and utterly crazy and abusive jerk… It’s not me, it was that wearing-yellow-on-Tuesday thing you do…I mean who can live with that? If you just straightened up and wore the appropriate colors, I would not be such an insane and abusive person.

And we buy it no matter how ludicrous it is and try to fix it. We eradicate all the yellow from our lives. And next Tuesday we wear pink but that’s wrong too and then black and purple and blue and orange and they’re all wrong too and then the day comes when the abuser says, “You’re so stupid you don’t even wear yellow on Tuesdays.”  WHAT?   Wait, I thought yellow on Tuesdays was bad. It’s not? Oh let me run right out and get some yellow. There must be something wrong with my hearing or something wrong with my head. So you put the yellow back. And of course it’s “I TOLD YOU that yellow on Tuesdays is NEVER appropriate!!! You just do this to make me miserable!!!”

Not only ISN’T it going anywhere, but the GOAL is for it not to go anywhere. The only rule is that the rules constantly change. The only constant is that you can’t win. The only goal is to keep you off your pins and trying hard to please someone who cannot be pleased. The GOAL is to keep you twisted up in knots and everything is your fault.

The goal is to keep you guessing and when the abuser EXPLODES in a fit of rage and smacks the crap out of you, it’s your fault.   And you buy it…”if only I didn’t do this, he wouldn’t have hit me…” You have been groomed to believe that you’re not doing anything right so when it comes to a head, you vow to “do better next time.”

No Way to Win

The mental twisting in every abusive relationship results in no way to win.  You think there is; you try, but the problem is that there’s not and you’re looking at a psychotic problem, hatched by a psycho, with your rational mind. That is your first mistake.

GPYB blog reader recently posted that his ex blamed her financial issues on him. He offered to pay for something she needed and she declined. After they broke up, she said he should have paid for it anyway.  He bemoaned the fact that he didn’t know what to do.  I said, it’s not you, it’s her.  We always think that the one thing we didn’t do would have been the right thing. Wrong. These are people you cannot please.  No matter what you do, you’re wrong. But you try, waiting for the magical, “OH YOU ARE SO AWESOME!” response as the all-so-elusive reward you are never going to get.

This reader’s wife, like most abusers, did not have a goal to resolve her issues, but to take her anger and frustration out on him.

In my first marriage, I once tried to show him I was a “good wife” and I waxed the floors. I had worked all day, came home and cooked dinner, got 3 boys bathed and in bed and THEN set out to wash and wax the floors in FIVE large rooms even though I had to get up again at 5 am and go to work the next day. When he came home at almost 1 a.m., he said I purposely left streaks on them so he would never again ask me to do it.  I couldn’t even SEE the streaks until he pointed one or two small, pale ones. I stood there, like a dope, begging him to give me SOME CREDIT for the floors and begging him to BELIEVE that I did it out of the goodness of my heart.

I never even thought of saying, “Wait a minute. You’re such a jerk to even bring up streaks and for telling me what my intentions are.” I had been on the defensive my whole life. I had no idea how to switch gears and question his reaction.  It never occurred to me that perhaps this was unacceptable.

The thing is that you become so CONSUMED with trying to convince the abuser that you are not whatever way they are saying you are, you overlook the fact that he or she is a psychopath That’s part of the dance.

Akin to this and even more psychologically defeating, is the abuser who, now and again, throws an appreciation bone.  That’s even worse.  You think that there is a way to be approved of because you’ve seen the approval every so often.  This is almost the epitome of sadism. You can remember the appreciation and you want it to come back so badly to come back that you turn yourself inside out.

Everyone must feel appreciated in every relationship. Being appreciated is something you need in every relationship, but when you are in a relationship with an abuser, they wouldn’t approve of you in a million years.

Some other hallmarks of abusive relationships.


Every narcissist and control freak needs their scapegoat. This goes beyond the “no way to win.” It takes it a step further.  No matter what happens – whether you had a hand in it or not, it’s your fault. There is always something upsetting/frustrating that happened and the abuser needs someone to blame and you’re it, and you’re always it, no matter how far removed you are from what happened.

I went on a business trip and, while I was gone, my husband’s grandmother’s house was broken into while she was babysitting for us. It was, of course, my fault for being away. It wasn’t hers (who left the window open), it wasn’t his (who knows where he was), it wasn’t the person who lived above her (because it was raining and she couldn’t hear the break-in), it wasn’t the robber (because robbers will be robbers).  It was MINE even though I was 3000 miles away.

It can get so bad that you will be scapegoated if they do something so terrible, it should be a relationship ending situation. You believe them when they say that cheating on you is your fault. But, it is NONSENSE.

