I spent a lot of years in a relationship that I had no business being in and that caused me more harm than good. After ten years, I left. Since then, I’ve spent more than a decade trying to untangle the damage. To call it “tangled” is really too simple of a word to describe the toxic wounds inflicted on my soul during that horrific season of my life. But then again, in the past, I’d been in the habit of being too understated in my descriptors.
A few months back, I was given the feedback that I protected that toxic relationship. It took me by surprise to receive that honest comment. I’ve spent the time since considering that feedback. The truth is that I did protect that relationship. Though it took me a while to get to the heart of why. I realized that I was protecting my pride. That’s why I stayed. I knew that if I left the relationship, then people would ask me why I’d left. They would demand an explanation. They would want to know why I left what seemed to them like a “wonderful” relationship.
You might be wondering right about now: how could an abusive relationship seem “wonderful” to anyone? That is a logical and reasonable question. There are a couple of reasons that I can give from my experience. One reason is that some of the people who thought the relationship was “wonderful” are also abusive people. Some of the other people in my life were dysfunctional and disconnected. Another reason is that none of the people in my life back then were spiritually or emotionally healthy. And neither was I. And another reason is that both he and I worked really hard to hide the truth of what our relationship was like. He hid it so he could continue abusing me. I hid it so I could protect my pride and shame and so I could perpetuate the codependent relationship that I believed I needed in order to feel needed. Like I said earlier, it was a tangled mess.
I guess that might sound odd to you that I stayed in an abusive relationship to protect my pride and shame. I also stayed because I didn’t know where else to go. No one in my life noticed or cared what was happening to me or how I changed once I got into that relationship. I think on some level I was aware of what an uphill battle it would be to not only fight him to leave the relationship but also to fight everyone else who would be insisting I go back to him.
I didn’t want to admit that I’d been in an abusive relationship. I didn’t want to tell anyone what horrible and shameful things had happened to me. I didn’t want anyone’s pity or judgment or condescension or rejection. I just wanted to disappear. In a way, I did disappear when I was in that relationship. I didn’t come out until I just couldn’t force myself to stay any longer.
I remember thinking to myself when I left that I didn’t care if I had to live under a bridge as long as I wasn’t with him anymore. I would rather have been homeless than be tortured any longer. I think I was finally destitute enough in my soul to not care any more about pride and shame. I just wanted to escape to some place, any place, that wasn’t where he was.
What I want to let you know, wherever you are, is that your pride and any potential shame is not worth putting your life in harm’s way. I know it’s not easy to leave everything and everyone behind. I know what I’m saying may sound crazy and scary and impossible. I’ve been where you’ve been. I get it. I left and I survived. I did the impossible with help from God. It’s the weirdest sh*t ever. But it’s true.
The words are only two: I left. Yet, it was like ripping the flesh from my bones with my bare hands and no strength left in them. It was brutal and horrifying and gruesome. It needed to be done, but it sucked. And I did it alone. No support. No one caring. No one cheering me on or even acknowledging what massive breakthrough I had just achieved. The wilderness of abuse is a lonely place, a barren place, a scary place to wander.
I can look back now and see how the devil primed me for this prison. Throughout my childhood, my mother poured out pity and loathing on anyone who was abused. She looked down on them and said over and over again how poor and pathetic they were. In her opinion, abuse was something a person, a woman, could never come back from and that such a woman would always be marked by the abuse, like a scarlet letter tattooed on her forehead for all the world to see and condemn. To my Mom, being abused defined a woman to the extent that the woman was no longer human but less than human, less than a dog even. In my Mom’s opinion, abuse was the victim’s fault and responsibility to stop. So, by the time I met him, it was firmly ingrained in my mind and soul that there’s no coming back from abuse. The only option is to deny that it’s happening and hide it from everyone.
Thank you, Jesus, that I somehow broke out against that horrific lie the enemy built up as a stronghold in my mind. As I sit here and write this, I’m struck by the power of my leaving had that day ten years ago. How my words and actions must have reverberated in the supernatural realm like massive earthquake tremors shaking and ripping through the years of built up lies piled up on top of me like mountains pinning me down and crushing the bones of my soul. I left. And the walls of that prison shook and crumbled in fear as I breathed my first breath of free air.
I wish I could tell you where to go or who to reach out to. I wish there were an easy answer. I wish it was obvious who the good people are and who the bad people are. But it’s not, especially to anyone who’s been abused. It’s hard to tell who you can trust when you’ve spent years “trusting” bad people and avoiding the good people who are healthy and honorable.
The short answer is simple, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy: take a step and then take another step. If you fall, get back up and take another step. Keep moving forward. Keep trying. Keep learning the truth about what’s good and what’s bad. Keep giving yourself as many chances as you can. Don’t give up. Even when it seems like giving up is the easier or less painful thing to do. Keep fighting for yourself. Keep looking for those people who will genuinely help you and care for and about you. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. You can do this. I believe in you. If I can do it as beat down and dehumanized as I was, then I have faith that anyone can do it. If God met me where I was, then He’ll meet you wherever you are.
Stop protecting bad relationships. Stop protecting your pride. It’s not worth it. Your pride doesn’t care about you or your health or your happiness. