The reasons people stay in an obviously unhealthy relationship are as varied as the relationships themselves. They may stay for financial security, to give children a two-parent household, because they love their spouse or partner, or for reasons they may not even be able to articulate.
For survivors of domestic violence, these reasons can be the same. But the barriers to leaving an abusive partner are numerous and can be complex, so make sure to give yourself or loved ones some slack if a break-up isn’t the instantaneous response to abuse.
In addition to overcoming the barriers and dealing with the complications of escaping violence, survivors like most people will likely pass through a range of emotional stages as they deal with the end of the relationship. Many people are familiar with the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—presented in psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Individuals who are going through a break-up—whether or not they’re abuse survivors—may also experience these same stages. And abuse survivors may find that some of these stages occur during the relationship, rather than after the breakup, according to Laura L. Finley, Ph.D., an associate professor specializing in violence at Barry University in Florida.
1. Denial. “Many [survivors] struggle with denial for quite some time, for instance, not wanting to believe that what is happening to them is actually domestic violence, or hoping that things will return to better times,” Dr. Finley says. Afterwards, in this phase people understand logically that the relationship is over, but they don’t want to believe it. They may hold out hope that things will still work out. Even wanting an escape from the violence doesn’t always inoculate people against denial. “Denial is your psyche’s way of protecting you from becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Denial is a useful coping mechanism, as long as it doesn’t keep you from progressing onto the next stage,” says Cathy Meyer, a Nashville, Tennessee-based certified divorce coach.
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2. Anger. Anger at your ex-partner is common. “Anger even drives [survivors] to push or provoke their abuser, despite knowing that he or she will lash out, because it gives them a momentary sense of control,” Dr. Finley says. And anger can rear up in other parts of your life as well. You may be angry with God, a higher power or fate for placing you in the path of your abuser, or for allowing your relationship to end. You may be angry that your relationship was not able to recapture the happier state it had in the early days. You may be angry with friends and loved ones who don’t share or agree with your anger. You may be angry about circumstances that led to the split. Of this stage Meyer says, “Feel free to let out all the pent up anger you stuffed during the denial stage” as long as the venting isn’t done through violent acts or in a way that hurts yourself or others.
3. Bargaining. Bargaining involves looking for ways that the relationship could still be saved. Tactics can involve threats, appeals to a higher power or fate, convincing the abuser to examine their behavior and actions, or changing how they treat their partner to give the relationship a chance to improve and continue. Although such tactics are statistically unlikely to bring about change when violence is involved, Meyer says, “Bargaining is when you stop and say, ‘Oh dear, I can't handle this emotionally. I’ll negotiate anything with him/her, I’ll turn myself inside out if need be, but I can’t go through this.’ It is an attempt to get your ‘life’ back.” The turmoil of breaking up can be so overwhelming that people may want to return to their earlier life, even if that life included abuse.
4. Depression. “After leaving abusers, I think depression and anger are the two most commonly occurring emotions,” Dr. Finley says. A lot of different feelings and behaviors can crop up during the depression phase. Hopelessness is a cornerstone of depression, and you may feel as though you will never move on. You may be tired, sad and disconnected from people. You may sleep or eat too little or too much. You may turn to alcohol or drugs. And you will likely believe that these feelings will never end.
While friends and family can support you during this stage, it’s important to seek help if your symptoms are severe or unrelenting. Connect with a counselor, therapist or domestic violence advocate. “Cry it out and talk, talk, talk to someone who is trained to help you eliminate those toxic emotions,” Meyer says.
5. Acceptance. In this phase, bit by bit, you can find yourself coming to terms with the end of the relationship. While you may still face sad feelings, you’ll start to move forward with your life. Meyer says, “You may always have feelings of regret over the loss of your relationship but it is regret you can live with. You are no longer stuck in the grief. If there are still feelings of grief they are at least no longer holding you back from living life.”
Each of these stages passes in its own time, and emotional recovery is different for everyone. You’ll likely visit some stages more than once as experiences, memories or triggers can bring you cycling back to an earlier stage.
That happened to Meyer, who had been divorced for 15 years and well into the acceptance stage when the news of her ex-mother-in-law’s death— and the fact that her ex-husband didn’t inform their children—sent her spinning back to the anger phase. Luckily it lasted only a few hours.
Simply being familiar with these phases and knowing that they are common reactions can help you feel as though you’re not alone in your experience.
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