How I Escaped an Abusive Relationship Using Forgiveness
Trigger warning: this post contains descriptive abuse-related passages.
Once upon a time, I found myself living with a guy who was abusive towards me.
I was in my early thirties then, so I should have known better than continuing to stay in such destructive relationship. But it felt like it wasn’t really up to me.
I had this constant desire to feel trapped, powerless, and hopeless. I always resisted that desire, but resistance was not doing me any good. For almost two years, I felt consumed by hatred, anger, and frustration towards my abuser.
I became physically abusive towards him myself.
As it turned out later, this unwanted situation was a gift to me from the Universe. That’s right. As it turned out, this experience of being emotionally and mentally abused forced me to make peace with my painful past of being abused as a child.
Almost two years into being stuck in this abusive relationship, for the first time in my life, I made a conscious decision to forgive the person that was hurting me.
It wasn’t easy.
Growing up with a father who suffered from alcoholism, I learned early on what physical, mental, and emotional abuse can do to a person. The only defense mechanism I had back then was anger, which quickly turned into hatred.
As I grew older, I thought I got over everything that went so wrong in my childhood. I did not understand that all that hurt, hatred, and anger were still deeply suppressed within my subconscious. After all, I went through so many therapies!
The surprising thing was that, in the numerous psychotherapies I was subjected to, no one really pointed out or stressed the importance of forgiveness. It was never discussed. They focused, instead, on lifting the burden of being responsible for such mistreatment and shifting the harmful belief of deserving such a thing.
“It wasn’t your fault. You were a child. You had nothing to do with what happened to you. The grown up was the responsible one. Not you. You did not deserve what you’ve been through. No child ever does.”
As well-intended as this kind of reasoning was, it was still incomplete. In the end, it was actually harmful. It amplified even more the already existing detest towards the abuser.
The more complete truth was: my father didn’t have much choice either.
He himself, was no more than a little boy, trapped in a grown-up body, who still felt unloved and unwanted. He was reliving his childhood over and over again. His anger and his rage were passed onto him through his parents who made him feel neglected and rejected. And his parents got similar treatment from theirs. The cycle had probably continued for centuries. No one knew how to stop it. No one should be blamed.
Even though I had some understanding of all of this, I wasn’t living my life through such compassionate understanding. I wasn’t practicing it. I might have dwelled on it in the past, but dwelling on something and actually doing something, are two different things.
My dwelling convinced that I didn’t hate my dad anymore. I talked to him on the phone, didn’t I? I didn’t have any need for him to acknowledge any wrongdoing. I didn’t need to hear him say that he was wrong or that he was sorry. I didn’t need anything from him.
Everything was fine.
So then how come, at the age of thirty-one, I ended up in a relationship that resembled so much the abusive relationship that my parents were in, when I was growing up? Did I not vow to myself that I would never, ever, ever(!) let any man treat me the way my mom allowed my dad to treat her? Why would a grown woman, like myself, who has lived all over the world and spoken different languages, pick a man who had some serious issues with control, jealousy, and inner rage?
Soon enough, new questions appeared in this puzzle. Why did I always chose to go back to him? After leaving so many times, I knew he wasn’t going to change. What kind of invisible forces were tying me to him?
It took almost two years of living in such hell for me to acknowledge that my resistance was not the right approach. I already knew by then that whatever we resist persists. And yet, for such long time, I kept doing it! I kept resisting the situation I found myself in and resisting the person that was crucifying me emotionally and mentally.
I kept hoping that things would be different. I kept trying to figure out how I could change things. How I could gain control over the person that was controlling me. How I could make him stop.
Nothing had worked. I had no choice but to surrender.
I had to give up the idea that I could change things, or at least that I could change them with the same methods I was using. With this surrender, I experienced not just a sense of relief, but a sense of bliss. Don’t get me wrong, it was still quite depressing to feel so powerless, but to have the feeling that I was still okay, even though I was deprived of my power, was actually empowering!
With my new, calm energy, I let myself feel the intensity of the pain caused by being mistreated. I even allowed myself to feel the intensity of my hatred and anger.
The more I allowed myself to feel and experience what I had been resisting, the more I saw the whole picture.
With my thoughts, I went back all the way to my childhood. I revisited the most painful and the most traumatic events. I allowed myself to feel the pain of that little girl whose father battered her for taking his bicycle to school. I watched that little girl being hit in the head for daring to use her skinny, malnourished body as a shield between her mom and her dad.
I felt her fury remembering how much she hated when her father was entertaining his drinking buddies at home. How much she detested to wait on them and to serve them food (which was so scarce to begin with). How much she hated her father for wasting all their money on alcohol and for his demanding food like it was made out of air.
I let myself feel the impact of words like: “If you don’t like it here, then get the fuck out of here!” In my mind, I heard all over again: “Stupid, lazy bitches! I’ll kill you all! Then I’ll just hang myself in the barn!”
I saw the terror in this few-year old girl, watching her father waving an axe while making verbal threats. I trembled with her as she remembered hiding behind armchairs, jumping out of windows, listening carefully for noises, checking if mom was still alive in the next room.
I felt compassion towards that little girl. I felt admiration towards her inner strength and her courage. I told her how sorry I was that she had to go through all that and that there was nothing I could have done to change it.
I started to understand then, that all my life, on some subconscious level, I had been wishing that my childhood was different. That is why I had attracted another abusive circumstance. I’d been hoping and attempting to change my past, which was impossible.
At that moment, I made peace with the fact that my past could not be changed. My past could never be any different than it was.
