When you start to devalue me. A short diary entry of the transition between idealisation phase to being devalued.
A narcissistic relationship consists of three phases: idealisation, devalue, discard. I’m not always keen on referring to an abusive relationship as narcissistic because for me, it hindered my recovery for a while. I was so insecure about what I had experienced – so afraid I was the problem like my (now) ex had told me so many times – that unless he was a clinically diagnosed narcissist, which he is not, I almost found it invalidating. My relationship can’t have been abusive, because he isn’t a ‘narcissist’. I don’t have that piece of paper to prove it. I don’t have a clinical diagnosis to confirm it.
What I have learnt over time is: it doesn’t matter. He may not be a confirmed narcissist. Even if he were assessed, he may or may not be clinically considered one. That doesn’t change the fact that he exhibits a high level of narcissistic traits in a relationship dynamic. And that is the key point. I would go as far to say that all abuser’s do. Machiavellian too. The manipulation of others and the importance of personal gain put above all else is a machiavellian quality (well, they would consider it a quality in the least). And it is these character traits and abusive behaviours that warrant them being described under the term narcissistic abuse. Survivors of abuse can gain so much understanding and awareness of their relationship dynamic through gaining knowledge of narcissistic abuse, as well as a sense of community, and that is fundamental to the recovery process.
I want to share with you a diary entry that I wrote within the first six months of my relationship with my ex. At the time I had no idea what I was experiencing, and somehow, still I knew. I think it sums up quite well the confusion we experience when we are moving from the idealisation phase into the devaluing phase of the relationship. We are confused; baffled. We can’t make sense of what’s going on, and so we start to look to ourselves… is it me? I remember thinking at the time that my ex thinks I’m clingy and needy but I’ve always been told the exact opposite – that I tend not to be a ‘cuddly’ person – and that’s where it begins; where your self-identity starts to become blurred. Robbing you of your self-identity is such a masterful tactic, because how can you really hold them accountable for anything if you aren’t even sure of who you are anymore… you can’t say with certainty that you aren’t the things they say you are or that you aren’t the cause of the tension because you can’t identify YOU.
The other point is how quickly the idealisation phase can be over. It doesn’t take long to make that strong connection and get you hooked. For many, the devaluing stage starts once you are somehow ‘trapped’ in the relationship. When you have made a decision or a commitment that would be difficult to back out of. For some, this takes a little longer, but for many, the idealisation phase is a whirlwind, because abusive people like to move fast. I had moved in with my ex after three months. I had expressed apprehension, but there was already the subtle threat that if I wasn’t as serious about the relationship as he was, he would leave – a subtle level of coercion – and the connection had already been built up that I didn’t want to lose him because I couldn’t commit (see how the blame would already be on me). If only I had listened to my gut!
Also, I just want to let you in a little on my mental state at the time, because I think it is important. I say I wrote the entry within six months, because I didn’t write the exact date on the page; I only wrote the year. Why? I specifically remember that I didn’t write the exact date because I was afraid. I was afraid that he would find my diary, that he would know when I wrote it and I might be in trouble. Nothing was happening at the time that would make it particularly bad to write it then compared to some other time. But still, I was afraid. So I wrote just the year. I was in the relationship for a number of years, and throughout that time, I only wrote three diary entries; all in different books, all on random pages within the books, all hidden in different places in the house. I was scared. And this is important because, even at this early stage, we have already begun to regulate ourselves in order to not inflame the behaviours of the abuser. We are already being oppressed and controlled, maybe in the subtlest of ways.
I wonder what someone would see if they looked at me. Would they think I’m a happy person, or that I should be but I’m just ungrateful? Maybe I’m never satisfied. I think I am, but maybe I just want to be? Maybe this is all wrong; maybe he knows this.
I feel like I’m being shut out. He is so stubborn. I feel like I’m trying so hard to keep some fire and he is resisting with all he has – I’m fighting a losing battle. It feels like I’m walking on eggshells. I’m constantly trying to think of what’s going to make him happy. It’s like he never notices any of the good things I do but as soon as something wrong is done he can’t tell me fast enough.
He never says I’m pretty, he doesn’t really compliment me – I usually just get teased. I do love him, it just feels like he doesn’t think he has to try anymore.
When you ask me how I am, I'll tell you I'm ok, but if I were to tell you more, I'd say,
My head is spinning because he has threatened me with court again. I didn't sleep well last night. I fell asleep with my mind still racing and as soon as I was semi-conscious the thoughts were racing through again. My head is aching.
Trying to figure out how I can respond to feel the least fall out. Don't want to be a push over, but I don't want to make it harder for myself. Don't want to be told that it's all my fault again.
