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After Verbal Abuse

Question:

Hello, Last year I left a 6-year long relationship which at the time I understood as unhealthy and harmful, and now would probably label as verbally abusive. I am 99% sure my ex suffers from bipolar disorder. He was prone to anger outbursts during which he would scream, curse at me, be unreasonable, punch or kick objects, or throw things at the wall. He also sometimes acted inappropriately in social situations with my friends. I ended up spending a lot of time trying to please him and anticipate his moods, and spent less time with friends, so that my social circle diminished somewhat (though not entirely.) I found it very difficult to leave him. Leaving the relationship co-oincided with other big changes in my life, as I moved to a new country to start a PhD program. I have been working on taking care of myself, trying to exercise, cook, and meditate. Now I am in a new relationship with a really wonderful person. We have been together for three months and I am very much happy and in love. I explained to him about my ex, but obviously I try not to bring this up often. A few days ago, he was driving and as ‘navigator’ I kept accidentally misreading the directions. At one point, he screamed. He is a very gentle person and his reaction was half sincere but half joking. But it brought back all these memories, insecurities and fears. I spent hours holding back tears before being able to explain to him that this was a trigger for me. After making sure that I didn’t actually believe he would be abusive, he said "I understand. We can deal with this. I will be more careful." I felt calmer after and we have been getting along as well as ever, with just as much affection. What I have realized from this is that I have a lot of healing left to do. I think I have a lot of shame at staying with him for so long and allowing myself to be treated that way (and shame at my occassional attempts to "fight back" by screaming back at my ex.) I especially want to make sure that these issues do not prevent my current relationship from flourishing. I would like to get any advice on this, and be directed to any resources you know of along these lines. Thank you!

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Answer:

Part of the healing you need to do is to cease criticizing your self for having stayed with your ex for so long. You must know that this is all too common an occurrence. People convince themselves that the abuse may be their own fault and they do not want to be too hasty in making the decision to leave. They give in to the pleas of the abusive person to be forgiven and feel sorry for that individual even though they have just been abusive. Rather than criticize your self, feel good that you did leave and that you are happier now. Shame is a terrible emotion that has roots in endless self criticism especially if you worry about the judgment of other people. However, you do not deserve feelings of shame and those emotions are better directed outward towards your ex husband who, though he was sick, had no right to treat you in that way. I have known many people with bipolar disorder who, regardless of their problems, do not treat others in an abusive way.

Of course anyone who has been through a relationship in which they were abuse will have some degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That is why you reacted so strongly to the man in your new relationship when he got angry about your navigational skills. In actuality, the situation in the car that you described fits the scenario for what happens to millions of couples across the nation. There is probably no more argued about issue between couples than driving and driving directions. I am not implying that this is a good thing but merely that it is a common phenomenon. Once he got angry you were transported back into your unhappy marriage. It is good that you could discuss this with him sometime afterward and that he promised to be more sensitive. However, the likelihood is that it will happen again at some time.

I would recommend that you read all you can about abusive relationships and post traumatic stress disorder so that you can understand what happened to you in the past as well as in the present. There are many resources on the Internet lots of reading material in the book stores.

I also want to urge you to enter therapy to help you reduce the effects of post traumatic stress and the effects of over all stress in your life. Of particular concern is that you not have a repeat of an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, surviving abuse often (but not always) becomes a matter of repetition. Many survivors of abusive relationships describe how they were abused while they were growing up or how they watched a parent being abused.

I understand that you love the man with whom you now have a relationship. However, it has only been three months and you need to learn a lot more about one another. I am not suggesting that he will be abusive. I am only stating that neither one of you really knows the other just yet. You each need to give the relationship time to grow and mature. The fact that you will quarrel with one another is not a problem. Loving couples quarrel and that seems to be part of a healthy relationship. What is important is how people argue. In other words, couples need to have their disagreements with the parameters of mutual respect and understanding. Additional parameters for arguing are that there not be any cursing, name calling, hitting or threatening. If an argument is getting "hot" then one or each of you needs to call a "time out" and separate for a couple of hours after which you can kiss and make up. Do not resume the discussion until the next day after you have each had time to "sleep on it."

Therapy is important for you in order that you handle disagreements between the two of you without your being transmitted to the past. You need to avoid demonizing this man when there is some anger. As you know, there is a big difference between the appropriate expression of anger and being abusive. Also remember, no one is perfect and anyone can get somewhat "loud." That is fine if it is rare. He does need to be patient with you but he will not be perfect.

Best of Luck

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