I think my partner is emotionally abusive

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milkybarlife
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I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by milkybarlife »

My partner and I (in our late twenties) have been together for 5 years and living together for most of that. Things in general have been great - our morals, values, life vision, humour, ways of thinking all align. We have chemistry, a good bond, both reliable people etc. We still laugh together.

There's one huge and depressing problem, and that is that I think he is emotionally abusive when dealing with conflict. It has been a long journey, about 1 year of actively working on it now, but I've come to a point where I realise it's not a lack of 'emotional intelligence', and it's not because of his past. It's emotional abuse he is choosing to repeatedly inflict on me in order to protect himself.

What confuses me is that I'm the one who grew up with abuse, while he didn't, and yet he is the one who employs emotionally abusive tactics. He grew up in a very stable household, farm boy, all things provided. But his parents never talked about emotion, avoided conflict, and were never affectionate. While I understand this makes it difficult for him to know how to express, his parents were not cold or cruel people - you can feel their love even without them touching you or saying 'I love you.' Meanwhile I grew up in a traumatic household with abuse, violence, and what not.

What he does is, whenever I bring up conflict, he will flip it on me, say I'm being too sensitive, he says couples shouldn't argue or talk so much, I'm overcritical etc. That's with me being as delicate and as mature as possible. I have had a lot of practice with confrontation (my mother) and so I know how to not use inflammatory language, how to frame things in a way as in 'I feel' etc. But even when I do that, he uses it as ammunition. 'Oh you feel like that? Why are you with me then? You always feel like x y and z'. This was a general way that he would deal with conflict before - completely immature and victimising himself. In the past year he worked on that, and generally that part is gone.

But when we are in an argument and say it's a more intense topic, something else happens. He completely explodes, lashes out, and says horrible things. Blames everything on me, insults me, gaslights me, laughs at me, in the past used to mock me too but he stopped that. He turns into someone I don't recognise, and in this moment, it doesn't matter if I apologise or if I back down, or if I shout or get angry, he will continue. It is like an 'episode'. He will smash things, punch walls sometimes, at times even punch himself. I tell him to stop, I tell him go and take a break, sometimes he does, other times he stays there to spew poison. I've frequently compared this experience as if it's a 'drunk' him. When he calms down many hours later or the next day, it is like he sobers up. He is so ashamed about his actions, he vehemently disagrees with everything he said, he explains he was exaggerating, not thinking, etc.

We've had deeper discussions about this and he claims he was struggling with self-loathing and it's a defensive tactic to project it outwards so that he makes it about me instead of him. He explains he struggles with feelings of shame a lot. Okay fine, but that was a year ago.

In this entire year, he's been journalling almost every day, and past few months he's been seeing a therapist weekly. But about a week ago, he lashed out again despite telling him it will destroy our relationship. He was worse than ever, telling me it's over, to leave, making random claims about the past that are untrue, blaming me for everything. I packed my stuff and moved out and have been at my mother's for the past week.

It was in this time that I read a book 'Why Does He Do That' where I realised he is in fact abusive. No matter what he's told me or how many promises he's made to not do that, he always breaks them. Even when my mum got involved and tried to talk to him, he made promises etc. Broke them. He spoke to his own mum, still broke the promise again. At this point, nothing seems to make any sort of effect. Not the thought of me leaving him, not the fact that our families know and have tried to talk about it, nothing.

I was numb at my realisation a few days ago, and then I decided it's best to take a break. Without going into too much detail, I told him about my realisation (that he is emotionally abusive) and how I learned it, and that it's been something I've not had the words to explain for a long time. Then I ended it with the fact I need space and I need him not to contact me for now.

Now I am sitting here having my space but I just don't know what to think, what to do, how to process all this, whether I should force myself to leave him, whether this is salvagable. I don't know anything. After speaking to my brother, he told me just stay away from him for a month and work on yourself and your happiness, and let him come to his own conclusions and reflections. I am doing that anyway, for myself not for him, but I can't help feeling so confused and conflicted. I do love him, and I know that without this issue we would be perfect together, everyone knows it. We're not just 'good' together, we're content around each other, we are like two house-cats who have grown together, I can't explain it. But at the same time, I can't keep living like this, and I don't know what to do.

I am sick of hearing the same trigger happy advice 'leave him'. I love this person. But it's become almost become me vs him, I can't keep living like this any longer. Any hope? Any idea? I'm sorry this is so long, I just feel so alone in all this.
Sam W
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by Sam W »

Hi milkybarlife,

I want to start by saying you deserve a tremendous amount of kudos for taking all the steps you have; leaving a partner we care for but who is unsafe for us (emotionally or physically) is often incredibly difficult. You've not only put distance between him and yourself, you've also done research to help you identify what was happening and set the the no-contact boundary with him. Given what you've told us, those were all very sound choices on your part.