I'm already doing everything that was agreed and I’ve even come in his direction. But he keeps asking for more and more and more. He doesn’t see it as our agreement but rather what is rightfully his to force upon me. And I know that when I stand my ground he will spin his story and make me out to be the problematic one. The reason why we can't get along.
I'll spend the day totally absorb in it; totally absent from my life going on around me. I don't want it to be that way but fight it as I may he still has a power over my mind. He still impacts my life. Even though I’ve built tall walls there are times when I still come crashing down.
It's fear, as well. He tells me I'm pathetic. I'm obstructive. I'm difficult. But it is he that does not respect that I have a life beyond satisfying his every request. And the fear is that he will convince others I am too (he’s good at that), and they will not see he is a bully. They never do.
I plucked up the courage to call the police and ask them to help me: to end the harassment. They told me that I need an injunction and before then they cannot assist. But I’ve been told that he’s not 'obvious' enough. No direct threats, then it’s too vague for harassment. I’m drowning and there’s no end in sight.
But they acknowledge in the shadows that it is abusive. The same old advice is given: be non-emotive. And yes, while I show no emotions to him, on the inside they are like an avalanche pouring from my heart. My head feels swollen trying to apply logic and reason to his behaviour, when there is none. And I cannot contain the pain and the numbness that I feel all at once.
It may not seem like much to you, but it's built up over time and I’ve been knocked down on this long and arduous ride. And it's the chip chip chipping at my mind, that I feel like I may suffocate. But nowhere to go for help. No way to change his behaviour. The cycle will continue, so I guess I will just mend myself, until the next time comes around.
That's what I might say to you if I were to tell you more, but when you ask me how I am, I'll just tell you, I'm ok.
What more is there to say?
*I am not a legal expert. This blog is based on my personal experiences, experiences of others, and information and advise I have received during the legal process.
Oh the joy of the family courts. Such a trigger happy place; triggering trauma responses in a survivor of abuse at every turn, it would seem.
We may naively enter this process thinking the law sees all and will sort out this mess, when what we really ought to be doing is preparing ourselves for the law having to sift through fact (our reality) and fiction (the abuser’s reality), and as we know, an abuser can tell one hell of a story.
The family court process is a major cause of re-traumatisation for survivors of domestic abuse. The abusive relationship has ended. We either left or were discarded, and have come to realise that the relationship was abusive. You think it is finally over. Then during the court process, we are subjected to being in close contact with our abuser, and listening to the half-truths and manipulations of the hellish relationship we have endured. What is arguably more damaging, is the family court often either does not recognise the dynamic as abusive or does not recognise the severity of the abuse and it's impact. Judgements or criticisms are made on the victim’s own behaviour. The outcome: the message the abuser has fed to the us for a long, long time – that it is all in our head, that it was not abuse, that it is all our fault – is inadvertently supported and re-emphasised by a third party; a Judge no less. It is somewhat of an understatement to say this is crushing to a survivor.
Moreover, the courts can be a major power tool for the abuser to continue to exert control and abuse (which is true for any type of abuse that has been experienced).
Being in their company.
In court you are going to be in close proximity with your ex. With the abuse and trauma that has been suffered, this is extremely difficult. I would have anxiety attacks at being in the same building in completely separate rooms to begin with.
Support. This is the number 1 thing that you need. When you are attending court, have someone go with you. A close friend, family member, new partner, whoever is going to give you support to just be in their company. If you have a solicitor / lawyer then great, but that is not the same as emotional support. If you don’t have anyone that can attend with you, then often local abuse charities will have someone who can attend as a befriender. Access this support whenever possible.
Ask to wait in a separate waiting room. When you enter the court you can discreetly ask an usher if there is a separate area you can wait in. I have never experienced being told ‘no’. If you don’t feel this is an option, generally you can wait just outside of the waiting room, but make sure you tell the usher so that you don’t miss being called into your hearing.
Create space in the court room. Family court rooms are pretty cosy. All one big happy family, right? If you have a lawyer, ask them to sit in the middle to create a human barrier. If you don’t, then try to leave an empty chair between you (which is where your representation would be sitting) to at least have some physical space.
Have an exit plan. Work out how you are leaving court after the hearing. Are you with a friend? Do you wait for your lawyer? Will you leave ASAP? Prepare yourself and stick to your plan. It’s easier to avoid being hoovered in by your abusive ex if you have a plan in your mind.
If you fear for your safety, there are other precautions that the court may put in place. They may also put a screen in position so that you don’t have to see you abuser in certain cases. This would be something to discuss with a legal advisor.
