My Therapist Told Me to Treat My Emotionally Abusive Relationship Like the Addiction It Is
Heartbreak has become romanticized in a lot of ways. We treat it like a clever hook to pop songs and something that can be cured with a pint of ice cream and a face mask. But what flavor of Ben & Jerry's do you turn to when your heartbreak hurts physically just as much as it does emotionally? What do you do when that heartbreak is the result of a six-year-long toxic cycle that you frankly don't know how to live without? Well, that's what I started therapy to try and figure out.
It took me a very long time to admit that I had been in an emotionally abusive relationship. He never called me names or yelled at me, so how could I call it that? But the reality was that the signs were all there — the manipulation, the gaslighting, the cheating, the breadcrumbing, the backhanded compliments, the constant breaking up and making up again. Every week I'd find out about a new woman he was entertaining and every week he'd call me crazy for being suspicious. He'd never call me beautiful or tell me he loved me, and when I'd ask for those things he'd call me needy, like there was something wrong with me for wanting to be loved. It wasn't until I'd leave that he would shower me with affection and try to win me back. Then when I'd give in, it'd go back to the same thing. Rinse and repeat.
Still, something about saying the words "emotional abuse" out loud felt like a can of worms I was wary to open, one that I couldn't come back from. So when my therapist pulled up the Power and Control Wheel for the first time, I stared at the divisions until they started to blend together. Six years of denial came flooding out of my eyes at once.
I felt pathetic. I watched the women in my family fall victim to horrible relationships and marriages and had vowed to myself that that would never be me. And yet there I was, allowing myself to be manipulated for a quarter of my life. I was sitting in therapy twice a week because I couldn't get over some boy, even when it seemed like he had given me every reason in the world to do so. Was I that desperate, pitiful, and worthless?
Just as I was about to fall off the edge into my self-loathing, my therapist said something that changed my entire outlook on the state of my mental health. She said, "We need to treat your relationship like an addiction, because that's essentially what it is."
For years, I couldn't figure out why every time my partner mistreated me, I let myself go back. I kept chalking it up to the good memories outweighing the bad, and being unable to match the intensity I felt with him with anything else I ever experienced. My therapist told me that's exactly what an addiction feels like. And she's not the only one who thinks that way.
Detaching yourself from an emotionally abusive relationship, like ridding yourself of any addiction, can feel like peeling apart stitches. But so can staying in that cycle. I've learned the pain of both.
Bethany Kahoe, MA, LCMHC-A (a licensed professional counselor associate), told POPSUGAR that people engage and stay in abusive relationships for the same reasons they become addicted to substances. "They often aim to satisfy the same goal: distract from a deeper, more pervasive pain," she said, adding that this is especially true for someone who grew up in an abusive environment. "For a person who's learned as a child that love equals conflict, an abusive relationship can satisfy their craving for passion, intensity, and drama. This can feel good in the short term but be incredibly harmful in the long run (much like drug use)."
I realized it was possible that the environment I grew up in — one that I had swore I would try and avoid — ended up being the exact reason why I stuck around with my ex. Chaos, arguments, and betrayal felt like standard aspects of relationships. The intense anxiety I would feel when my partner would leave me felt like nothing in comparison to the orgasmic relief of him coming back.
Willow Smith, MA, LPC, LMFT, LCC, told POPSUGAR that that relief was just as real in my brain as it felt. "An abuser may promise love and quickly take it away, leaving the individual feeling stuck, desperately clinging for approval and connection," Smith explained. "This sporadic reinforcement of affection mimics how the neurotransmitter dopamine reinforces drug use." She explains that our brains are wired to increase the odds of us experiencing repetitive pleasurable activities. "While drugs produce intense euphoria rewiring the brain for addiction instead of healthier activities, an individual in an emotionally abusive relationship may desperately seek the pleasurable connection they experienced intermittently with their abuser."
And that euphoria is exactly what I felt, every single time. But the the crash would get worse each time too. So when our breakups began to feel debilitating and I found myself unable to move, breathe, eat, or sleep from the panic of losing him, I knew there was something much more severe going on than heartbreak. And that's when I decided to seek help.
I've been in therapy for more than three months now. It may not seem like a lot of time in the grand scheme of things, but every day has been another day of working toward my healing rather than letting myself fall deeper into my addiction.
My therapist tells me to consider myself in recovery at the moment, and we approach everything accordingly. We celebrate the little things, like how many weeks I've gone without contact and when I say something positive about myself. In the same spirit, she's helping me learn to be okay with slip ups I may have. I don't tear myself down for picking up a phone call or checking on his social media. Instead, we recognize where I struggle and make new plans of action to make sure I'm doing whatever I can to feel my best. She's helping me acknowledge that I will have great days and I will also have awful days, because healing from emotional abuse is anything but linear. So long as I get through another day with the intention of getting better, I'm moving in the right direction, even when I take a few steps back.
Detaching yourself from an emotionally abusive relationship, like ridding yourself of any addiction, can feel like peeling apart stitches. But so can staying in that cycle. I've learned the pain of both. And while I know I have a long way to go before I truly feel "okay," I feel stronger now than I've felt in years.
I don't think my ex is an evil person, or even a bad one. I think people go through stages in life where they may not be their best possible selves, and people around them end up dealing with the consequences. But I try not to think about that too much. It's no longer my business to justify his actions, because my healing is all about me. And I thank my therapist for helping me realize that. Healing from an emotionally abusive relationship or recovering from an addiction is not about placing blame — it's about recognizing what's hurting you and focusing your efforts toward getting better. And that's exactly what I'm doing — slowly, but surely.