“We set the standard for how we want to be treated. Our relationships are a reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves.” ~Iyanla Vanzant
I’ll be honest. I knew my ex was a screwed-up guy. My head told me that not long after we met. The alarm bells were screeching. Could I hear them? Of course! Did I listen to them? No. My heart told my head to sod off and I agreed.
Here was a charismatic, gorgeous man focusing all his attention on me. I was the only one in his universe. Fireworks that would rival Sydney’s New Year’s Eve were going off. The sexual chemistry was intense. He was the best drug ever.
The high of being with him was intoxicating. Nervous butterflies were on a rampage in my stomach, which did a bit of a flip every time I saw him. And that’s how I knew he was the one. Yeah, right.
Like most Narcs, it took a while for his darker side to kick in. But when it did I was already way too hooked on him; I needed more. So, I ignored all the warning signs. The ones that were there in front of my face, with bells on.
When Mr. or Mrs. Charisma has hooked you in, they have you. Then their dark side starts to come out. They start to become a bit moody. To pick a fight, usually over something “you’ve done.” So, you start to change your behavior in anticipation.
If his anger was over something you wore, you change your wardrobe to clothes less “slutty.” If she doesn’t like your friends, you stop seeing them. But no matter what you try, nothing works. The goal posts just get moved. They find another reason to blame you for their anger.
Abusive people have all the answers as to why they treat you poorly. Past girlfriends or boyfriends have betrayed them. They’ve had a difficult childhood; bad luck has let them down. So, you believe them and keep ignoring the warning signs.
To you, this is still that gorgeous person who swept you off your feet. You can still see the good beneath the dark side. You think: all they need is someone like you to take care of them, to bring that charming side back to the fore. And that makes you feel needed, secure.
But then the abuse gets worse. When they go into a rage now, they may storm out and disappear for days. They may even show the first signs of physical abuse. A push or a shove. Something that shocks you, as it comes out of the blue. (Something they’ll later dismiss as not being violence).
But the thought of breaking up and never seeing them again terrifies you even more than how they’re treating you. Hooked in as you were by the drug of when they basked you in their sunshine, you can’t or don’t want to see the real person they are. You ignored the early warning signs, now you deny the reality. It’s true what they say. Love can be blind.
When their rage has calmed down and they reappear, you’re relieved to see them again. It helps that the remorse they now show is equal to the severity of their latest abuse. They say how sorry they are. They sob in your arms. They’re “ashamed” of what they’ve done. They’ll “never do it again.” Blah, blah, blah.
They admit that they need you more than ever to help them change. And of course, this is music to your ears. But this honeymoon period never lasts. The verbal and / or physical abuse, followed by remorse, repeats itself. Over and over, in a cycle.
This cycle of violence (emotional and/or physical) is a toxic turning of unpredictable highs and lows. With each spin, it breaks you down. Any shred of self-esteem you have starts to erode.
You feel worthless and almost deserving of their anger. You start to believe it when they say you’re to blame for it. But you somehow rationalize it all by thinking that all they need is you to fix them to make the abuse go away. All you need to do is to love them more.
You don’t realize it, but loving them has become an addiction for you. You’re addicted to an unavailable person—someone who is not there for you and who doesn’t care for you. They may even be more focused on their own addiction, to alcohol and/or drugs.
Your head might be screaming at you to leave. But you just can’t. In your heart, you feel you love you them. “They need me,” you rationalize. You might even feel guilty if you abandon them.
You are just like an addict. If you admit that your life has become out of control and walk away, you’ll lose the very thing you are addicted to. That high you get from their charismatic, remorseful, attentive side. What you need to make you feel good again. After each dreadful low, you are desperate for a fix, that high, again.
But at some point, you will reach rock bottom—the abuse will become extreme. If they’re physically abusive, they may have even tried to kill you. My ex did, by strangling me. He wrapped his hands around my throat when I was seven months pregnant and with a demonic look in his eyes he screamed, “Die, you c***! Die.”
Like many women, even after that, I still loved him! My heart kept screaming at me not to leave him. Yes, even after he almost killed me.
If you’re lucky your head will start to outweigh your heart. You’ll stop denying that this person is no good for you. Finally, you’ll dig deep and find the courage to walk away. I did. But not before going back to him many, many times. The drug-like pull back toward him was so great. The high, after we first reunited again, was better than the pain I felt when I was without him, alone.
When you leave an abusive person, the withdrawal feels as agonizing as, I imagine it might be, weaning off heroin. It did for me, at least. You’ve been numb for so long that a gamut of emotions pour out at once. Shame, anger, loneliness, guilt—you name it, you feel it. It hurts.
I have never sobbed like that before in my life. I was so overwhelmed by the rawness of them. But you need to feel these emotions, as painful as they are. You need to thaw out. To go cold turkey in order to recover.
Unless you look hard at why you were addicted to an unavailable person in the first place, you risk going back to them. Or replacing them with a different drug, in the form of another abusive person. Either way, like any addict, you risk losing your life.
