DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Longtime reader. I absolutely love your advice. Thank you for everything you’ve done for people, including myself. I’ve never written in but your articles have helped me through a lot. But now I need something more specific. I don’t think I’ve seen this yet. Here we go.
I am a 29 year old female, married to a 32 year old male. We have a 1 year old daughter together. Unfortunately, for most of our relationship I have been emotionally abused by him. Gaslighting, trying to separate me from family and friends, downplaying my accomplishments, yelling, lots of yelling, calling me names, and abusing alcohol; he’s done everything. I, luckily, have pretty high self-esteem and never fell for the ways he would try to separate me from people. I still have close friends and are close to my family. And they have been my rocks through some real torture.
I can’t say his negativity hasn’t had an effect on my self-esteem, or zero effect on relationships. I’m still nervous to invite friends over, worried he will ignore them (he’s done that) and make them feel really uncomfortable. So I go to their house. There’s a lot of things I realized I’ve been doing to make him more comfortable at the expense of my discomfort. Also, so we don’t fight.
It kills me I never left him. I did once but he got me back. I view myself as this strong woman, but it’s been eye-opening to go through something I’d never thought I would go through. And put up with things I never thought I’d put up with.
I hope I’ve given enough background because all of this is to say, about 3 months ago, he had a realization as to how he was treating me. He came home profusely apologized and admitted there was something wrong with his brain. He has sought help and is seeing a therapist. He has cut back on drinking A LOT. And I finally see the original man I fell in love with. At least parts to him. He’s starting to love my family again, we are having fun again, he is actually helping me with our child, he is listening and talking to me more. The list goes on. It’s everything I’ve wanted except…
It might be too little too late. I keep having flashbacks of all the s--tty things he’s done to me. I keep having panic attacks and my therapist says I have PTSD. Even in these good times I’m on guard. Idk if that will ever go away. The other part is, it’s not like he’s made a full 180. He has A LOT to work on. It’s wonderful he’s putting in the work, but he still has anger issues, he still has problems with my friends, and he has yet to recognize how his childhood has played such a big part on who he is (he had an alcoholic, angry dad). He has told me his childhood was great. From the little snippets I’ve heard, it was not.
I realize this evolution is a process. I’m trying to be patient and kind. But it’s really hard. Really really hard. And I feel so bad because I want to leave him. He’s finally doing the things I’ve asked him to do for years and I still want to leave. I don’t know if I’ll ever be over what I’ve been through, what he’s done and said to me.
Let me note, as the father of my child, he will always be in my life. And I want him to be a part of our daughters life. This isn’t a situation where I am worried for her. He is a good dad. So if we separate I’d like us to remain friendly.
Am I being selfish? What kind of person doesn’t leave after someone slams cabinets but leaves after that same person starts to love and appreciate them? I’m just exhausted. Absolutely exhausted. And don’t know what to do.
DEAR TIRED: This is the kind of discussion that’s really hard to have, because it runs headlong into so many complications. On the one hand, there’s the honest question about whether an abuser can change. It can be incredibly tempting to want to believe that things are getting better. After all, one of the common stages of an abusive relationship is a return to the honeymoon period where one’s abuser will have made all sorts of promises to get better and seems to be following up on them. This can confirm long-held desire on the part of the person who’s being abused that the abuse was a glitch in the system. This was just a temporary problem and now things will get back to where they need to be. Except it’s not an improvement; at best it’s the eye of the hurricane. At worst… well, it was a way of getting the person being abused to invest even harder and make it more difficult for them to leave.
At the same time, we also want to make space for people to improve, fix things and become better people. A culture where you’re forever stuck being defined by your worst moment is one that actively disincentivizes improvement and change. And it also makes it harder to consider how many circumstances come about because people — both abuser and victim — were failed at multiple levels by people who could’ve and should’ve interceded earlier.
But on the third hand… well, there’re plenty of folks who will take joyous advantage of the desire for a redemption narrative without having actually done the work necessary to achieve redemption or to make actual and substantive changes.
And on the fourth hand — because we’re just Goro from Mortal Kombat now — there’s the fact that this sort of discussion can elide over or ignore the long-term effects that abuse can have on someone.
Y’know. Kind of like what you’re experiencing, Tired.
Now, right from the jump, I want to emphasize something: this wasn’t your fault. The fact that you didn’t leave him when you feel like you should have doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. It means that you’re human and had a human reaction to being in a s--tty situation. The fact that you were abused doesn’t mean that you’re not a strong woman, but the fact that you have endured it, come through to the other side and have started the healing process does mean that you’re strong as hell. Nobody is immune to being taken advantage of, to being abused or manipulated by someone they love and trust. It’s not a sign of weakness, naivete or stupidity to have trusted someone who abused that trust; that sin falls on the abuser, not the person being abused. Recognizing that, accepting that and being willing to forgive yourself — even though you objectively didn’t do anything wrong — is important.