Fact findings and emotional abuse aren’t friends. Don’t be disheartened by this, because it is positive that your claims of abuse are being considered, but there are a couple of reasons why fact findings are potentially re-traumatising for survivors.
Limited allegations. In a fact finding, there is generally a seven incident limitation on what is allowed to be brought forward. It’s too time consuming otherwise. If you had seven incidents of physical or sexual abuse - even if only one incident were considered fact after the hearing - this may be enough to carry some weight. Seven incidents of emotional abuse? Not so much. We know that abuse is systematic, and that is none more crucial than when considering emotional abuse, because without the systematic pattern of behaviour, it could just be considered as the occasional bad fight that happens in ALL relationships. Not enough to prove abusive behaviour. Invalidation of abuse, likely to occur.
When it is your word against theirs, you will almost never find fact. You have to mentally prepare yourself for this. With emotional abuse, there is often no further evidence than the survivor’s account of events. That does not mean that you shouldn’t tell your story. And if the Judge does not find fact, it does not mean that they believed the abuser over you. Remember this. It simply means that it would be unreasonable to consider the abuser guilty due to lack of evidence. Anything to support your reality is needed here. Doctor’s letter. Therapist’s letter. Get in touch with local abuse charities. Witness accounts. Anything to collaborate with your story would be of benefit. But mentally prepare yourself that for the fact that it is rare that emotional or psychological abuse is identified in this process.
Your abuser may directly question you. Get your head around this. I’m lost for words that this is even possible, but sadly it is. If your ex does not have legal representation, they will question you about the alleged abusive incidents. There are trauma triggers going off left, right and centre here; I don’t know how to tackle it. But this is your time to raise your voice that has been taken from you for so long. Tell your truth. Tell it to the court. Tell it to your ex. This. Was. Abuse. In this moment, don’t worry about if it is found as fact. Just tell your truth. Don’t let them take it from you.
Judge holding you accountable.
It is highly destructive for a survivor to have an uninvolved third party rule over the relationship and decide that they are equally to blame. In a family court setting, there is likely to be at least some blame put on both parties. Unfortunately, by not holding an abuser fully accountable, the abuser’s reality - that they were entitled to behave that way - is reinforced. And this can be extremely traumatic. In the moment and in the aftermath.
It knocks it out of me, because I want to be validated by this authority. It feels like it would mean something. But the court strives to establish safe contact with both parents for the child, and to create a functioning agreement to prevent the need to return to court (which is a topic for debate as to whether this is really in the best interests of the child). Remind yourself, that your truth should not be based on what is found in court. And seek validation through other means; self-care, support, and getting informed on abuse.
It will physically and mentally drain you.
Be kind to yourself. There is no way to go through this process without feeling physically and mentally drained. Exhausted. And it’s OK that you feel that way. Many times abusers use the family courts to continue being abusive. You need your support network. You need to prepare for the fact it will impact you. Tell yourself each day that you are strong just for surviving, and feel empowered by your inner strength to be there and stand up for yourself, even when you are feeling weak.
Whilst your abusive ex may be trying to bring you down with court hearings, aim to restore some balance and build yourself up with something positive. You can start small. A relaxing bath, ten minutes a day to read (in peace!). Ten minutes of meditation. Or join a support group; start seeing a counsellor. You could start a new hobby: it can be deeply satisfying to develop a new skill after abuse. A sense that there is something that hasn’t be touched by your ex and evidence that, actually, you weren’t crushed because you continue to grow. Anything that is going to help to balance out your life, so that the focus is not so heavily on the tune your ex is playing, but more about what song you’re singing to drown it out.
I’m independent, feeling free. I met someone who’s incredible. He’s older, he’s smart, and he treats me like a lady. He tells me that I’m beautiful, wise; he loves my outlook on life. I know I don’t have to think it but, hypothetically, if he hit me, I would leave him.
He treats me so much better than I’ve ever been treated before. He really notices me, he compliments me, he’s texting me constantly. He’s mature, he’s smarter, and he would never hurt me. He never would, but of course, if he hit me, I would leave him.
We connect on a level that’s hard to describe. He really gets me, he wants the same things in life. For the first time I feel completely understood. I’m feeling full of hope and excitement, he says he is too! He feels the same way as I do! It couldn’t possibly happen, not in a million years, but if a man hit me, I would leave him.
He says he loves me! That’s a bit quick. Wants to move in together? We’ve only been dating one month. But now, I’ve offended him, what am I doing? I may never find another soul mate like him. Ok, I’ll do it, I love you too. He won’t hit me, but if he did, I would leave him.
