Every now and again we tell ourselves lies in order to delay making difficult changes that we know are ultimately in our best interests. We justify, minimize, rationalize and avoid the issue either because we don’t want to face the negative consequences of change (e.g., alimony or less time with our children) or are deriving some benefit or secondary gain.
For example, you know your wife treats you badly and feels no remorse for doing so. You know you should leave, but don’t want to be alone. So you stay in an unhealthy relationship to avoid the temporary pain and grief that ending the relationship might cause.
Deciding to leave a bad relationship with an abusive woman should be a no-brainer, but it’s often a painfully difficult and heart wrenching decision for a variety of reasons.
Here are some common lies men tell themselves in an effort to avoid making this choice:
1. I’m strong. I can take it. Maybe you can, but that doesn’t mean that you have to take it or should take it. The relationship with your wife or girlfriend is supposed to be about intimacy, mutuality and love; not a sentence at Guantanamo Bay.
Furthermore, you can’t take it, at least not without long-term, pervasive damage to yourself — your mind, body, other relationships, career and money. Abuse (emotional, psychological, sexual, physical and financial) takes its toll in the form of cumulative trauma, specifically betrayal trauma. Sooner or later, you’ll develop PTSD-like symptoms and other stress-related medical conditions.
Yes, you’re strong and that’s an incredible, well . . . strength. You’d have to be strong to endure the covert and overt emotional abuse and host of other crazy-making, toxic behaviors. If you have the strength to survive (by the way, surviving and thriving are not the same) in this relationship, you also have the strength to end it, whether you realize it or not.
2. It’s not that bad. Yes, it is. If you’re using this particular lie in order to convince yourself to stay in the relationship, keep a journal for the next 30-60 days. Journal in whatever medium is comfortable for you and that you can easily hide from your wife or girlfriend (you do not want her to discover it). Record every outburst, every time she blindsides you, criticizes you, undermines you and rejects or withdraws from you and any physical violence. Read through it on the 31st day and then try telling yourself “it’s not that bad.”
Seeing the daily minutiae, the venomous attacks, the disconnection to reality and the disproportionate reactions to minor absurdities in black and white can be a real eye opener. Writing it down makes it difficult to minimize, negate or question your perceptions later on. It also gives you a great record of her unpredictable and abusive behaviors should you divorce her and need evidence for a custody battle or to negate false abuse charges by her.
3. If I just work a little harder at the relationship, it will get better. I call this the “Sisyphus Syndrome.” You keep pushing that boulder up the hill only to have it roll over you on its way back down. There’s no winning with this woman. There’s no pleasing her.
You can turn yourself inside out and upside down and it will never, ever, ever be enough. Even if you totally capitulate and submit, it won’t satisfy her. In fact, this kind of woman will then insult your manhood and accuse you of being a spineless coward. No one respects a doormat — especially not an abusive high-conflict personality. She will break you and then blame you for being broken.
Bottom line: You may as well do what’s good for you and, in the long run, for your kid(s) (if applicable). She’ll never be happy, even if you do everything she wants you to do. Additionally, the more you focus on caring for yourself, the stronger you’ll feel and be in a better place to decide if you want to stay in the abuse cycle or exit the relationship. Taking care of yourself will also have the added benefit of driving her mad. Abusers like easy targets.
4. All relationships have conflict. Conflict is healthy. Yes, but it depends on the kind of conflict, how it’s handled and if it’s resolvable. Blaming, name calling, demeaning, belittling and having the same fight over and over again isn’t healthy conflict. Circular arguments that lead to nowhere or bringing up previous conflicts that happened months or years ago aren’t healthy either.
Don’t confuse her anger with passion. Never-ending irresolvable conflict isn’t passion, it’s pathology. Passion and intimacy require a certain degree of vulnerability. Becoming disproportionately enraged over minor issues (or things that never even happened) is a barrier to intimacy and passion. Rage often makes abusers feel powerful and invulnerable.
She desires total control and anger is the means to achieving that. It’s also how to avoid intimacy. Constant criticism and other forms of abuse are not aphrodisiacs. Keeping you engaged in one pointless conflict after the next, so that you are perpetually Justifying, Arguing, Defending and Explaining (JADE) is a great way to keep you distracted. Do you even know what you’re fighting about anymore or does it all seem like the same god damned thing? That’s unhealthy conflict.
5. Things will get better if I’m more patient and pay closer attention to her needs and feelings. This is a variation of #3. This is also a trap. The nicer you are to this woman, the more she’ll view you as weak and pathetic and interpret it as a license to steamroll you. Abusive personalities view kindness and generosity as weaknesses to exploit.
6. Sex and affection aren’t important. Yes, they are. Enough said.
Seriously though, sex may not be the most important thing in a relationship, but it’s right up there along with kindness and respect. Aside from shared pleasures, tension relief and physical closeness, there’s oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter released during orgasm that’s “associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people.” Good stuff.
Small signs of non-physical affection are equally important. It’s not the infrequent big gestures that count; it’s the little things a couple does for each other that really matter over the long haul. For example, picking up the other person’s dry cleaning because you happen to be in that part of town, going to a chick flick when you’d rather gouge your eyes out with red hot pokers, making the other person’s favorite dinner when it’s not your fave, etc.
Emotionally abusive, narcissistic and borderline women are rarely affectionate, considerate or generous — unless they’re playing an angle. Doing something nice for you is experienced as a loss or degradation. They don’t give without the expectation of getting something in return. In other words, there are strings attached. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life in a lopsided, nonreciprocal relationship?