Now to the much stickier question: is there any hope he'll change? I can say that from both the research about abusive behavior and my own time working in this field, the most likely result is that he won't change. Instead, he'll keep doing what he's been doing, which is lashing out at you and making promises to be better that he'll then break. That's not to say people can't or don't change sometimes, but unlearning behaviors like this is often a difficult and prolonged process. Even if it's one he committed to and was actively engaging with, the safest choice for you would be to be away from him while he went through it. Does that make sense?

I hear you saying you can't keep living like this; I suggest listening to that voice in your head, because it's trying to protect you. One of the things that makes abuse so difficult to deal with is that the people who do it aren't awful 100% of the time. The happy, loving parts of the relationship coexist right along with the abusive ones. But at a certain point, protecting yourself has to be the priority, even if that means losing someone who you love. When you sit with that thought, how does it make you feel?
milkybarlife
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by milkybarlife »

Thank you for such a thoughtful response. It is comforting to hear that I've done something right, since it all feels like chaos around me right now and I have no idea what I'm doing.

To your question about whether there is hope that he'll change: previously what I had based my hope on was the fact that the normal conflict did change. We had talked about mindset and how conflict needs to be navigated rather than react to it, and just generally how to see it in a more mature way. While it initially took a few times reminding, he has truly integrated that and changed. Changed isn't the right word even - for that he did mature and does feel that way. It has been that way for almost the whole year. It is when the conflict is more intense, or he is especially overwhelmed so that it becomes a 'big deal' that it's like he reverts (lashes out).

In the lashing out, it was practically hopeless for a long time and I kept giving ultimatums, going for 'breaks' at my mum's house, then came the interventions. Those were the only ways I was trying to deal with it. Every time it would happen he would seem to have learned 'another piece of the puzzle' which made sense to me at the time. The instance before last was the closest thing to progress - we had a serious discussion which lasted about 4 days because we kept stopping very early because my boyfriend was getting overwhelmed quickly. I was trying to be as accommodating as possible.

So for about 4 days he was able to endure and keep that reaction at bay. When he finally exploded, he tried to explain that although he did recognise it was his own self loathing, he didn't constructively do anything to remove this feeling during the breaks. If anything he would ruminate or express it in his journal, thinking it will settle on its own, instead of investigating/removing it. I was trying to be as logical as possible, and that made sense to me. He said he won't do it again because now he knows to do that. Did he? Obviously not. The last time he lashed out was worse than ever, he didn't even remove himself which is something he can do already. That was when I got the complete hopeless realisation that despite him having the answers, he was choosing to do it anyway.

I remember being in tears just before I left, telling him, that despite how upset I was that he broke yet another promise, if he could at least show me that he could stop or snap out of it or wake up, then I'd know there was progress. But he couldn't. It's not that he was relentless or coming after me to argue or something, he is not aggressive, only extremely passive aggressive. Before I knew to call it abuse, I called it 'nasty' (If you ever do read the book 'Why Does He Do That', he is the 'water torturer' type)

So, I feel it would realistically take something drastic for that to change. Either drastic or it would take months of him working on himself without me there.

I am okay with removing myself for that time, to let him deal with it. In fact I thought about it before but the reason I didn't was because I always saw this as a relationship conflict problem - and I thought well if I just remove myself how is he going to get used to or learn how to act in conflict? How can someone actually change that when they are not in that environment? I feel like if anything he would get even more sensitised because he wouldn't be around it (which seemed like his problem from the beginning). If I was able to understand that, that would give me hope for that option. Thanks again for taking your time to help me with this
Mo
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by Mo »

It does sound like your partner's struggling to deal with conflict in a way that's not abusive, but I don't think the way for him to get better at it is for him to remain in a relationship where he's able to continue that abuse. I don't think putting yourself at continued risk of abuse is likely to be helpful or healthy for either of you. I do worry, too, that since he's already escalated from verbal abuse to physical acts like harming himself or breaking things, that he may at some point escalate to physically harming you more directly.

You asked "how can someone actually change that when they are not in that environment?" What I think it takes for someone to change abusive behaviors is for them to seek out help specifically for changing those behaviors. If he's able to seek out a therapist who specializes in treating people who are abusive, and can say "I'm being abusive in my relationship and I need to learn how to stop," then he might be able to change. If he's seeing a therapist but isn't able to explicitly admit that his behavior is abusive, then the therapy is much less likely to be helpful for him in this area. Most therapists who treat people in this situation will advise that they not be in a relationship while trying to work on their abusive behavior.

