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Abusive Relationships and Toxic Guilt

by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W

I believe that most of us, especially those of us who have mental health disorders, feel guilt in situations where we have no business whatsoever feeling guilt. 

It is easy to just look at our behavior, the situation and ourselves and say "I'm guilty! I am ashamed." Now let's back up a bit here.

When I say look at ourselves, it might benefit most of us to look a little deeper. We are complex, complicated creatures and our motivation for doing or not doing something is not just based on our personality, our will, etc. 

What do I mean? Let me give you an example of something that may help you see this picture more clearly.

I have been seeing a man who is extremely emotionally and verbally abusive. Now of course I was not aware of his abuse issues at first but I will admit that I saw red flags right from the start. Mind you, I have trained staff in domestic violence, etc. 

The situation I recently faced was a history of ten months seeing this guy, addicted to him, and no matter how much I complained to him about his behavior, I kept going back. I would continue to go back into a little denial that really he is not abusive and that one day we will have a wonderful relationship. I had a very difficult time facing reality because like any addiction, I would occasionally get what I call "adrenalin shots." These "shots" kept me hooked in a situation that I could not get out of. I could not get out of this relationship. 

I did notice as I worked harder to get out, he trumped up his abuse. Finally the emotional abuse became so bad that I just could no longer take the abuse he threw at me. 

Again I wrote him an email kindly asking him to end this thing between us as it was killing me and that I was having a difficult time getting out. Now imagine an abuser and their personality and their agenda. Would he kindly assist me in this? Of course not. 

Of course I knew it was my responsibility to get out I noticed that every time I tried to get out I felt sick. I prayed and prayed to God and asked Him to assist me, started journaling, which did help by the way, but I couldn't get out and if I got close to getting out he knew just how to suck me back in. Wonderful words he would say - tell me just what I needed to hear.


Abuse of any kind decreases your self-esteem and for me I felt like my mind was literally being twisted. His behavior did NOT make sense and the more he did strange stuff, the more twisted I felt. 

During this time I felt TREMENDOUS guilt that I could not leave the relationship. It was humiliating to keep enduring his abuse. Every one told me he was playing head games with me, playing with me, etc. This knowledge was very difficult to assimilate and I so needed to believe that he truly loved and cared about me and that I was special to him. I felt I couldn't face any other reality, as it was too painful. 

One day I was eating lunch and watching a movie on television in the midst of all the craziness. In the movie the husband was verbally, emotionally and physically abusing his wife. Two times in the movie he said to her, "I own you." The first time it went over my head but the second time he said that to her my jaw dropped and I probably looked shocked, like I had seen a ghost. 

My father repeatedly told me he owned me when I was growing up. I never understood that. Once in high school I remember him telling he how he wanted my hair cut. I kindly said I wanted it cut differently and he in no uncertain terms told me I belonged to him, I was his property and he will do with me what he likes. 

I had many times questioned whether my dad was verbally and emotionally abusive to me for many years but I never got to the point where I completely came out of denial until now.

I think we are more inclined to unconsciously look for the environment we were raised in, even if it was abusive. We are familiar with that environment and a non-abusive environment is strange. 

People that have been abused don't see a lot of the red flags that others see because that way of life for them I normal. Many of us feel that love is pain.

It is vital to remember when you look back on your life or you are currently facing a situation where you are unhappy with your behavior, that you are struggling so much due to your history of abuse. You may appear "weak" and unable to get out of that situation without outside help. It says nothing about your character but everything about your past. 

So it is that in my opinion we go to therapy and learn what "normal" is so that we can behave more and more that way and be attracted to healthy people.

Experiencing guilt is not looking at the entire picture and is inappropriate in many cases. 

There is "good" guilt that motivates us to do the right thing but in these situations we are experiencing toxic shame as John Bradshaw calls it. Many of us feel we are bad all the way to the core.

Should we crucify our parents for our issues now? No. They may have done the best they can. Take a look at their family of origin.

We are always responsible for our behavior however and we are responsible to get help if we feel like we are drowning.

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Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

Ditch That Jerk : Dealing With Men Who Control and Hurt Women