Why Do I Still Miss My Abuser?

Dear Liz,

After a year, why do I still miss my abuser? I have been on my own for about a year, after a very traumatic evening where my abuser held me captive in her home and repeatedly hit me. This
left me with diagnosed PTSD on top of my other anxiety and depression issues, but sometimes I still find myself missing my abuser. Even though I am in pain and struggle every day with what happened that night, I often find myself thinking about how I miss her, and I wonder what is wrong with me.

Dear Friend,

There is nothing wrong with you. It isn’t unusual to miss an ex a year out, even under these circumstances (and maybe even because of the circumstances). A therapist might speak with you about traumatic bonding. Traumatic bonding is when we feel attached, even loyal, to someone who harms us, but who also offers us a “reward” we so desperately crave, usually love and approval. While this phenomenon is more commonly observed between a child and an abusive parent, the underlying “addictive bonding” dynamic is often present in abusive relationships between adults, and perhaps you are ensnared in that dynamic.

Addictive bonding to a person is not unlike other addictions: it’s about being hooked on something outside our self, something that isn’t healthy for us, yet we can’t seem to stop reaching for it. It can wreck us, but we keep going back for more. We are vulnerable to relational addictive bonding when we show up to a relationship already feeling broken within, craving affirmation that we are worthy and lovable (affirmation we were meant to receive in childhood). If we become deeply entangled in this sort of unhealthy bonding, breaking the bond can be as challenging as interrupting any other type of addiction.

The abuse you experienced happened in the context of a relationship, and while any form of abuse is a denial of love, there was still a bond, and that bond is enabling you to tease out those violations of love, making it “easy” to miss not just her, but all the relationship promised to be, all of who your partner showed promise of being, and the greatest promise of all, that you would love and be loved. The betrayal you have experienced is deeper than a broken promise; it is the betrayal of hope, and that is traumatic for the soul.

You also shared that you struggle with depression and anxiety, which leads me to believe that love was violated in your childhood as well. There may be a theme to the suffering in your life, and such themes represent the particular nature of our work, the soulful work, we need to do in this life.

We settle for all sorts of diluted versions of love, and we dish out all sorts of diluted versions of love, when love was violated in our childhood, and we haven’t done the work to recover. We all subconsciously gravitate toward those who are at our same level of woundedness (or wellness). Where there is addictive bonding in relationships, both have usually shown up very, very, wounded. And while that connection can feel very much like love in the beginning—in fact, it is often quite passionate—it is only a matter of time before one or both will experience violations of love. Wounds can’t love. And if the wounds are too great, in time, both will be left craving what they were promised, and the anger (the pain) of feeling unloved, yet again, can trigger some of the very worst behaviors, like abuse or “allowing” one’s self to be abused.

Two things are essential to heal any addiction, including addictive bonding: personal responsibility and spiritual practice. Both will help you overcome your anxiety and depression as well. This work can certainly be supported by a well-qualified therapist, though I encourage you to choose someone who appreciates the spiritual dimension of healing work. When we miss that piece, we are very likely to repeat the pattern of going outside of our self in order to manage our feelings and will likely re-experience familiar patterns that are not in our best interest.

Taking Responsibility for Our Life

Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, says “Depression consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions. This denial begins in the service of an absolutely essential adaptation during childhood and indicates a very early injury.” When this “adaptation” carries into our adult life, it becomes problematic—our inability to acknowledge our own emotional life prevents us from being present to the emotional lives of others, and so we are unable to be genuinely intimate with another, and we falter at love.

Anxiety is a sort of “first cousin” of depression and is always about shame—the shame we carry from those early childhood injuries. Depression presses down, and anxiety rises and surfaces, and both are invitations to heal—to address those childhood injuries, so we can be fully present in the present, fully able to love and to experience joy.

We are not responsible for the harm that came our way as children, but as adults, we must take responsibility for how our past impacts our present choices and behaviors. If we don’t, we stagnate in child-victim status, and the pain of the past that we’ve kept in exile will continue to replicate itself in our adult life, with only a slight variation here and there. Going within to find the deepest place of our injury, going within to experience the very feelings that in our childhood threatened to annihilate us (which is why we moved into denial of those feelings in the first place, which led to our depression) can be so frightening that it just feels like too much to bear, even as an adult. But when the time is right and the desperation is great enough, we try, because we want a better life.

This is not easy work. It takes enormous courage. But it is work we must do if we want to be the adult we were born to become. We can resist this truth, resent this truth, scoff at this truth, or numb our self to this truth, but the truth remains. In this moment, right now, we are each responsible for how our life looks and feels—if our life is less than we long for it to be, then we need to step up and choose to do the healing work.

Spiritual Practice

We are thinking beings, and we are spiritual beings. The “rational” therapeutic work and the spiritual practice we engage are not distinct entities—one supports the other. The work is a journey through our history, our wounds, our defense mechanisms, our addictions, into the heart of who we truly are. We are recovered or healed when our True Self is directing the course of our life, rather than our historic wounds running the show.