It sounds like you've put in a lot of work towards trying to find ways that the two of you can have conflict and express your feelings healthily, but ultimately his decisions to be abusive are his and not something you can change.
milkybarlife
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by milkybarlife »

If there is a chance he can address and resolve his issues, I don't want to break up the relationship. I don't mind being distant, living without him etc. If I can help it, obviously I don't want to leave him. As I said in my first post, I love this person, and in my mind he's more than just those aspects. If change doesn't really start until he has admitted that he is abusive and seeks therapy for it, then in a way, that hasn't happened until now. Even I was not aware it was that serious.

Are you saying that as long as I am technically in the relationship with him, despite how distant I am, he cannot change? Can he not seek this more direct therapy while still being with me? I feel that holding onto my boundaries and not 'letting' him get close enough to even behave in that way might be a good motivator for him to address his behaviour. The problem is I didn't know this was an option until now, not that I'm weak and unable to discipline myself not to see him.

It can really make me feel sad when the only solution is to not be in a relationship together. Can we not define our relationship so that certain barriers are in place? The reason I'm saying this is also because he has done everything I've asked him to do. As bad as he is in these situations, it's not like he doesn't try. I don't feel the answer is to quit when he wasn't fully aware of what the problem actually is until now. If I wasn't aware and I consider myself to be very emotionally intelligent (through childhood experiences) then it would be difficult to say that I expect him to have known. I am able to protect my health/happiness in other ways in order to give that situation a try.

Of course, if after he admits his behaviour is abusive, and is actually seeking help for abusive behaviour, with the knowledge that he has lost his partner living with him due to his abusiveness, etc, and STILL acts abusive after that, at that point he isn't even the person I love. But a part of me wants to give him that chance to see how he navigates it, with myself almost fully removed. Sorry if that sounds rude in any way, I am processing the multifaceted emotions that come with this situation ongoing, and I seem to be aware of more nuances in how I feel the more time passes. My disappointment and guardedness hasn't and won't changed - in fact I have no idea how I'll ever trust him again.

If something hadn't changed in me, I wouldn't have been able to go no contact for a week and still be fine, we've never done no contact ever. But I'm not thinking that far yet. What is becoming more clear to me is that I don't want to leave, not yet. That doesn't mean I'll go running back and reward him though, I want to try a different method with different consequences. Now that I am getting a sense that perhaps people can change without being in the 'conflict situation' that gives me a hope.
Sam W
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by Sam W »

The tricky thing is that continuing the relationship, him making genuine attempts to change, and your own wellbeing may not be compatible goals at a certain point. The level of no contact you'd have to go with him--and the level a therapist working with him would recommend--would basically be the same as if you'd ended the relationship. And it could last quite awhile. There's also the fact that he may not even be with the kind of therapist he needs yet; helping people unlearn abusive behaviors is a specialized area. I have to say, right now one of the main things therapy seems to be giving him is just more language he uses to justify his behavior or not fully own his actions.

I do want to push back some on the idea that he wasn't aware of the nature of what he was doing until now. I believe Lundy Bancroft discusses this some in the book, but by and large most abusive behavior is calculated, even if it appears to be an outburst or something the person can't control. Think about it this way; even if your boyfriend didn't have the framework of emotional abuse to describe what he was doing, he still routinely made choices during arguments that he knew upset and scared you. More than that, he escalated them over time rather than going "oh my god I'm upsetting my partner and I need to figure out how to never, ever react this way again."

Too, when you think about what you want from life, how much of it are you giving up if you decide to put certain parts of it on hold on the small chance he changes? What if you want to move, or you meet someone else who makes you equally happy as a partner? How much are you willing to put on hold for someone who kept, and will likely keep, making choices knowing that they hurt you? As you pointed out, you're not sure you could ever trust him again; a relationship without trust (including instances where trust was broken by abuse) is unlikely to last, especially when you'll always have in the back of your head the question of "is he going to go back to his old choices?"
milkybarlife
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by milkybarlife »

Yes, you pose good points. I’ll have to mull a lot of that over while I’m taking this time for myself.

In my mind, I had the idea of having a deadline trying out that kind of arrangement which would, yes, effectively be almost no contact but still together. I wouldn’t tell him about it, but just so that I’m giving myself time to see what it is like.

If after, say, 3 months I don’t feel that there’s any genuine hope or progress, I will of course leave and by that time I’ll probably be ready to emotionally as well. The way I see it in my mind is 3 months for potentially breaking through a life long relationship is worth it. And 3 months of holding off from potential other romantic experiences? That’s fine with me since I need my own space anyway. If I meet someone during that time that makes me feel any differently, of course I will break up, rather than refuse to see or think that there’s anyone else who could make me happy.

