Did you know that research has shown that emotional rejection or abuse hurts every bit as much as physical pain, indeed it stimulates exactly the same place in the brain? Only it lasts longer, much, much longer.
When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. We evolved our pain response to avoid situations that put us in danger, and being ostracised from our herd is about as dangerous as it gets for a weak, soft creature without built in weapons like a human. Our only strength is in numbers and co-operation.
I watched a documentary about the police trying to assist women fleeing domestic violence. Two of the women had been in long term relationships with their violent partners before they were arrested for violently beating them. One of them was unable to resist having ongoing contact with him, which meant he kept avoiding jail, and the other collapsed at court when she saw her ex, and sobbed and cried, and promised to wait for him to serve his prison term. I’ve worked supporting vulnerable people- male and female- in abusive relationships for over twenty years. I know from bitter experience that this is the point when most people lose patience and understanding with the survivors and stop helping them.
I can understand this frustration, but society needs to learn to see leaving an abusive relationship differently from ending an unsatisfactory relationship.
We have a name for people who are kidnapped and form a bond with their abuser- Stockholm syndrome, and we recognise that Cults brainwash people so it is incredibly difficult to leave. There are experts that specialise in intense therapy to help them rebuild their sense of self enough to leave. Yet we cannot see that both these factors have been at play for anyone that has been in an abusive relationship.
The abuser doesn’t choose just anyone. Different abusers have different favourite types- some like the feisty ones- they enjoy grinding the spirit out of them, some like the quiet ones- they’re less likely to face much competition, and others like the kind ones- easier to syphon off their energy. So they use different ‘hooks’ while they are out ‘fishing’, maybe it’s negative comments, or insults, or maybe it’s a sob story, maybe it’s the Alpha Male Prince Charming act.
The grooming starts at that very first meeting, then the victim’s sense of self is slowly undermined, and replaced with the abusers’ rules. Usually while the abuser remains utterly delightful and charming to everyone else.
Once it reaches the point where help is sought, the victim, and the support they seek, is up against a corruption that has influenced every area of their lives and undermined every relationship. They were only made to feel better when the abuser chose to be in a good mood. And all the time they are dangling the memory of those perfect first months, as if the victim is the one who ruined things, and if they just tried hard enough it could be like that again.
It is hard to outweigh this sort of damage, and while we as a society allow the abuser to get away with it if they wear the victim down to the point where they have contact with them again, what hope is there?
We need to recognise that these people are breaking the laws of our whole society, not laws made by their victims. It is not up to the survivors to enforce the rules, it is up to rest of us, who aren’t crippled with carefully crafted self-doubt. If someone hits someone, they have broken the law. It should not matter if they speak to them again or not.
And if you are someone who is fleeing abuse of any kind, be kind to yourself. The temptation will be to ignore the part of you that wants that person back, who misses them, who still believes that if you’d just tried a bit harder, been a bit better, they would have always been that amazing person you first met, but don’t. Acknowledge yourself, don’t you reject that hurt bit of you too, open your arms and love that part of yourself that has been so damaged, understand them for not believing they are worth better than that. Reassure them that they are, and then show them. And get expert help, there are support services available. Use them, and good luck, and much love.