I know talk about a “True Self” (versus the self we’re used to waking up to everyday) can feel like this inaccessible thing. In part, this is because we are used to only trusting experiences that are tangible and explainable, and our True Self is experienced outside the realm of logic and thought. But it is also because so many of us carry deep wounds from those times in our childhood when love was violated, and those wounds make it more challenging to feel and intuit our True Self.

You see, every wound we have carries with it a ton of emotional baggage, making our interior life very crowded and stuffy. But as we do the work to unearth each wound and confront all the emotional baggage attached to that wound (trusting that with feeling comes a simultaneous releasing) we quite literally open space within us, and that space is instantaneously filled by our True Self. The more we tend to our wounds, the more space we make for our True Self, and the more space our True Self occupies, the easier it is to attune to our True Self.

I had an experience that might help with understanding the concept of True Self. I was feeling sad about having to take a plant out to my compost pile—a sweet little rose plant that had nothing left to her but three brown dry stems. I sort of forgot myself for a moment, just staring at this plant, and found myself saying out loud you have everything you need, right inside of you, to come back to life and bloom beautiful roses once again. And in that moment, I realized that we, too, have that “everything we need” right inside of us. That “everything we need” is our life force, the source of our coming into being, and it is quite literally the heart of our soul—the heart of our soul is our True Self. Imagine your body, cleansed of its wounds, filled by the heart of your soul, such that your soul is pressed outside of your body and illuminates your physical body. Your aura would be so bright, and your presence so loving. That is an image of a person who has healed.

Spiritual practice supports us during our therapeutic work and sustains us once we’ve done the heavy lifting work of clearing out our wounds. And while an invitation to do spiritual work can come off as hokey or contrived, it is fact neither. Genuine spiritual practice is very honest, practical, and accessible. It is work we do on the hunch that there must be something more than meets the eye; there must be a way to create a life that is genuinely happy.

A spiritual practice simply refers to something we are willing to do on a regular basis that will foster our ability to bring our consciousness into the everything we need within us. A practice can be prayer, meditation, journaling, sacraments, nature walks, coloring, affirmations, etc., but the aim of any authentic practice is the same: to quiet us, to still us, so we can bring our consciousness into the everything we need within us. Religion may be built around this principle, but religion is a path, and no religion is the path.

The Fruits of Spiritual Practice

If a spiritual practice is authentic, its aim will be to align our consciousness with the everything we need within us. We can assess the authenticity of a spiritual practice based on the fruits of that practice. If we are faithful to our practice, and our practice grounds us in Truth, these are the fruits:

  • Fear, worry, and the need to control naturally diminish.
  • We acquire the ability to intuit what is in our best interest, and we access the courage to act on that intuition, so it becomes natural to live with self-respect.
  • We begin to experience compassion as something embodying us, and that experience enables us to forgive with stunning ease.
  • Our authentic power comes back to us. Rather than losing power to old wounds or to any version of addiction (to a person, a substance, an identity, etc.) we tap into an abundance of vitality, or life force.
  • Our ability to trust in the flow of life, regardless of circumstance, expands exponentially. We acquire the ability to tenderly hold our sorrows, while keeping our heart open at the same time.

The Extraordinary Healing Power of Compassion:

I genuinely feel how deeply you are suffering, and I am so sorry. Know you are not alone, and you are not without hope, because I am hoping with you. Therapeutic work coupled with spiritual practice will work—you will overcome this suffering—that is a promise. In the meantime, please consider this:

We abuse people when we cannot manage our own pain
We abuse our self when we cannot manage our own pain.
All forms of violence and reckless disregard are the result of unrelenting suffering.

That your abuser is suffering is obvious. That doesn’t mean you go back. That doesn’t mean you tolerate bad treatment, nor does it mean you excuse it. But compassion enables us to de-personalize from the bad treatment we receive from others. Their suffering does not have to create suffering for us. Her abuse of you had nothing to do with you, and everything to do with her own suffering.

Viewing the world, and those in it, with a compassionate heart, really does diminish our own suffering, because compassion is love, and love is what heals us. So many of us move through life feeling hollow and lonely, but we don’t need to suffer like that, no matter what life has brought us. Life is never without sorrow, but love can make life okay. Love nurtures hope, and love sustains our ability to go on. And all that love, all that compassion…everything you need…is right inside of you.

If your ex took responsibility for her life, if your ex was willing to be honest with herself about her abusive behavior, and if she was willing to confront her wounds and her suffering, she would be able to heal, too. Healing is within the reach of every single person. And you can hope that for her, but you cannot bring that about for her. All you can do is stay your focus on your beautiful Self. This moment in time—this painful moment in time—is a precious opportunity to do the work your soul is longing for you to do.

Please do the work. It will take some time, and it will be hard, but as someone once told me, you can do hard things.

With much love,

Liz

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