I understand what you’re saying and will take that seriously into account, I know that the odds are stacked against me and it depresses me but that is the reality. I just don’t feel comfortable leaving based on the extreme that an abusive person cannot change while in a relationship, no matter how distanced that relationship is. I would rather see it myself than leave based on a black and white perspective.

The thing is, in the book it gives the abused person those options. So I want to be open to some grey area before I fully disconnect you know?

I know what you mean, it is calculated and he knew that it would upset me behaving or saying certain things. I know that he did those things because morally for him he wasn’t crossing the line even though I’d told him it was crossing it to me. I know that for an abusive person for them to change, their idea of morality has to change and that’s not an easy or quick fix. Even without going that far - acting as if you can’t control yourself because of an emotion, whether it’s abuse or not, is still disgusting. Still I want to believe in his goodness because I know myself and I know I wouldn’t have invested 5 years with someone that I didn’t see real goodness in.

I want to express that despite his outbursts if anyone met us when not in conflict, they would think I was the dominant one, because the entire rest of the time he is nothing but respectful, supportive and does everything for me. Not out of compensation but because that’s who he is. It is not an attitude he carries in any other realm of our relationship. For example even before he gets to that point, if I’m mad at him and say something mean by accident, his instinct is to apologise for that thing and take accountability for it rather than snap back. I am not excusing his behaviour I am trying to express that 90% of the time I am not a meak person at his beck and call. He comes across as one of those men who say ‘yes dear’ and while that in a way makes it worse, because that then leads to him containing his needs and then being emotionally abusive during that outburst, it is a different kind of situation to a person who gradually and perpetually grinds me down.

So anyway, a part of me wonders that if there was some way (even a very difficult way) to get through that, it would be worth it in the long run. In Lundy’s book, abuse is based on attitude and beliefs, not on feelings. People often benefit from being on their own to change their attitudes and beliefs, a small amount do change while in a relationship if arrangements are altered. I would rather trial a completely different situation where I’m not going to be hurt either way, before fully deciding to leave. If not for him, then I feel I deserve it for myself.

I hope that makes some kind of sense? Would anyone be able to direct me to any sources or material where an abusive person has changed while in a relationship? So I can see what arrangements that relationship had or at least so that I can learn to spot what is or isn’t signs of change. I am on a waitlist for therapy but it might not be for a little while because I don’t have the income to get it privately. I’m sorry if I’ve come across as non receptive in some way, this dialogue has been useful to me because it’s making me clear on some aspects while also giving me things to think about, again thank you
Sam W
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by Sam W »

I think having that three month timeline, even if it's just something in your head and not something you communicate to anyone else, would be helpful. If nothing else, you're giving yourself a set point to check in on how you're feeling as a result of the break and what next steps feel safe for you to pursue.

I'm glad to hear you're on the waitlist for therapy, because you deserve all the support you can get in navigating this situation; putting space between yourself and an abusive partner is difficult and, as you're discovering, brings up a lot of conflicting and complex emotions. Hopefully, therapy will also give you a place where you can work with a professional to draw up tools to evaluate how you're feeling about all this and how safe (or not) contacting him again would be.

I will say that the way you describe him is very similar to someone I know, down to the way he chooses to intimidate you during those incidents. That person has had multiple people (including his main target) go no-contact. They all remain that way, because he is unwilling to take the steps to stop being how he is (and, sadly, he escalated with one of the people who is still around him). Do I think he could change? In theory, yes, just as it's possible for your partner to change. But I always err on the side of caution because it will take prolonged, very noticeable changes in order for him to be a safe person again, and encouraging someone to go back in his orbit or offer him grace before those changes are present would mean putting them in danger.

To your question about how to evaluate if someone's changed, I know Lundy Bancroft has written about it some on his website. I also really like these answers from the Hotline, since they both outline what to look for and explain just what kind of program an abusive person needs to be in in order for change to be possible: https://www.thehotline.org/resources/is ... an-abuser/, https://www.thehotline.org/resources/in ... -behavior/.
milkybarlife
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by milkybarlife »

Thank you very much. This discussion has been helpful to me.

I was wondering, if there are significant updates on this situation in the coming months, such as if I find myself in a confusing situation and need a second opinion, am I able to write it here on this post or should I make a completely new one? It obviously would be a rare instance, not just a random update.
Sam W
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Re: I think my partner is emotionally abusive

Unread post by Sam W »

You're so very welcome, and I'm glad talking here has been helpful for you.

If you want to update about this situation or ask more questions about it down the road, you're welcome to keep posting in this thread.
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