During recent conversations about surviving domestic violence, I am reminded of something necessary to escaping abuse: the extraction of internal patterns of thought that exist within the victim that can lead to ongoing victimization. These patterns often persist even though you believe “the work” is finished once you have established your separate residence. Let me say that in a different way: Getting away from your abuser physically is just the first step – you must free yourself on the inside in order to free yourself completely from abuse.
(I will also say here that you can begin the process of freeing yourself on the inside before escaping; this is part of the purpose and mission of the combined projects which comprise the Fly Free Organization, the 2bsisters.com blog as well as the 2btru2you.com podcast/membership sites.) My posts and podcast focus on the gap that exists in the treatment of Domestic Abuse/Violence. That gap is what exists when a victim has endured too much physical harm or is at risk of too much danger to prepare adequately emotionally and mentally to leave the relationship. Getting away physically isn’t enough to stop the abuse.
Because getting away from your abuser is an intense, scary and dangerous process, you may breathe a sigh of relief and believe you are both ready and free to move on once you are out. But unless you have done the internal work (e.g. see posts on the “Shoulds”) you continue to be vulnerable to abuse: either by your soon-to-be ex or by the next abusive person who shows up on your dating/romantic queue.
Then every time a potential abuser (every person of the same gender of the abuser seems like a potential abuser to a recently-escaped victim) or abusive situation arises (circumstances that previously led to you being harmed), the pre-programmed internal signals that tell you you are about to be harmed begin to sound the alarms in your head. When this happens, you are no longer able to identify whether the threat is in your head (leftover from past abuse) or an actual threat to your personal well-being in real time. Regardless of what external reality is, you will perceive danger. Then you will act based on fear rather than making conscientious choices based on what is really going on and within the context of your needs and your values.
You will look for a bush to jump behind when you see someone who looks like your abuser as you are walking down the street. Unless you have done the work of extracting the thought patterns established during the abusive relationship, you will panic instead of calming yourself and talking to yourself in a way that maintains your safety and shores up your sense of self-confidence.
How do you know if you are free on the inside? Answer a few questions:
– Would it scare me to see me abuser in a public place, like at the grocery store?
– When I must interact with my abuser do I comply with every demand placed on me by that person?
– Do I find myself hiding or changing my personal plans in order to avoid necessary contact?
– Does my fear of accidental contact limit my daily activities?
– Am I able to assert my own needs, opinions and preferences in the face of potential opposition? (Your response to others in general can give you insight related to your healing process with your abuser specifically. In other words, if you haven’t learned to assert yourself in a healthy way with others you probably won’t be able to defend emotionally against a past abuser.)
These questions assume that you have taken into account and planned for situations involving real danger such as in the case where an abuser will perpetrate violence toward you regardless of whether or not you are in a public place. It is important to remember that over 70% of the women injured in domestic violence cases are injured after separation.If you have a very dangerous abuser, you must be very aware of potential danger in any situation you may be in. However, the more you are aware of and have corrected the thought patterns that were developed during the abuse, the more clear you will be to maintain your safety by avoiding potentially dangerous situations.
The unfortunate reality is that most victims are unable to completely separate themselves from their abusers based on one thing they have in common with the abuser: their children. Even if you don’t have to interact based on the children you have together, you may live in the same community, you may have some of the same friends, you may work in the same community and occasional contact may be a real possibility.
It is in these situations the need for physical separation is obvious. However, the need for emotional separation becomes more critical because when your abusive ex-partner no longer has emotional control of you, you are much better prepared to prevent yourself from being victimized again.
Click here to improve your understanding of how your abuser uses guilt to confuse you through the use of blame.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.
In cooperation with Fly Free Organization, Tamara is in the process of making her recovery curriculum for domestic violence survivors available via a protected online format. This curriculum is for victims who have not yet been able to escape, those who have recently escaped and those who have been independent for a time but still need to strengthen themselves as survivors. Please visit her 2btru2you Solutions Podcast to hear more, submit your questions for Tamara to address on the show.