Relationships Stages, Abusive Women and the WTF Moment, Part, One, explored the early stages of an abusive relationship and the WTF moment. To clarify, the WTF moment is when the non-abusive partner first realizes there is something wrong with the abusive partner.
As noted in Part One, the second relationship stage, the power struggle phase, can last indefinitely in an abusive relationship.
Many of the men with whom I work have not progressed past the power struggle phase in their relationships. In several cases, my clients have been married for 20-plus years. That’s two decades or more of being locked in a power struggle. No wonder they’re exhausted.
If you remain in the relationship after the first WTF moment in the power struggle phase, or second or third or fourth WTF moments, you then progress to the third stage, re-evaluation and identity formation. It’s possible for your abusive partner to remain locked in the power struggle phase while you move on to re-evaluate and, perhaps, resign yourself to the realities of your abusive partner.
During the honeymoon stage, attraction and commitments may be based upon projection, fantasy, and, in many cases, unresolved childhood issues. In the re-evaluation and identity formation stage, you consider whether you’re happy with the relationship, who you both are in reality (after the honeymoon stage rose-colored glasses are removed), your roles in the relationship and if you want to remain in the relationship. One or both of you re-evaluate your commitment based on reality as well as your fears and defenses.
You may ask yourself questions such as:
- Do I really love this person?
- Do I want to spend the rest of my life with her?
- Do I want another 10 years like the last 10 years?
- Can I handle being alone?
- What will happen if I end the relationship?
- Will she let me go amicably or will she try to destroy me?
- Will I meet another woman? A better woman?
- Will anyone else love me?
- What about my kids? My assets?
- Is it cheaper to keep her?
- Will my family and friends abandon me if I end the relationship?
This is the stage in which one or both of you may engage in affairs because you miss and crave the powerful emotions of the honeymoon stage. It’s not uncommon to pull away from each other and distance yourselves by making the children, hobbies, work and other relationships your primary focus instead of your relationship with each other.
In a non-abusive relationship, if you can both maintain love, communication and trust during the third stage you’re likely to progress the fourth and fifth relationship stages. The latter relationship stages include a rebirth and re-commitment to the relationship built on mutual acceptance, trust, realistic expectations, realistic perspectives of mutual strengths and weaknesses, shared history and maturity.
The pathology of abusers, sociopaths, high-conflict people and many personality-disordered individuals makes it impossible for them to progress past the second and third relationship stages. They simply lack the emotional maturity, communication skills and conflict resolution skills necessary to reach these stages. Many also seem to lack the ability to engage in any meaningful change oriented self-introspection and personal growth.
Many sociopathic abusers lack empathy, refuse to be held accountable for their hurtful behaviors and are unable to trust. How do you trust someone who won’t trust you? How do you trust someone who abuses you, puts you down and tries to control you? I don’t think it’s possible.
Some of the men and women I work with become stuck after having the WTF moment. Oftentimes, they’re stuck because they’re clinging to the memories of the honeymoon stage and engaging in wishful thinking. They have a difficult time letting go of the idealized fantasy person their abusers initially pretended to be.
These men and women seem paralyzed by a combination of misguided hope, uncertainty, fear and longing. They have had the WTF moment, or several WTF moments, and seem to become bogged down in a paralysis of analysis of their abusive partner’s behavior, looking for answers and any sign that the abuser might change. These individuals become self-taught experts on personality disorders and other relationship issues, yet remain stuck.
They have seen behind their abusive partner’s mask, yet refuse to see. They’ve read every relationship book, been through numerous rounds of individual and couples counseling, and have turned themselves inside out to win their abusive partner’s love and approval.
They believe if they try harder, love more, earn more, spend more, do more, are more sensitive, more nurturing, etc., etc., that it will bring back the person with whom they fell in love. What many fail to realize is that the person they fell in love with was artifice; an illusion. In the end, all of the effort and machinations they employ to return to the honeymoon stage are about as effective as pouring water into a bucket with a hole in its bottom.
If we look at this vis-a-vis the stages of loss and mourning, this is a form of denial and bargaining. This is often when the non-abusive partner has another WTF moment. Except this one is directed at the self. Oh my god, WTF am I doing? Why am I trying so hard? Why can’t I walk away? Why can’t I let go? Why do I want to be with someone who treats me so bad?
If this rings true for you, perhaps you had similar experiences in childhood with your parents.
As a child, it’s terrifying to realize the adults you depend upon are mean, crazy and abusive. For children, it feels safer to believe the reason mom and dad are cold, neglectful or mean is because they’re bad. Why? If mom and dad are mean because you’re bad, then maybe mom and dad will be nice if you work extra hard to be good. This damaging belief provides children with some measure of false hope and control in an abusive, dysfunctional and chaotic family environment.
Many of these children carry these faulty beliefs into their adult relationships. They recreate the familiar dynamic with abusive partners and believe they can gain their love if only they work harder at being the perfect partner and meeting all of the abusive partner’s unreasonable and ever-shifting needs, demands and expectations.
If this applies to you, you need to realize that you’re no more likely to get your abusive partner to treat you with love, approval and respect than you were your parents.
Your partner’s abusive behavior is not about you or any defects you may or may not possess; it’s about them and their emotional and psychological defects. Until you fully understand and accept this, you’ll spend your life pouring water into a bottomless bucket or pushing a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down onto you.
After you have the WTF moment and recognize it as such, you have a few choices:
1. You can put the blinders back on and pretend that you don’t know your partner is abusive. You can keep making excuses and blame her behavior on stress, hormones, the kids, anxiety, an abusive childhood, etc., etc., and keep on jumping through hoops, pouring water into a bottomless bucket and/or pushing that boulder uphill.
2. You can stay in the FOG (fear, obligation, guilt) and tell yourself you made a commitment and that you’re obligated to stick it out no matter how bad it gets while a little part of your soul is crushed everyday.
3. You can do for yourself what your parents did not. You can love and respect yourself enough to end an abusive relationship with a person who is more interested in controlling you and using you as a whipping post and target of blame for her self-created unhappiness than she is in loving and accepting you, and having a mature relationship.
This is how you go from having a WTF moment to a GTFO moment.
Shrink4Men Coaching and Consultation Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.