Dear Verbally and Psychologically Abusive Person,
As someone who learned to stop being abusive to my spouse, I’d like you to know, in no uncertain terms: you can stop.
In fact, we – your family, and the world – really need you to stop. I know you know this.
And as someone who’s lived through the cycle – being abused, being abusive, learning to stop, and talking with dozens of people like us – I’m here to validate.
There are a good number of us in the world who behave in abusive ways – some worse than others – and, we really wish we could stop. I have a name for us; I call us remorseful abusers.
Appropriate support for remorseful abusers is hard to find, and that’s not something that will change overnight. No, the job of owning our own behaviour, and finding ways to stop being abusive falls to us.
Through some attention and conscientiousness, we can flatten the domestic violence curve. Here’s some help with that:
1. Remove yourself.
When you start feeling the pressure that leads to you lashing out, get yourself gone. This means exiting the conversation you’re having, going for a walk, or setting up a place to sleep in another part of the apartment (even the floor is okay.)
Just remove yourself to wherever, whatever distance away you can. And yes, that means making the extra effort to shelter or quarantine in a separate place from your family without breaking the law.
Think of it this way, studies show that violence is similar to a contagious disease. You have the disease called being abusive, and this is about volunteering to quarantine yourself a step further while everyone else is at home for COVID-19 reasons.
When you’re in close quarters with other people, the chances of you spreading your emotional abuse goes up. You can stop that by removing yourself.
2. Stay with the pain.
Other people exercise, try to meditate, or go to therapy on the regular. All these are good habits for many humans but here’s one that’s tailored to you. I want you to – gently but firmly, like stretching a really sore muscle – remember the pain you feel after you’ve been abusive to your loved ones.
This is tough stuff, and you might already be doing this enough – if so, skip to step #3. But if you’re someone who, like me, often pushed away the knowing that I was being abusive, staying with this pain is key. Call it up, and stay with it, say to a level 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Think of this like wearing gloves, or a face mask, to remember not to touch your face. You want to create a similar mechanism to remember your habit of being abusive.
You could wear an orange elastic around your wrist with the word peace written on it. It might mean journaling about the fear you saw on your child’s face.
You could do a daily visualization about how you feel after you’ve thrown the things, and insulted your spouse with garbage that surprised even you. Feel the feelings of remorse so that they help you stop. These feelings are some of your very best allies. You just need to remember them. No remembering? No stopping.
When you create even a small amount of connection to the big amount of pain you cause, you’re making progress. That progress helps everyone.
3. Share your fears.
What many people don’t understand about remorseful abusers is that we have a lot of fear. What you’ve shared with me in the years since I confessed my behaviour is that – regardless of age, gender, economic status, race or other – we fear our own behaviour.
When is this going to come up again? We fear who we’ve become, and, we fear despising ourselves. We have fear of judgement, of course, but we’re also afraid of being left out of the chance to be understood, supported and loved.
For better or worse, you are, right now, in relationship with your family. Some of them understand you more than others.
The main people you’re abusive to are in a unique category – people who know you in your darkest moments, the worst version of you. This is a vulnerable and fragile thing, for you, and for them.
But when you have no other resources – therapists turn you away because you’re not a victim, you can’t exactly confess your behaviour at work or you’ll be out on the street – it can help to have a simple talk with these people about your fears.
The point is, this is preventative – like washing your hands often – and cleans up some of the emotional build-up through being even a tiny bit vulnerable, and understood. Of course, you need to do this without blame. Here’s just one idea for a start:
“So, I know this is impossibly hard for you. I want to change. I don’t want to hurt you or our family anymore. And… I hope it’s okay that I share. I’m scared.”
4. Understand yourself.
I’m going to make a pretty volatile analogy here – it’s one that helped me a lot. Have you heard about the fighting dog rings that exist in some places? If you have a tender heart like me, this is a hard thing to think about, and that’s the point.
These fighting dogs are everyday ordinary dogs that have been goaded and taunted, trained and rewarded to fight and hurt other dogs. The happy part of the story is that with a switch in environment, a lot of careful attention on a day by day basis, and the inner drive to change (which the dogs have naturally in them), some of these dogs can be rehabilitated. They can become non-fighting dogs with peaceful lives. (Some can’t, and find themselves needing to live under special circumstances, but that too is an improvement.)
With a portion of emotionally and psychologically abusive folk, this analogy helps.
We may have come into life with a certain personality that makes us more likely to be emotionally sensitive or volatile.
Sometimes, our abusiveness needs medical intervention. Almost certainly we experienced an environment that taught us emotional abuse was okay – no one was born that way, after all. Here’s the thing – if we’ve become a fighting dog, we need to get real with that, own and understand that. From there, we can create a proper rehabilitation program.
5. Start today with baby steps.
Just one more thought about what you can do. You may not be sure if you can completely stop being abusive for the rest of your life. That’s actually totally reasonable, and honest, which I respect.
So don’t think about your whole life right now. Instead, think about no abusiveness for just one day, or week.
Every day you’re NOT abusive is worth going for – whether it’s a single conversation you remove yourself from, or a weekend where you read and journal a lot, and check off 3 days in a row of not yelling. One at a time, you add these baby steps up until months, then years go by.
Because that’s how it starts. You learn to remove yourself, stay with your pain, open up about your fears, and eventually you look in the mirror and say, with your heart full,
“I’m so much better. I’m no longer being abusive to the person I love. My abusiveness…is gone.”
This is the bottom line. For remorseful abusers who do the work, that moment is waiting for you. It’s what I want for you. And, I believe, it’s what you want too, for all the people you love. This is the peace that’s possible when we flatten the domestic violence curve.
I’m not going to sugar coat – the road to recovery is complex, not without its bumps, and the above are just a few things to try.
Each one of us will be challenged before we completely shed that old self, and birth a new one. But I’m here to tell you to get started, and… to keep going. It’s worth it beyond your wildest imaginings.
Here are some more resources for you as you do your critically important part to stop being abusive long-term:
Don’t Break the Chain: Use this free calendar to mark off each day that you aren’t emotionally abusive. https://dontbreakthechain.com/
Engel, B. (2003). The emotionally abusive relationship: How to stop being abused and how to stop abusing. John Wiley & Sons.
Chapman, G. (2008). Anger: Handling a powerful emotion in a healthy way. Moody Publishers.
The Ananias Foundation: This organization has a comprehensive free guidebook and online course that supports your behaviour change. https://www.ananiasfoundation.org/
Wexler, D. B. (2020). The STOP Domestic Violence Program: Group Leader’s Manual. WW Norton & Company.
Finally, you can read more articles like this one addressing how to stop hurting the people you love at http://stopbeingabusive.substack.com/. This article originally appeared here.