One of the things that can be very tough for someone leaving an abusive situation, is the emotional aftermath. Where romantic partners and friends are concerned, the process of coming to terms with abuse can be very difficult. I think coming out of bullying in the workplace is easier because the odds are you didn’t have that much emotional investment to begin with. That makes it simpler to recognise the bullying and to put it behind you.
You love someone – be that romantically or in friendship. You love them, and trust them and invest in them. You assume that they love you. When they tell you they were only trying to help, or it was for your own good, you believe them. When they tell you it was a mistake or an accident, you believe them. We’re all human, we all mess up. You accept your friend, or your lover, and you accept their flaws and shortcomings. Victims of abuse are often persuaded by their abuser that nothing wrong has happened. It is the love the victim has for the abuser that makes such persuasion possible.
Then, at some point, something happens to make you question this. You catch them in a lie. You find you just can’t take any more of how they treat you, and you reconsider what their behaviour means. Or perhaps they turn on you, telling you they despised you all along. Perhaps they are the ones who leave, and they knock you down hard as they go. All of their previous behaviour is now reframed by something that makes it look like perhaps they never were your friend or ally. Perhaps they hated you all along. Perhaps you were a resource to use, an ego boost, a whipping post.
If you’ve never been there, you may think at this point, shocked and heartbroken, that it would be easy to walk away. It isn’t. What you end up with are two incompatible realities. In the old reality, this was your beloved, or your dear friend, someone you were open hearted with and trusted. In the new reality, this person thinks ill of you, may be a real danger to you. It is painful thinking so badly of someone you loved so you may try and resist that. You may hold onto the old love, and try to find excuses for what’s happening. You may want to fix things or try to change things. If they come back after this latest offence and make sorry noises and offer excuses, you may accept that and go another round with them.
This is part of why domestic abuse victims often find it so hard to leave their abusers. If you love someone and are in the habit of forgiving them, it’s a difficult turnaround to accept that you can’t afford to keep doing that. It is really hard to believe the worst of someone you love. It is often easier to carry on believing they are ok, even when they are manifestly mistreating you.
If you have other people in your life who truly care for you and support you, then you will be able to compare them to the abuser, and it will help you see what’s not acceptable. This is one of the reasons abusers will often try to isolate their victims. If you are alone, and the abuser is the only person you’ve got, you may cling to them because there’s nothing else. Letting go is very hard in that context, as is believing that anyone else could ever treat you well.
It takes time to change the story of your relationship with a person. It takes time to unpick what seemed like love or friendship, and accept that it wasn’t. It is a hard thing to swallow, when you suspect that you’ve opened your heart to someone who has abused your trust. It is natural to resist that interpretation and to want to think the best of people. It is a hard thing admitting that your friend or lover is full of shit, and has no love for you at all. During that unpicking time, you are likely to feel disorientated and vulnerable.
There are no easy answers in this sort of situation. I think the important thing to know is that there’s nothing weird about finding it difficult. In the aftermath of abuse and the lies that always go with it, figuring out what’s real takes time.