I’m going to talk about something that people who have not experienced prolonged interpersonal abuse rarely understand, and people who have survived it immediately relate to. The technical psychology term for it is “trauma bonding” but what it refers to, in simple terms, is the complex and multi-faceted feelings a victim has for their abuser.
It’s very hard for me to talk to people in my life about this. Well meaning people who want to help and who actually care about me a lot, don’t understand this. This is why it is so important to support survivors of violence by listening to them, validating them and meeting them where THEY are at. Make sure you clearly understand where they are at, before you begin projecting what you think they should be feeling or where you think they should be at. If you don’t listen closely, and validate the complexity of the situation, the survivor will shut down and stop sharing with you. This is not about you. It was never about you. If you didn’t live through it, you don’t get a say in how the survivor “should” be feeling.
I’ve known my ex-partner for 17 years, 1 month and 25 days. We’ve been in a type of relationship for more than half my life. We were together for 13 years and have been separated/divorced for 4 years, 1.5 months. Even though we separated we have been (in theory) sharing responsibility for our two children. In that way, we were still bonded and in a relationship, even though it was at a distance, non-communicative and unproductive. It was still a type of co-parenting situation, even if we didn’t actually make any real decisions together.
This represents a large portion of my life and a tangled web of complex emotions.
My ex-partner is moving to the other side of the country in 3 weeks. He’s leaving. The house we lived in has been sold. An everything-must-go yard sale planned. My kids have brought the majority of their possessions here.
And he hasn’t even communicated this with me directly. Everything I know, I’ve learned through my children. After over 17 years, he is leaving without even telling me, let alone consulting me or gathering input from me. Without discussing how this might impact my children, or quite frankly me.
He’s never been one for consent.
Quite honestly, there have been many times over the past four years where I wished for this outcome. I wished for him to move away, leave us be. I wished to not be afraid every time I saw a car like his. I wished to not worry about running into him at the grocery store. I wished for him not to emotionally abuse the children and I wished not to have to pick up the pieces of that on a weekly basis. I wished to never see him again. I didn’t really wish harm on him, I just wished he would move away and let us heal.
I wished for it. But I didn’t believe he would actually abandon his kids. I didn’t actually believe he cared so very little about them, that after 4 years of fighting for custody, he would just walk away.
And because I wished for it, people expect me to be happy. People are congratulating me. People are thrilled and excited for me. From the outside, this looks like a dream come true to them.
But honestly, it isn’t. Not at all. I’m going through a complex mix of grief, loss, abandonment, fear, anger, anxiety and confusion. I’m having to face the fact that what I actually wanted is never, and was never, going to happen.
What I actually wanted, was for things to calm down. I wanted to co-parent, cooperatively, but at a distance. I wanted us to continue to raise these kids, in separate houses, but working together in their best interest. I wanted a truce. I wanted the abuse to end. I wanted to leave, but I wanted to leave to stop the abuse, not to cut off all contact with him. I wanted the right to stop the abuse, without sacrificing the entire relationship. I thought the common bond of sharing children together would continue. I thought I would be able to talk with him about issues directly related to the children. I didn’t think we’d be friends, but I had hoped we could co-parent. I wanted to have a choice.
I never signed up to be a solo parent. This is not something I feel like celebrating. I can’t celebrate because I’m grieving.
Truly this is not what I wanted. I don’t hate him. I don’t love him, I don’t think I ever did, but I don’t hate him. I feel deeply sad and disappointed. I am having trouble trusting and connecting with anyone. I feel responsible.
And I understand completely that survivors have a complex relationship with their past abusers. I understand it when people say that they still love the person who raped them. I have so much compassion for people who have to parent with someone they don’t trust. Abuse is not simple. The feelings aren’t simple and survivors need the space to feel accepted for all their confused feelings.
It’s not their fault if they still care about their abuser. It’s not their fault if they get confused and think it is their own fault. It’s not their fault if they hope it will get better. It’s not their fault if they dream of reconciliation despite all evidence that the abuser can’t change. Don’t be disappointed in them. They can’t help it. The psychology term for it is trauma bonding, but quite simply they are tormented by self-blame and confusion.
Gaslighting and the cycle of abuse means the survivor feels responsible.
In my case, the abuser has quite literally blamed every aspect of this process, including the abuse and his decision to move, on me. He told the kids it is my fault he is leaving, because he has “nothing here.”
So, even though you can probably clearly see that it isn’t my fault, I feel responsible.
Even though I intellectually know that it isn’t my fault, I still feel devastated. Even though I know intellectually we are better off without his abuse, I’m still scared to be responsible for the kids on my own.
It’s okay to want someone gone, then mourn the overwhelming sense of abandonment.
It’s okay to have whatever feelings you have. This isn’t a clear situation. The abuse was designed to confuse you, and that confusion remains long after you leave.
But it’s pretty hard to open up, cry and receive comfort, when you don’t feel entitled to these feelings and when you feel you SHOULD be happy, because it’s what YOU wanted and what people expect.
Slide credit: Soni McCarty, LMHC