7. But the sex is still good. This is a tough one. In my work, it’s almost always more difficult when a man describes a litany of abuse he’s suffered from his wife or girlfriend and concludes by saying, “But the sex is still good.” If this resonates with you, ask yourself if the sex is about love and intimacy or if its about screwing you into submission?
In these cases, sex is just another manipulation tool; another way to control you. The “great sex” also has nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing to do with you. It’s about her feeling desirable (inflating her ego) and powerful. Some of my clients who are in relationships with hypersexual abusers eventually lose their desire even when their wife or girlfriend is still objectively “hot.” This happens for a couple reasons.
One, due to the abuse outside the bedroom, they no longer trust their partners. Two, they come to realize they’re being treated like human dildos. And three, no matter how beautiful their wives or girlfriends are on the outside, all they can see is the ugliness on the inside. If you’re a man who rationalizes, “But the sex is still good,” try going cold turkey for 60 days and then see how you feel.
8. My kid(s) are okay because she doesn’t yell at them. Witnessing physical and emotional abuse is harmful to children, even when they’re not being targeted. Just because your wife or girlfriend isn’t currently attacking your children doesn’t mean it’s not affecting them.
What do you think your children are learning by observing mom’s and dad’s relationship dynamic? If you could choose a partner for your children when they’re grown up, would you choose someone who is like their mother? By staying in the relationship, you’re telegraphing that it’s okay for the person who “loves” you to abuse you and that one individual’s needs and feelings are more important than the other’s. Additionally, when and if the children ever begin to assert their own identities and challenge mom in any way — that is if they’re not terrified to do so after witnessing the way mom treats dad — they’ll typically be subject to the same hot and cold abuse. This usually happens around age 10.
9. I’ll lose my home, my kids and all my assets. Yes, you’ll have to part with some of your assets and you won’t be able to spend as much time with your children. However, if you’re willing to fight like hell, prepare in advance and arm yourself with strong legal representation, you may be able to recoup your financial losses over time and hopefully forge a new and healthier relationship with your kids. Healthier because you’re setting the example of not tolerating abuse in a relationship. Don’t confuse being a martyr with being a parent.
Your kids are going to have issues, especially around relationships, whether you stay in the marriage or not. There’s no avoiding that. It’s a consequence of having children with an abusive, high-conflict or personality disordered individual. However, you’ll be in a much better place to help them later on if you’re healthy, strong and happy. This half lie/half truth is a fear that’s often explicitly planted and encouraged by an abusive woman. She knows she has an advantage in family court just because she’s a woman and she’ll try to control you through your fear of loss and feelings of guilt.
10. Love conquers all. It all depends upon what you define as “love.” To this kind of personality, love is control, anger and keeping others down in order to raise herself up. Do you really love her? Does your heart skip a beat when you think about her?*Please note, your heart skipping a beat should be accompanied by a smile on your lips and a twinkle in your eyes; not a panic attack.
If she wasn’t your wife or girlfriend, is she the first person you’d want to hang out with? Do you feel loved and accepted for who you are? Or have you convinced yourself that you must love this woman otherwise why would you be trying so hard to make the relationship work?
Now follow the trail backwards and ask yourself where this belief came from? Has your wife or girlfriend told you it’s your job to make her happy and that you “have to fight for this relationship?” Sorry fellas, that’s not love; that’s brainwashing. Break the spell.
11. I made a commitment and I honor my commitments. Okay, but is she honoring her commitments to you? Is she loving, honoring and cherishing you? I’m sure she thinks so. Are you honoring your commitments to yourself and your dignity as a human being? Are you respecting yourself by remaining in a destructive and abusive relationship? Are you living your best life by being with this woman or do you feel like you’re serving a jail sentence?
When one partner abuses the other, she or he has reneged on the marriage vows (or other form of commitment). Abuse is a betrayal and you ultimately end up betraying yourself by staying in an abusive relationship.
12. But she needs me. Yes, she does, but not for the reasons you think. Abusers and bullies have to have a target. Narcissists, Borderlines, Sociopaths and Histrionic (Cluster B personality disorders) need narcissistic supply. This kind of person is a parasite and you’re the host. She is feeding on you — whether it’s for attention, money, social status or to appear “normal.”
If and when you finally end your relationship, your head will probably spin at how quickly she replaces you. Oftentimes, abusers have back-up narcissistic supply waiting in the wings and, in time, she’ll do to him what she’s doing to you. Or, she won’t recouple (at least not publicly) and portray herself as the Super Victim whose husband “abandoned” her. For the record, you don’t abandon an adult, you leave an adult.
13. Everyone will think I’m a bad guy. Not true. Some people will think you’re a bad guy because abusive people often conduct smear campaigns against their exes once the relationship ends. Sometimes, the smear campaign starts while you’re still with them.
First of all, who cares what other people think? Let them try walking a mile in your shoes. Second, anyone who believes her BS without speaking with you isn’t someone you want as a friend. Third, if you want to combat the smear campaign, speak up. Talk to the people who matter the most to you and let them know what’s going on and the abuse you’ve suffered. Answer their questions. Stop protecting your abuser from the consequences of her behavior and take care of yourself!
Abusive women and men are liars — inveterate, pathological liars. Their lies will hurt you and engender profound feelings of betrayal, so don’t compound matters by lying to yourself. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman” (Justice Louis D. Brandeis). Once you acknowledge the truth and reality of your relationship and exactly who and what your partner is, you can no longer lie to yourself. And that is the first step towards healing.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries.
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Pinocchio puppet by Abstract-Thinking on flickr.