In the opening scene of the film, Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s character prepares his men for battle in the forests of Germania. As he enters the fray, he shouts to his men, “HOLD THE LINE! STAY WITH ME!”
When I work with people leaving abusive or destructive relationships, they are often shocked by the force with which they feel compelled to maintain or reestablish connection with the person who has harmed them. This is no ordinary break up longing. It cannot be attended to with a good movie and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
Because of the way abusive or destructive relationships work, the person who was harmed is often isolated from other deep and sustaining life connections. This means that loss of the primary romantic relationship represents the loss of the most profound connection the person has, even if it was a damaging one. Often it is the only deep relationship occurring. Friendships and family are opfrequently distant or estranged.
The survivor of these kinds of relationships has also usually built up a deep well of unfulfilled needs. To leave the relationships without real ongoing connection would mean feeling the depth of the unmet needs, which many survivors do not feel prepared to face. These are the needs for kindness, love, appreciation, sex, tenderness. With distance, the survivor recalls the whole idea that a relationship is supposed to be good and loving most of the time. It is supposed to make you stronger. Facing that you have not had this and for so very long, is very painful.
The survivor longs for loving connection with the abusive or destructive person above a connection with anyone else. In part, this is because abusive person usually withholds affection or attention within the relationship, often denying the reality of the abuse or minimizing it. Over time, the smallest and often temporary acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the part of the abusive person begins to feel precious. A period of apparent peace, bought at the cost of the survivor swallowing or softening the truth, seems worth the price. The survivor wants acknowledgment, longs for respectful connection, even after leaving, in part because loving connection has been so hard to come by, so fleeting, especially from this person who meant so much.
Making Things Right
The survivor wants the abusive person to be the person who makes things right. You want the person who hurt you to do the apologizing. Survivors hope that if they maintain connection, that someday the abusive person will be able to see what they have done and to provide the much longed for acknowledgment. The sad truth is that the acknowledgement you seek most likely won’t be coming. And even if it is coming, it isn’t going to come as soon as you break up, and it won’t mend the harm on its own. The damage done by the relationship is still yours to nurse.
Sharpening the Intensity
If the survivor has a family of origin that was unsupportive or hurtful, this longing for reconnection to the abusive person can feel intensely compelling, nearly beyond description. When you leave an abusive relationship, a window into your own profound needs for a family is opened. By truly separating, survivors feel like they are rejecting the chance at having a real, loving family, a thing that they have longed for their whole lives. You are not rejecting that chance! By leaving a destructive relationship, you are opening the path to that chance.
What to do?
Establish a boundary. Get help with establishing it. Every time you wan to write or text or call, or stop by, call your helping people.
Grieve. You are in grief. You must respect the many losses you are sustaining. Grieve your isolation, as you work to fill your life with new connection. Grieve your unmet needs. Grieve the loos of having things made right the way you wanted it all to happen. Grieve the deeper wounds that may be there. Honor your soul through the process of grief. Find help for this integrative process.
Use your spiritual tools. Call in friends and new connections. Ask them to help you find the line. Ask them to encourage you, to call to you across the chasm of your grief:
Hold the line! Stay with me!