Q: My ex-boyfriend was put in jail because he missed his court date regarding criminal charges he was facing for domestic violence. My family thinks this is a win for me because he has caused me such grief and heartache but I can’t help feeling so much guilt that he is in there. I know I didn’t force him to beat me or to miss his court case but, I just can’t help feeling sad for him. He tried to kill me but still, I feel sorry for him. –AV
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Listen, tough love time. I think you need to re-read your letter to me, specifically the last sentence: “He tried to kill me.” (In journalism, we call this “burying the lead.”) This man didn’t just get angry one night and throw his dinner plate dramatically into a wall—though that type of temper is more than enough reason to kick him to the curb—he tried to end your life. He tried to murder you. It might help to say that aloud—my boyfriend wanted me to die.
Trauma-related guilt is a very real thing that survivors can experience. Trauma-related guilt is also a liar. It will tell you that you played some part in his abuse and just as you somehow caused it, you could have somehow stopped it. Let me make this very clear: THIS IS NOT TRUE.
How do I know it’s not true? Because at one point or another, most survivors have asked their partner who is abusing them to stop abusing them. And you know what? The abuser doesn’t stop. In fact, in many cases, the abuser escalates the abuse from control to intimidation to threats of violence to violence outright to, in some cases, homicide. Now, if survivors truly had some measure of control to stop it, wouldn’t the abuser have listened to their request?
Except abusers don’t. Abusers choose to abuse. No outside influence forces them to abuse. Drugs and alcohol don’t make them abuse. Previous trauma doesn’t force their hand to strike you. It’s an abuser’s choice each and every time.
This could make sense logically and still your heart can ache and tell you that you feel bad for this person. Maybe your brain is only reminding you of the good times the two of you had—and wouldn’t it be nice to get back to that?
Here’s something to keep in mind: those feelings may be the direct result of manipulation from your partner. According to Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, abusers have been known to turn on the charm after abusive and violent incidents in order to confuse their victims.
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“Abusive partners purposely spin a complicated web of cruelty and violence interspersed with loving acts. This manipulative pattern entraps their partners who think that if they can only ‘do better,’ they will be treated lovingly once again.”
Even locked up, your ex-boyfriend might be manipulating you into thinking this was somehow your fault. If only you hadn’t made him so mad. If only you hadn’t told someone, he could be “getting better” now. Your relationship could have a chance.
These kinds of accusations are a type of coercive control. According to Fontes, the side effects of this type of psychological control are a plummeting of self-esteem in the survivor, an increase in anxiety over keeping the abuser happy and a hefty dose of self-blame when abuse occurs. This may be where your feelings of guilt and sadness are coming from, and why it’s hard for your family to understand.
To that, Fontes says, “When an abuser is arrested, it can be easy for a victim to feel guilty or responsible. However, it is important to remember that each and every time the abuser raised his voice or his fist, it was his choice to do so. The abuser has been caught in the web that he himself spun, and an arrest or jail time are the consequences of assaulting another person.”
So, how do you get off the guilt train? Here’s a few ideas:
- Recognize unhealthy guilt. John Grohol, Psy.D, editor of PsychCentral.com says that guilt is best used as an indicator that we should adjust our behavior—like when we feel guilty for saying something mean or for lying. But when we feel guilty for something that doesn’t point to an area of life we could do better on—like when you feel guilty for protecting yourself, AV—this is unproductive guilt and serves no purpose in our life.
- Try journaling. You can go several directions with this. You can write down what you feel guilty about and see if brings you any clarification. Or, you can also write down what you remember of the abuse from the past and how it made you feel in the moment and afterward. If there is an abuse happening still today, write that down as well—things he may be saying to you from jail that make you feel scared, sad, threatened, guilty, controlled, etc. When those feelings of guilt arise, look back at your journaling and remind yourself what this person did to you, and ask yourself if you deserve that. If you had a child or a best friend who had gone through what you endured with this abuser, would you advise them to stay? Would you tell them it was partly their fault?
- Feel gratitude instead of guilt. Reframe the messages in your head from ones of guilt (“My ex-boyfriend’s in jail because I spoke up”) to gratitude (“I’m grateful I’m alive. I’m grateful he’s in jail so he can no longer be violent toward me or anyone else. I’m grateful for the healing that’s begun.”)
It may also help you to read this piece: “Stages of Recovery After Trauma.” According to psychologist Judith Herman many survivors she’s counseled endure feelings of frustration and confusion during recovery, blaming themselves for the abuse. It’s important to recognize this as a step in the recovery, but not the final chapter. Over time, AV, you will hopefully find your voice again—the one your abusive partner tried to silence, and maybe it will say “I deserve better.”
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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