Living together, he seems a bit distant, I wonder what’s wrong. I try to make him feel better, but nothing’s working. I try all the things he usually likes; make the house spotless, cook a nice meal, try and talk to him and show him I care. But he won’t open up; maybe I’ve done something, but what? We were so good before, I’ll try and make this work, but of course, if he hit me, I’d leave him.
Things have changed, when did that happen? He gets so angry, his eyes seem possessed. Shouting and raging like I’ve never seen before. And then he’s so cold, not just distant, but silent. Sometimes for days he will ignore my existence. I beg him to forgive me, but I’m not sure what for. Suddenly things are ok again, I see the old him. If I just stop messing up he will stop getting mad. But, if he hits me, I will leave him.
It’s so sweet how I’m so naive, he says. I guess it’s true, he’s smarter than me. I want to meet up with friends but he tells me he’s hurt. Don’t I ever think about how it makes him feel, he says. He has no friends nearby but I want to meet up with mine, he says. I guess it’s true, I’m selfish too. I say sorry and stay at home watching TV in silence with him. Still, if he hits me, I think I will leave him.
We’re moving. He will feel less stressed living near his family again. I ask if it’s ok to meet up with friends before we leave. Are you sure that’s a good idea, he says. He points out how I abandoned my friends when we started dating and my friends are probably mad. He’s right! I’ve been a terrible friend! I won’t text them. I’m so lucky he loves me with all of my flaws. If he hit me, I guess I would leave him.
We’ve moved away now. I feel so alone. He works long hours. I feel less tense when he’s not home but I miss him terribly and I’m waiting on him. I hear the key in the lock. I’m excited but my anxiety rises because I don’t know what mood he will be in. He seems ok, I try to cuddle on the sofa, but he tuts and says he’s tired and I’m needy. I feel hollow and I long for his love. If he hit me, I guess I might leave him.
His friends are over. I like it when his friends are here because he is more affectionate towards me. He tells them he’s proud of me. They say how we are such a great couple, when will we get married? I see that look in his eye and when his friends leave, WHY THE HELL DID YOU DO THAT? I panic, maybe he will leave me this time, and I feel utter despair. If he hit me, I’m not sure I’d leave him.
We plan a daytrip, we don’t have them often. I try to get everything right from the start so that things go smoothly. He’s annoyed because I take too long to get out of the house, but I think it’s ok. But there’s traffic and I begin to get anxious. He starts to drive really close to the cars, surely he knows I hate that, but I dare not say anything. He SHOUTS and SWEARS and my heart sinks, I’m in trouble now. Just try to be invisible, not to make it worse. If he hit me, I don’t know if I’d leave him.
It’s been like this a while now. He says that I’m too sensitive. If I don’t like him how he is, he says I can leave, I know where the doors is. He says he wouldn’t try and stop me. But I’ve got nowhere to go, and I’m worth nothing. He is nice to me sometimes, maybe often, it all seems a blur. I can’t make sense of it anymore. Maybe I am too sensitive, it’s probably me. If he hit me, I don’t think I’d leave him.
Something big has happened, the rages seem to get bigger. He started throwing things because I make him so angry. He says he will call the police if I touch his things, or he will hurt me if I don’t listen. He’s been telling lies, I see that now. Lies about money, his life and me. I feel numb. I feel like I’m broken. If he hit me, the pain would at least make sense, but he hasn’t and that’s not the reason I’m leaving.
I left him. I feel stripped down, beaten, exhausted, lost, but I escaped and for that I feel free. But my mind remains imprisoned, I have suffered trauma, and it’s a long journey to recovery. Was it abuse? I tell them it was. Well, what did he do? they ask. I explain, but what am I really explaining, it doesn’t sound like much when my pain is so engulfing. Well, they say, it doesn’t sound great, but at least he didn’t hit you.
When someone has been through trauma, an important part of recovery is feeling validated.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say that emotional abuse is outright cruel. Emotional abuse awareness is steadily growing in society, but the problem remains that many survivors feel alone and that their experience is misunderstood or minimised, not just by other people, but also by themselves.
It is not uncommon for people who have been emotionally abused to develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), due to the many psychological tactics used by the abuser to wear down the victim's sense of self and sense of reality. Whilst living with the abuser, the victim is in a constant state of high alert: fear of further condemnation, fear of the silent treatment, further threats, further rages, or further belittlement. The fear of isolation, the threat of physical abuse, the reality of losing more choices, more of their voice, more of their self. Or it’s something in the relationship that the victim can't verbalise but its making them feel increasingly hollow (because it's covert abuse). The list goes on. And the effects can linger long past the end of the relationship. Cruelly, the lack of recognition of these traumatic experiences can make the survivor feel like they don't even deserve to be traumatised.
