After Your Abusive Marriage Ends
Being in an abusive relationship can cause you to question your own sense of reality. You live under an altered version of reality – your abuser’s reality – for so long that it causes you to lose touch of the real world, and how other people behave within it.
Coming out from a long term relationship with an abuser can be really unsettling, because you’re expecting people to treat you a certain way, to respond to things in a particular way, or to just be a certain way, and then, come to find out, what you expected is not what happens.
Even if it’s a good change – people are polite to you, people express concern, people try to help you – if you’re not used to it, or if it’s a perversion of the reality to which you’ve grown accustomed, it can make you feel really unbalanced. It causes you to question the people who are now nice to you, or to think that you deserve to be made to feel the way your ex does.
In a lot of ways, though I am admittedly no doctor or therapist, it seems like abuse, especially extended abuse, alters your brain chemistry. Many abused women return to their abusers. You’ve probably heart the often quoted statistic that battered women try to leave seven times before they’re successful. Still others, even after they’ve escaped an abusive situation, will find themselves again choosing a partner who fills that familiar, comforting, but abusive, role.
Ending a relationship, whether it was a good or a bad relationship, is always a difficult thing to do. And, even if you know it was a bad relationship, you may still really, desperately, deeply love your ex partner. There are a million different things, like sharing children or a home in common, that can make the separation and eventual divorce even more complicated.
Why am I telling you this? You already know it, right? I mean, you’re living it!
I think its helpful to point out the challenges that you’ll face in a divorce, especially inasmuch as what you’re experiencing might be different from what someone from a non-abusive relationship experiences. It’s really disconcerting to come out from under the shadow of abuse, and the feelings that can bring up can make divorce even more difficult to deal with.
I warn you now, so that you don’t question your resolve. So that you can step back and understand that what you’re feeling is confusion, that the reason things don’t make sense is because you ascribed to a faulty worldview, and that there is so much better out there for you. It’s so easy to fall into patterns of destructive thinking, especially about ourselves, and I want to set you up for so much more success than this.
Do you have a therapist? No, I don’t think you’re crazy. But I do think you’re going to need help working through this transition so that you can adapt in a healthy way, see the way abuse has altered the way you view the world (and maybe even yourself), and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
It’s not your fault! You’re not weak! This didn’t happen because you deserved it! Quite the opposite, actually – but that doesn’t mean that you haven’t been changed by the experience. To come out better, stronger, happier on the other side, you’re going to need to be prepared to do the work to get yourself there.
You also need to be prepared for him to be himself through the divorce process. I’m still sometimes surprised when women who report extremely abusive situations – whether emotionally, verbally, sexually, or physically – are surprised that their husbands behave the same when the divorce begins. Litigation never made any guy a better man or a better father; quite the opposite, actually, in many cases.
If he’s mentally ill, suffering from substance abuse issues, a narcissist, or someone with unresolved trauma of his own, those decision making patterns are going to continue to rear their ugly heads throughout your divorce. You’ll want an attorney on your side who can help you deal with his emotionally abusive or mentally controlling behavior, so that you can make the best possible decisions for yourself and your children throughout the process.
It’s easy to fall back into familiar patterns, with him as the aggressor and you as the abused partner. But you have to set a different tone in your divorce, show him that you’re going to stand up for yourself, and assert that you understand your rights and entitlements. Be prepared, too: it may get worse before it gets better. If he’s abusive or a narcissist, he’s going to double down on the types of behavior that always helped him get what he wanted before. So, in the short term, you’re going to need to be extra strong and resolved.
In these kinds of cases, a strong combination of attorney and therapist (and sometimes even a medical doctor) are critical to success – not just in terms of actually getting what you need out of the divorce today, but in helping you be better, happier, and healthier for your happily ever after.