In 2009 I wrote a blog, Stages of Relationship Health, that I often refer to when discussing abuse. I suggest that you read it before reading this one. The blog describes three stages people move through to get out of an abusive relationship: 1) passivity and compliance, 2) anger, and 3) leaving the relationship.
Talking with a client about anger at her narcissistic, abusive daughter and son-in-law, we established that she was moving from stage 1, passivity and compliance, to stage 2, anger, fluctuating between the two. Moreover, she was now thinking a good deal about stage 3, detaching from these relationships, a new focus. We discussed her shifts between stages 1 an 2 and what generated each response. She agreed that when she was in recall, an emotional state of fear triggered by memories of parental and spousal abuse, she became passive/compliant. But when she was in reality and in the “now,” she responded healthfully by feeling and expressing anger.
Because of the abuse-related habits they developed early on, many abuse survivors need to practice expressing anger for a long time before leaving an abusive relationship. As children, we go passive and compliant to retain our parents’ love and approval, to avoid their anger, withdrawal of love, and harming us. We may think about what we’d like to say to them, but feel safe only when we keep these thoughts to ourselves. Often we beat ourselves up for not having defended ourselves because we think that expressing anger would have changed things. We may believe that if we’d spoken up that would have changed our parents’ response to us for the better.
The truth is that we sensed it would make little difference or, perhaps, even would have made things worse. Yet we likely had the thought, “What if I stood up for myself? What if I didn’t take this any more? What would happen if I fought back?” On the one hand, we doubted things would improve. On the other, we hoped they would. Every situation is different and it’s hard to know now what the outcome would have been if we hadn’t taken all that had been dished out. The situation might have improved—or worsened.
Being in the anger phase of a relationship with an abuser now gives us practice expressing the words and emotions we wished we could have said to our earlier abusers. This is an important stage for abuse survivors to go through, especially as they move from victim to survivor. But, always, always remember, that stage 3, out and through the door, is where you want to go.
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