Name Calling  

Words do hurt and they do degrade and they do humiliate and to think that someone who is supposed to love you could ever call you a name let alone a horrible name, is unthinkable.  Saying things that “go for the jugular” or cut you off at the knees is not okay.

Love is an action but it is also what you don’t do. My late husband never called me a name. He never called me stupid or an idiot or incompetent or anything that is a negative label. It doesn’t fly with me. The first word would have been the last one.  I stopped gravitating to men who called me names after I left my first husband.  I had to learn, in therapy and support groups, that name calling has NO PLACE in healthy relationships. It requires, many times, holding your tongue and letting go the ZINGER that will cause a lot of pain, but hold that tongue and remove the zinger. It’s not okay.

For years I listened to name calling and malicious teasing. When I was obviously hurt it was “oh you know I don’t mean it” or “I was just angry” or “I was just joking…” or “I was just…”  Well I was just leaving. Good bye.

Verbal abuse or verbal put downs have NO PLACE in a loving relationship. None.

The Drama Dance That Partners Do in Abusive Relationships  

Drama is the name of the game in abusive relationships. Keeping everything swirling on the outside so that two inadequate people with major issues and problems in their backgrounds DO NOT have to look inside is the name of the game in abusive relationships. Again, is this LOVE? No. Love is an action. Period. End of story.  High wire drama has NOTHING to do with love.

The abused is just as addicted as the abuser (sometimes more). Get help.

Misplaced Sympathy  

The abused has sympathy for the abuser.  WHAT?  Yes, the VICTIM doesn’t want to hurt the ABUSER. The VICTIM always thinks of themselves as a “nice person” hoping that the ABUSER will see that someday. That is futile thinking.  It will never happen and it does not matter.

Abusers are narcissists.  They are not going to care about how nice you are except where it suits their goals.

The abuser is NEVER going to come to his or her senses. It doesn’t matter how sorry you feel or how much you want to “help.”  Stop it and put your energy into helping YOU.

The ENEMIES of Abusive Relationships

Involved Friends and Family: the abuser will get you, but first the abuser gets you alone. Keeping friends and family close thwarts that. It’s really important to not distance yourself from those who love you and to be as honest as you especially when you get out. Don’t let an abuser control you and convince you that your friends and family have harmed you or done something wrong. Many abusers will ask for your forgiveness over and over, but will magnify any little thing your friends or family do. They want to keep you without a support system. A support system is an enemy

Leaving:  I always suggest leaving.  Yes I know it’s hard, but it’s the thing to do. I’ve heard every excuse in the book and as someone who left with 3 kids and no job…I don’t buy any of them.  If you are in an abusive relationship, formulate a SAFE plan for leaving and GET OUT.

When in a domestically abusive situation, I say use precautions and assume anyone has the propensity for violence. Call the NATIONAL ABUSE HOTLINE. In the US it is 800-799-SAFE please memorize this number. In the UK it is 0808 2000 247.  They will help you develop a safety plan to leave.

I know I was so angry the night I left I could have killed my ex. But in other situations he could have killed me. He was screaming that I was not taking his children and standing in back of the car as I was trying to pull out of the driveway. I think he got out of my way because I almost ran him over with the car.  Stay safe.

CHANGE: If nothing changes, nothing changes.  Once you know that you didn’t know, it’s time to KNOW.  You must take a look at your relationship patterns and life patterns (GPYB and GBOT both have inventories that help you do this). Find a good therapist, a good support group and change EVERYTHING. If you have “friends” who minimize the abuse or try to.” It was a DUH moment if I ever had one.

Who Owns What?

In GBOT, I caution couples to stop and think about who owns the problem at hand that they may be arguing about.

Everyone is responsible for their own actions. When my husband convinced me, over the course of many years, that I was responsible for what he did to me, I whined to my therapist that I had created a monster because he was so nice and loving when we started. She rolled her eyes and said, “You cannot create a monster who doesn’t want to be created.” It was a DUH moment if I ever had one.

In healthy relationships blame and castigation have no place. Each person takes responsibility for their own stuff and everyone recognizes that stuff sometimes just happens and no one is really to blame.

In healthy relationships blame and castigation have no place. People automatically take responsibility for their own stuff and everyone recognizes that stuff happens.

Stopping the “Splitting”

The only way an abused partner can stay involved with an abuser is to split the partner into “good partner” and “bad partner.”  Even after a breakup, there is a tendency to split the abuser into good and bad, focus on the good and ignore the bad.

