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Q: I was married 12 years [to an abuser], together 5, so total 17 years. I'm still reeling from everything, but I feel sorry for him. I cry a lot. Even though he hurt me, and our kids, I feel sorry for him. Does that make me crazy? – Anonymous
Simple answer? No, this doesn’t make you crazy. Seventeen years is a long time to endure and survive abuse. I’m not sure how much time has passed since you escaped, but you should allow yourself as much time as necessary to go through the healing process. Try not to view your “reeling” as a bad thing—you’re processing the trauma you endured, and you’ll most likely cycle through a wide range of emotions while doing so.
In fact, survivors can go through the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—after escaping abuse, much like one would go through after a death.
When I posed your question to Emily Matuszczak, licensed professional counselor and senior program director at HAVEN, a domestic violence shelter, counseling and advocacy program in Michigan, she said she thought your feelings of sympathy toward your abuser “is a perfectly normal response that many survivors have,” and those feelings can arise for several reasons.
“There is still a great loss even when leaving an abusive partner. There’s a loss of that traditional family and the good times. I think we can project our feelings about those losses and put them on the abuser, also, and wonder if he or she is feeling the same way, and wonder if he or she is grieving, too,” says Matuszczak.
One thing many people who haven’t experienced abuse don’t understand is that often times, a survivor and an abuser did have some positive moments in their relationship. “Abusive partners can be like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Not only was there abuse and control, but [survivors] also experience some kind and loving times, too.”
She also says there may be ties between your feelings of sadness and tactics your abuser may have used to exert psychological control over you. “He may have told you you’re the reason your family is broken up. Or, if you weren’t the way you were, he wouldn’t have to act the way he did.” Matuszczak says this puts the blame on the victim, unfairly so, and can leave you feeling like you should have done something differently.
“One of the hardest things [survivors] struggle with is giving up hope. Did I wait long enough? Try hard enough? Was I too hard on them? Did we give it enough time? We question ourselves, no matter the relationship,” says Matuszczak. For many survivors she’s met, she says their wish is less often to leave the abuser, more to just make the abuse stop.
“When they come to terms with that not being possible, it can be very sad.”
The big thing right now, Anon, is time. Give yourself time and space to heal and go through the emotional roller coaster that is probably occurring.
Also, make sure you have an emotional safety plan in place. How can you take care of yourself during this time and continue to build your self-esteem back up to make sure you don’t feel like returning to your abuser? Beware of your abuser trying to exploit your feelings of empathy, says Matuszczak. “You might think you’re just wanting to be kind, but you know that a batterer is likely to overstep those boundaries, so think what kind of plan you can put in place so he doesn’t take advantage.”
Finally, it’s always a good idea to have support and not go at this alone. If you’re able to connect with a domestic violence nonprofit near you, you can ask about one-on-one counseling options or attending a support group where you can share your struggles with other survivors going through similar things. If you’d rather not leave your house, or are unable to or live in a rural area, support can be found online. Read “Support Is a Keyboard Click Away” for some ideas.
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