So why is it so hard to feel validated after emotional abuse?
It’s not obviously visible.
Emotional abuse doesn't have that Wham! naked to the eye clarity. There are no visible bruises. And its lacking the shock factor that resonates with people and helps others and survivors to identify, 'yes, that was abuse'.
But it does have serious consequences on mental and physical health. Emotional abuse can cause self-harm and even suicide, as well as mental health issues, such as alcohol addiction, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Sadly however, these serious health issues are often seen as originating in the victim of the abuse, rather than being a direct result of the abuse.
Even the most 'obvious' emotional abuse can be difficult for the victim to identify, due to the tactics adopted by the abuser. Gaslighting, crazy-making, projection. All these things can work to make the victim second guess their own judgement and make them question whether they view things (that their partner is abusive) correctly.
But, most of the time, it’s even less clear; in fact, it’s extremely subtle. It’s designed to be that way so that there is no clear evidence of abusive behaviour. Emotional abuse can be so subtle that it can be hard to put your finger on. It can manifest in every interaction: mannerisms, words, gestures. The words may not be overtly bad, but when the victim hears these certain words, they know they have done something wrong, and it sends panic down their spine.
Trying to explain this to others can be devastatingly deflating, and can cause a sense of re-traumatisation. As isolated incidents, these behaviours might seem like nothing at all, or well-meaning friends may say, 'oh my boyfriend does that too...' and the victim is left feeling completely invalidated in the trauma they now experience.
With emotional abuse, it’s the systematic pattern of these subtle behaviours that makes it so devastating.
It’s important to acknowledge that validation should not primarily come from others accepting that the relationship was abusive, but that it should be in the form of self-validation.
Unfortunately, this is where it's cruel. The fundamental goal of emotional abuse is to erode away at the victim's self-esteem until they have none so as to facilitate the abuser's need for control. It’s the reason it works! It’s the reason they stay! It’s the reason why survivors look endlessly for outside validation.
Survivors of emotional abuse may not even trust their choice of what to watch on T.V, let alone trust their perception of an intrinsically abusive relationship where psychological tactics were deployed to cloud their reality. They don't trust their own feelings anymore. Instead, after the initial feeling of exaltation of leaving the relationship, they begin to feel alone, confused, traumatised and invalidated, and often not even sure if it was abuse at all.
But, there is hope (thank goodness!)
Recovery is a long journey. There are a lot of ups and downs. But there are a few key points that can help a survivor to feel validated in their experience and move forward with recovery.
There's a lot of accessible information out there and this would be a good time to make use of it. Get informed about emotional abuse, what it is and how it makes you feel. It will give a survivor the reassurance that their feelings are a normal part of the recovery process, as well as the evidence they need to gradually build confidence in the fact that the experiences they have had were abusive.
Get to know yourself.
Ideally, through therapy. When you have been stripped down by emotional abuse, you need to be built back up. Therapy will help with this process, help to build self-esteem, and help to re-establish a sense of identity. Practice good self-care, even if it’s just starting a hobby or relaxing in a bath. Dedicate time to you. Survivors of emotional abuse will have spent little or no time considering their own needs whilst in the abusive relationship, and taking baby steps towards prioritising themselves will help to build confidence and ultimately, build trust in their perception of the experiences they have had.
Get to know others.
Specifically, get to know others who have experienced emotionally abusive relationships. The support from someone who has had similar experiences can be invaluable. It can be reassuring to connect with someone who is further along the recovery process, similarly it can be encouraging to offer support to someone who is not as far along. Maybe a friend has experienced emotional abuse, but there are also online and local communities to connect with and help survivors to see that they are not alone.
And lastly... go no contact!
If it is possible to no longer communicate with the abuser, then it is absolutely crucial to do so. Any interaction with the abuser will cause old emotions and traumas to resurface and will dramatically hinder recovery, plus there is the real likelihood that the abuser will continue to be subtly abusive.
Unfortunately, many people are connected to the abuser in ways that do not allow for no contact. If this is the case, then limit contact as much as possible. Keep communication non-emotive, try not be drawn in to reacting to the abuser's emotional baiting. It’s hard, the abuser wants to cause a reaction, and it will probably feel like an emotional yo-yo at times.
Concentrate on building up self-worth, connecting with people who understand what you're going through or who care about you and establishing a life away from the abuser, and with time it is possible to find validation in your experience of emotional abuse, and more poignantly, the understanding that you are powerful and strong for surviving it.