It’s also good that your husband has recognized how much harm he’s doing and has done and is trying to make things right. It’s admirable that he’s actually trying to do the work to fix himself and putting in the work to try to make amends and be the person you originally fell for. And for the purposes of this column, we’re going to assume that he’s being 100% sincere. Because, frankly, whether he’s sincere or not, it doesn’t really change what I have to say:
No, it’s not selfish for you to leave. In fact, it’s important to be willing to take care of yourself and your daughter. While the abuse seems to have ended, your husband is improving and your relationship is moving in positive directions… those changes don’t undo the damage that was done. You’re no longer being actively harmed, but you still have those wounds and scars. You still have that very understandable trauma-response. All of that takes time to heal and the healing process can be messy and bring up a lot of complicated and painful emotions. It’s also true that your husband actively damaged your trust and made it difficult, if not impossible, to feel safe or secure around him. That doesn’t go away because he’s doing better. That fades with time, with healing and with your husband working on his end to re-earn your trust. But that can be difficult to do when you’re still — again, understandably and reasonably — afraid. It can be hard for you to decide whether you can forgive him or if he can re-earn your trust if you’re caught between that flinch response and trying to tell yourself that it’s wrong to have it.
(It’s not, but that emotional conflict can make it difficult to trust your own judgement.)
And then there’s the fact that while he’s made improvements — and again, that’s commendable — he hasn’t completely changed yet and, as you said, there’s still a lot to be worked on. While somebody doesn’t need to make a 100% change or be in perfect working order to be working towards fixing the damage they’ve done, there’re still things that can cause more strife in the process. If he’s still having anger issues, or problems with your social circle, those are things that can cause backslides in fixing your relationship or damage it further.
Plus: you’ve got PTSD. You’re having panic attacks. That’s real, that’s legitimate, and that’s something that needs to be addressed. It’s hard to work on your recovery when you live with the very thing that triggers those panic attacks and PTSD episodes. In fact, that could very well make things worse — even as your husband tries to make things better.
And while it may seem weird or callous to say this: that can also make it hard for him on his recovery. If you’re flinching every time he reaches for you, that can f--k with his head too and create this sense of “wait, I’m trying so hard, why isn’t this fixing things?”
So no, Tired, I don’t think it’s bad or selfish or cruel that you’re thinking of leaving, even as he’s finally doing all the things you asked for. I think you’re a reasonable person in an unreasonable situation, someone who’s been hurt significantly and deeply, and who’s only started to heal. I think you should prioritize yourself and your need to heal right now, and being in a relationship with him right now may well be getting in the way of that. So if you feel like leaving would be best for you and your daughter — and it certainly sounds like it would be — then by all means, do so. Leaving doesn’t mean that you’re punishing him for trying to get better, it means that you’re putting on your own oxygen mask before helping him with his. You’re taking care of yourself and also giving him the space to take care of himself and do the work to get better and create a place where the damage can be mended.
It also means that if this isn’t sincere, you’re protecting yourself and getting out of a bad situation.
But here’s the thing: leaving now doesn’t have to mean leaving forever. If — and it’s a mighty big if — your husband is sincere about fixing things and is working his ass off to get better and make amends, if after you heal, you find that he is able to prove that he’s worthy of your trust again and you find that you’re able to forgive him and take him back, and he’s able to make amends, you can start a new relationship with him. Obviously things can’t go back to how they were, but if things all line up correctly, you and he can see about possibly working to build something new, different and hopefully better.
Oh, and one more thing: if you find that you can’t forgive him or trust him again, that’s fine. That doesn’t make you a bad person; it just means that you were hurt badly enough and your relationship was damaged enough that there isn’t any fixing it. And while it can be sad if that’s the case, the fact that it is sad doesn’t change things. Nor can his improvement be contingent on your forgiving him or taking him back. Even if he is sincere, even if he does fix himself and becomes a better person… that doesn’t obligate you to forgive him or take him back, especially if you find that you simply can’t. While it’s important for him to work on fixing his problems and become a better person, that can’t just be because he gets forgiven in the end — it ultimately has to be because he wants to be better, period. And if you can’t forgive him or take him back… well, it sucks, but part of working towards redemption means accepting the consequences and working on being better anyway.
It’s a s--tty situation and I’m sorry you’re going through it. Prioritize your own emotional health and safety right now. That’s not selfish. That’s smart.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org