The Lasting Impact of Toxic Relationships Long After You’ve Left

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As anyone who has been in abusive relationship knows, you can’t reason with an abuser. You can’t make them comprehend how they’re treating you. You can’t use logic or common sense when attempting to resolve a disagreement. Relationships like this are toxic. Abusers tend to have narcissistic personalities. They know how to push the right buttons to induce emotional reactions out of us. They are experts at playing emotional mind games. Abusers are experts in getting exactly what they want by belittling others. They’re sociopaths. Perfect and never at fault to the outside world. Dark, ugly and manipulative on the inside, and generally only the partner (or victim) gets to see this side.

And yet, as anyone who is still in an abusive relationship knows, we still attempt to reason with them. They hurt us and we forgive. They continue to manipulate us and we try to minimise what they’re doing. We make excuses. We convince ourselves that our partner isn’t bad, evil or abusive. He or she is having a bad day, going through a tough time, is taking out his or her stress on the one he/she loves.

After all, this person used to be good, kind, loving. Right? And that’s the person we are forgiving and making excuses for; the person we used to love. Who used to love us. Not this abusive monster they’ve become.
This is why we go back. We forgive. We try to forget. We make excuses. And the abuse, whether it’s physical, emotional, or both, always happens again.
This is why it is so damn hard to leave. From the outside looking in, it’s so simple to ask, ‘Why does she put up with this?’ or ‘Why doesn’t he just leave?’.

But anyone who has been on the receiving end of emotional, physical or even sexual abuse, knows it’s not that simple. We want to give them the benefit of the doubt. We want to hold on to the person who we knew before the abuse (if that person even ). After all, it used to be good, right? At some point, we did have a relationship worth saving, right?

And this is also why so many people go back. ‘She has changed.’ ‘I owe it to him to try to make it work.’ ‘I was at fault too.’

Except an abuser is almost always going to continue to be an abuser. I’m not doubting people can change their ways or turn their lives around. But the likelihood is that things are not going to change. You’re probably going to continue to suffer in one way or another if you stay.

Despite knowing this, our feelings get in the way. Sometimes we look back. ‘What if…?’ ‘What’s the harm in meeting for a coffee or sending a text?’ ‘What if he has changed after all…?’

Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash

So what happens when you finally find the courage to leave? Instant liberation? Hardly. It takes days, months, years to get the habits out of your system. You still feel fearful of your actions, you continue to second-guess your decisions. You feel inexplicable guilt for doing things you should not feel guilty about.

Distant memories or flashbacks can incite feelings we haven’t felt in years. Emotions from a past life can resurface much later. Our senses can take us back to unhappier times. Smells, sounds, music, tastes all can be triggers decades after the abuse.

And then there are the questions. Part of healing is analysing what happened. You acknowledge what happened, you assess the impact. Inevitably you wonder why. Was it something you did? Something you said? Would it have been different if…? Does he or she have any remorse now? What does he or she think about it now? If we saw each other, would he/she feel shame, guilt or remorse?

I was in this position recently. It has been years and years since I even saw his face. A person who repeatedly broke me down inside. And occasionally put his hands on me. And I forgave and forgot. And forgave and forgot. Until one day I couldn’t do it anymore and left.

Recently I got the urge to get in touch. To ask questions. Lots of ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’. I felt the need to dig from a distance. To know if I infiltrate his dreams, like he still does mine. As if he unknowingly still has some kind of hold on me. Even though it has been so long. Does he feel guilt? Is it different now that he has children?

Despite it all, I can’t help but wonder ‘what if…?’

This type of thinking is harmful and clearly no good will come of it. Yet I can’t help but wonder… I debate with myself about reaching out. Full of loaded questions, but not sure what I would actually ask or why. Not sure what to expect. Imagining a thousand different responses and scenarios in my head.

No good can come of this. But ‘what if…?’

I didn’t get in touch. I told my husband about it. And then I told him I’m going to write. So that is what I’m doing. Instead of writing to a toxic person who doesn’t deserve to hear from me, I’m going to refer to a list of things I can do instead. And I’ll keep it close for the next time I get the urge.

For anyone else who gets a similar urge to reconnect with someone who mistreated you, use my list or make your own. If that doesn’t work, or if you are still feeling the negative effects of an abusive relationship long after leaving, please find a friend to support you, or reach out to a local support organisation instead.

You are NOT alone. And you will get past this.

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