Staying Sober Through an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

By Charlotte Grey 01/13/16

"You're an awful person and you'll never change. I don't even want you to be the mother of my children." By this point, I was used to this scathing criticism of my value seething from the love of my life's lips. 

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Staying Sober Through an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
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"You're an awful person and you'll never change. I don't even want you to be the mother of my children." By this point, I was used to this scathing criticism of my value seething from the love of my life's lips. When I was four years sober, this emotionally abusive relationship ended because this boyfriend convinced me that I was fundamentally unbearable, and that because I hurt him so badly so often, it was too painful for him to be with me anymore. Now, with over seven years in recovery and having conquered substantial psychological healing of my childhood, I clearly see that this dysfunction had nothing to do with my actions. I was trapped in a relationship with an abusive man in its most cunning and covert form.

We met two years earlier on a dating site, back when the majority of profiles were seeking life partners instead of one-night stands. He meshed seamlessly with the qualities I identified on my 4th Step Sex Ideal, and I fell in love. I cherished that he wasn't in recovery and lived a solid spiritual lifestyle; we could grow our spiritual philosophies together and our lives remained separate in the sacred space meetings and fellowship naturally create. The first eight months of our relationship were wonderful. I was two years sober when we started dating, and my blissful embrace of life permeated our time together, which quickly transitioned to a quotidian routine thanks to my codependency. 

I can't remember exactly when his emotionally abusive messages began surfacing, but at some point, my mother's psychologically damaging voice started reverberating in my head when I spoke with my boyfriend. I'd subconsciously chosen to enmesh with an echo of the love I received as a child, psychologically bound by the original abuse before addressing those wounds. I didn't know that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After dating for one year, I privately shared with my boyfriend that I had bipolar disorder as I was then incorrectly diagnosed and believed it to be the root of my inexplicable intermittent mood swings. He used it against me, claiming my "outbursts" caused him to spiral into a deep depression and that the resulting stress made his Crohn's disease relapse. I was baffled by this, since the most intense emotions I displayed were silent sobs in response to his humiliating remarks or asking for a few hours of personal space because I was having dissociative episodes and wanted to rest my racing mind. 

One night, something he said triggered me so deeply that I felt suicidal. I told my boyfriend I was going to call my therapist and rush to the ER because I didn't feel safe. He threatened to never speak with me again if I left his apartment. I didn't go to the ER. I didn't know these were PTSD symptoms provoked by his demeaning criticism, and having low self-esteem and poor psychological boundary strength, I believed his assessment of my character to be true. Hearing my narcissistic mother's messages through his voice, I made it my mission to change his mind about me, as if that would vicariously absolve me of the shame from my mother. Thank god he broke up with me because I would have never left him.

Because of my romantic codependency, I had made him my world. In the two years we dated, I would still frequent a few meetings a week, but stopped fellowshipping. I would reach out to sober girlfriends only when he and I were fighting and my friendships dissolved. I stopped praying and meditating, petrified that my higher power's will for me was that I would lose him. The beautiful moments we shared together for the first eight months of our relationship convinced me to justify pushing through his intolerable contempt. I was addicted to him. Right after the breakup, I had just gotten a new AA sponsor. She was the perfect person to guide me in this phase of my journey because she directed my wallowing ass straight to SLAA meetings. After two months of having phone sex with my ex, I cut contact and started counting days off communicating with him. 

I wrote a thorough 4th Step months after the breakup. Reading it aloud to my AA sponsor, I suddenly and painfully realized that my ex-boyfriend had been abusive. My sponsor agreed. Author Pia Mellody lovingly defines abuse as "anything that is less than nurturing." This was the first time I validated the weight of the emotional wounds others inflicted on me. I stopped comparing my story; no, my ex didn't throw me down a flight of stairs, but he didn't have to in order to hurt me like he did. Following AA's 12 steps, I sent an e-mail amends to my ex, though my therapist later impressed upon me that I never need to apologize to an abuser. He immediately responded, asking to get together for coffee. Keeping the SLAA course, I continued with no contact and ignored his message. He e-mailed me throughout the following year. I still haven't replied.

I also focused on cultivating my relationship with my higher power, learning to trust that a bigger path is laid out for me. Finally having enough self-esteem, I came to believe that an abusive relationship isn't the love I'm meant to receive. I heard in a meeting that fear manifests in two forms: losing something I have, or not getting something I want; I'm not relying on a higher power if I think I know who is best for me. I've happily dated other men since and seen what genuine, soulful love is, and I settle for nothing less than the dignity that I deserve to be treated with. With this newfound confidence and hope, I drastically revised my Sex Ideal. For me, these qualities are non-negotiable.

It's a miracle that I didn't drink or take my life with how intensely I felt the loss from the breakup. I consciously re-experienced my mother's emotional and physical abandonment from my childhood, a PTSD scar that turned out to be the corroding thread woven throughout my dissociative episodes and severe mood swings. Through all of it, something inside me, however small and weak, pulled me forward into the light. That's how I know my higher power was still holding me even when I had all but deserted spiritual faith in my moments of crushing, seemingly senseless despair. 

Through daily meditation, I've found that forgiving the abuser means learning to love them as I would love any fellow human being, and that can be from a distance. Marianne Williamson once lectured, "unconditional love doesn't mean unconditional permission" and sometimes the most loving response is no. I see my ex as wounded; he only gave me the form of love he knew. I hope one day he finds the healing I've been blessed to discover. I don't see this relationship as having been a mistake; it was an indispensable teaching tool that drove me to break a cycle of abuse I'd been accepting in many forms throughout my life. Mostly, I'm grateful for identifying the dysfunction so I don't have to fall prey to its trap again, and can instead seek a life rich in fulfilling romantic love.

Author-Recommended for Further Reading:

Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody

The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing by Beverly Engel

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend

The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships by Patrick Carnes, PhD

30 Signs of Emotional Abuse in a Relationship

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