The abused sees the abuser as two different people: the one who swept her off her feet (the real him/her) and the one who is an abusive S.O.B. (not the real him/her).  Men tend to dismiss the horror show of a female partner even quicker than women dismiss their horror show male partner. Men have a harder time once they start splitting the girlfriend/wife from hell.  They don’t want to admit that the woman who is shrieking at them is the lovely little lady that stole his heart.

In Getting Past Your Breakup, I talk about “splitting” and the Relationship Inventories are a way to “pull the picture together.”

The inventories bring into your reality that BOTH personalities are your partner. You cannot pick and choose. It is difficult and sometimes IMPOSSIBLE to understand how this person who did such sweet and wonderful things and seemed to truly and sincerely love you has turned into this abusive crazy person.

Even before you do a full-blown inventory, it is important to stop trying to understand it.  Just accept it.  Your partner IS abusive and that sweet person, whether it was real or to rope you in is gone forever. Even if the “sweet” one comes back for a day or to beg you to stay, it’s a mirage.  Don’t believe it.  It will not last.

I beat my head against that wall forever…thinking of my ex…when we were going out and the sweet and wonderful things he did.  Were they real? Who knows? Who cares? Once someone has abused you or cheated on you or called you unacceptable names or blamed you for things you didn’t do, sweet and wonderful does not matter. AT ALL.

After a while I had to see that the romanticized fantasy I had of him was just that: a fantasy. Even if it had been real at one time, it was no longer and it was NEVER coming back.

Stop splitting.  Stop being in denial when things are “normal”. The abuse will be back.

Do the Relationship Inventories and bring the big picture into view.

Self-esteem:  This is SO important.  Affirmations and positive self-talk are absolutely essential. You must tell yourself every day that you are a good and loving person who deserves good and loving people in your life. It’s true and you must learn to believe it.

Boundaries:  All healthy relationships are comprised of two healthy people. Healthy people have good boundaries.  Both GPYB and GBOT have chapters on boundaries. The importance of them cannot be stressed too much.

Therapy: Most people leaving abusive relationships have deep issues from childhood that need unpacking and examination. Get a good therapist who has experience with abusive relationships, do the GPYB/GBOT inventories and work on digging through the wreckage of the past to find out how you got where you are and how not to ever be there again.

12 Step Programs:  if you have issues like codependency, substance or alcohol abuse (yours or someone else’s), love addiction, sex addiction etc. etc. etc. get to the 12 step program that you need. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-anon, Codependents Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Co-Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous…whatever group or groups you identify with…go and seek out help. The support and help in these groups is incredible….go to a few meetings. If you don’t like a meeting, go to a few other ones. Get names, get numbers, get a sponsor. Get help.

Breaking the Cycle: My most pressing reason for leaving my abusive marriage was that I had THREE boys and did not want to unleash 3 abusers onto the world. My sons are now grown and they are loving, caring and devoted husbands, fathers, uncles and sons.  They are incredible men and I am so proud of them. There is no way that they would be who they are had I stayed.  Find good reasons to LEAVE and keep it in the front of your mind every day.  There are days when it seems hard and you will be tempted to return.  Have your reasons for leaving and staying gone FRONT AND CENTER and review them every day.

Gratitude Make gratitude lists as to what you’ve managed to escape and how lucky you are. The initial stages of a breakup and learning to survive it all are TOUGH. Keep the focus on the good stuff for some part of every day.

Grieve:  Grieve what you wanted it to be and your hopes and dreams.  Many people don’t want to grieve an abusive relationship but grief is normal and natural and healing.  Allow yourself all your feelings. Feelings are not right or wrong, they just are. Cry, pound the pillows, walk the floors: LET IT OUT!

Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood:  READ IT

Letters from Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood: READ IT (it’s out of print, but you can find it and if you are a man or in a same-sex relationship, she addresses those situations in this book.)

Codependent No More by Melody Beattie:  READ IT (then read it again).

Beyond Codependency by Melody Beattie: READ IT (especially the Boundaries chapter).

Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them: Susan Forward:  READ IT.

If you need more help, feel free to send me a message.

I am living proof that there is life, a good life, a GREAT life, after abusive relationships.

I was happily married to a man who loved me unconditionally and we had a wildly successful, passionate, wonderful marriage that was sadly cut short by his passing from cancer.  But the years we spent were the best of my life and I know what it is like to be adored every single day by the most wonderful person I’ve ever known……but only because I loved myself first and put boundaries into place in my life.

It is very possible to recover from abusive relationships and to thrive.  Survive and thrive.

Get out, work on yourself, love yourself and watch life happen.



Copyright 2007-2017 Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author

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