While crying, I told myself that my suffering wasn’t going to be wasted. I explained to myself, like I would explain to a few-year-old girl, that all this has helped me shape my character. That one day, I’d find a way to use my past to help others. That one day I’d be very grateful for having gone through such an ordeal.
After I was done with this “cleansing” process, instinctively I started to shift my focus and my energy towards imagining exactly what kind of relationship I wanted to be in. I made myself see clearly in my mind the kind of man I’ve always dreamed of. I made myself feel the intense good feelings that being with such man would create in me. I paid close attention to the details. I could see his silhouette. I could see his dark features, his five o’clock shadow. I could see his eyes penetrating me with nothing but pure admiration. I could sense his utmost respect towards me.
Many times, while I would do this visualization, the abusive boyfriend I was living with would be sitting right in front of me. I was looking at him, but I was seeing past him.
Soon enough came the next inevitable thing. I was ready to forgive.
I was ready to look at my boyfriend—to see my father in him and to forgive them both. I understood that, externally speaking, the forgiveness did not require of me to do anything at all. I did not have to change at all behavior-wise. I did not have to become more sweet, more attentive, more considerate, or more physically and emotionally available. As a matter of fact, I had to make sure that, externally, I remained exactly the way I was: closed off, cold, physically and emotionally unavailable. My way of communicating and expressing myself had to remain the same.
The only change I needed had to take place within me.
Outside, nobody knew about it, and nobody could tell, not even my boyfriend. I knew that he was just illustrating my past abuse. He was doing exactly what he had to do. He was there so I could make peace with everything that happened, so I could regain, once and for all, true peace of mind.
With this new understanding, I completely let go of the desire to change him. I started to accept him and his behavior completely, without any exceptions, for what it was. I even felt gratitude towards him.
In my mind, I thanked him for being in my life, for acting in such unflattering ways, so all this could be possible, so I could experience the liberation brought by forgiveness.
At this time, I began to have recurring nightmares that I was convinced were trying to tell me something. In those dreams, I kept engaging in a physical fight with my father. I was always attempting to kill him. In these dreams, I was not afraid of him and I always had martial arts skills. I always managed to win the battle. Each morning, I would wake up exhausted with a bitter sensation in my mouth from spending all night hating and being hated.
The first time I managed to not get upset with my boyfriend and feel understanding towards his conditioning, the recurring dream changed. Instead of a fight, the dream turned to an assertive conversation. I woke up with a feeling of being loved. I woke up refreshed and even relaxed.
Motivated by this noticeable change, I took this as a sign that I was on the right track. I practiced not getting upset at my abusive boyfriend. I allowed myself to feel understanding, forgiveness, and compassion for him. I did that every single day.
And every single night, my dreams appeared to guide me through this challenging but rewarding process. Each dream showed me the progress I was making. The conversations with my father got deeper. The bond between us grew. He’d offer me cigarettes. Then, he’d give me money for food. Not only were we not trying to kill each other in those dreams anymore, we were actually being supportive of each other. Each morning I’d wake up with the sweet sensation of loving and being loved.
My external circumstances remained the same for a while. Neither my boyfriend nor my situation changed. I had to have faith that, even though it was still unseen, a permanent change was already occurring.
And so, I continued with my practice.
Each time my boyfriend tried engaging me in his mental games, I told myself in my mind: “Do not react. Do not get upset. Do not hate him. He cannot help himself. Just like my dad could not help himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t love me, or that he didn’t love our mom. He was just tormented by some freaking illness or something. I don’t know exactly what it was that made him behave the way he did. I don’t know why he couldn’t control himself and his rage. I don’t need to fully understand it. I just need to forgive it, and accept that it was what it was. It could not have been any different. And this man in front of me cannot be any different right now either.”
I remained quiet most of the time. Silence protected me from being sucked into the drama. The inner dialog I had with myself calmed me down.
The more I did this, the less I reacted to offensive remarks. I began to see how wrong it was of me to take them so personally. They had nothing to do with me! Absolutely nothing. Whatever problems my boyfriend had with me were not real—they were his projection of his own issues that originated from his childhood.
It was extremely difficult to control my anger, but without such self-restraint, the forgiveness could not have taken place. I learned to observe closely my anger and every other undesirable emotion that would flow through me. I learned to watch them without wishing that they would just go away or trying to numb them with any kind of distraction.
I learned not to hate my negative emotions, just like I was learning not to hate my father and my boyfriend.
I dwelled on remembering the good times, however rare, and the good qualities these two men had. My decision to not act on my anger caused the angry thoughts in my head to dissipate. This was the best indication of the progress I was making.
In return for all that effort, I was getting a true sense of peace that comes from within and a true sense of confidence that cannot be compromised by circumstances.
Finally, not even two months later, it was over. I fully forgave my dad. That part of me and my past healed. I was free. I wasn’t tied to my abuser any longer. I left. This time for good.
This was my first experience of consciously forgiving and therefore accepting and letting go of my painful past. It was the first conscious healing I engaged myself in. I applied this lesson to different aspects of my “living in the past” with similar successful results.
Forgiveness, compassion, and full acceptance turned out to be the most effective medicine for a broken heart and spirit. Just like any medicine, it tasted bitter and my body tried to reject it more than once.
Yet, it worked.
Wow, I am so moved by this. You really did go through what you went through to help people, because you’ve helped me. I will be keeping this article.
I relate very deeply to how she describes this process. It’s excruciating, but so necessary, to forgive those who have hurt us most. Your work is so important and so is your story. Thank you, Elzbieta.