You need to ask yourself the same questions I did:
Why is it I still love someone who abuses me? Why is it I need to numb myself with someone who is like a drug to me? Someone you know is no good for you, but is the only thing that will make you feel good again. Hopefully, like me, you’ll realize your addiction started way before you ever met this person.
I’m sure you know already that it has something to do with low self-esteem. If we don’t love ourselves, we’re attracted to those who treat us as though we are unlovable. But it’s not enough to just tell someone they need to “love themselves more.” “You need to work on your self-esteem!” That’s easier said than done. Believe me, I know.
First, you need to understand why it is that you feel you are unlovable, or not good enough. How you came to be so low in self-esteem that you let a person abuse you. Only then can you break the cycle of addiction to them and recover.
You may be like me, having grown up in a comfortable, happy home. Never having experienced verbal or physical abuse before in your life. Or you may have suffered it in your family and be repeating the negative patterns of your past. Either way, the root of low self-esteem is if, in some way, your emotional needs were not met as a child.
It might be, for example, that one of your parents had an addiction say, to work or to alcohol. The other parent was then so focused on rescuing them that neither could meet your emotional needs.
It may be as simple as having a parent who was controlling. You weren’t allowed an opinion or any feelings of your own. And if you voiced them, they shut you down, so you learned to mistrust your gut instincts over time. Or it might have been they were such perfectionists, the only way to gain approval was to be perfect in every way.
Our experiences are unique to us, so only you will know. But try to work it out.
If our emotional needs aren’t met as a child, we grow up to have that fear we’re “not good enough.” We also fear abandonment, as we know how painful that is already.
Our parents may have been there when we were kids, but couldn’t deal with us on an emotional level. So, we choose a partner whose baggage matches ours. Someone whose needs weren’t met as a child either and who is as insecure as we are. Even better if they have problems that we can rescue them from—an addiction or a traumatic past. For if they need us, if they depend on us, then in our subconscious minds, they’re less likely to abandon us. To do what we fear most.
Besides, if we can be their rescuer, then we can focus all our attention onto them. By doing so we can deny, ignore, we can even numb our own feelings of insecurity and fears inside. It’s them that has the problem, not us! And it’s such an effective drug, we might not even be aware those feelings exist at all. I wasn’t.
The trouble is, this is a dysfunctional dance. The steps feel familiar, of course, as you’re recreating scenes from childhood to master them. But two people who are insecure are incapable of fulfilling each other’s needs.
To feel secure, both have the pathological need to feel in control. While I was ‘rescuing’ my ex, I felt in control and confident he wouldn’t leave me. But that left him feeling vulnerable, afraid I would see his flaws and walk away. So, he would need to push me away to regain his power.
Now I was the vulnerable one. Terrified he would abandon me, I would forgive him anything to get him back again. If I couldn’t, it would reinforce those painful childhood feelings I had of being unlovable. It would reveal the depth of my insecurity and fears.
And so, I tried to please him, to prove I was worthy of his love and my weakness gave him strength again. The love he then showered onto me was just the drug I needed to numb those fears away and gave me security to start rescuing him again. And so, the cycle begins.
But is this love? I had to ask myself the same. He was a man who treated me as worthless, I knew that. Yet I couldn’t leave him. I still “loved him.” Or so I thought. Until I understood that this is not love, but an addiction. An addiction to someone who could never love me, who could never meet my emotional needs.
He said he loved me all the time. But he never showed me I was lovable. I told myself, too, that I loved him. But in fact, I just wanted to rescue him, to turn him into something I had projected him to be, not who he was. A pity project, perhaps, that could distract me from how f***ed up I was.
When I finally left, I had to treat my addiction to this unavailable man the way any addict does. Go cold turkey. Thaw out. I had to feel all those painful feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Those hideous emotions that poured out. But that was the only way to heal.
I had to go back to the root cause of my lack of self-esteem, where it was seeded in my childhood. Not to judge my parents. Like me, they were doing the best they could at the time. But to understand how I’d come to be this way.
As painful and as hard as this is, once you get it and face those fears down, your insecurity will start to melt away. And little by little you begin to love yourself. I started by doing one nice thing for myself each day. Eventually, I found that self-esteem that everyone had been going on about.
You only attract someone equal to what you think you are worth. Abusive people, who previously saw a chink in your armor, will now see you and run a mile. They’ll see that you get they’re not good enough for you.
Those people who are self-confident and don’t need you to rescue them, will no longer terrify you. And among them will be the one, like I have since found. The person who treats you with kindness and respect. The person who meets your emotional needs and brings out the best in you. The person who allows you to be vulnerable, but safe. They’ll never use that vulnerability as a weapon against you.
Sure, they could walk away any day. But you’ll no longer fear that. For if they do, you’ll just figure it’s not meant to be. You’ll still be there. And you’ll be enough to meet all your own emotional needs, with or without a partner.
About Vivian McGrath
Vivian McGrath is a TV Executive Producer who makes documentaries for major US, UK, and Australian broadcasters. She is also a survivor of domestic violence. Her book Unbeatable (How I Left a Violent Man)—her story of surviving abuse to finding success—will be published soon. She hopes her blog beingunbeatable.com will help others become strong, fearless, and successful too.
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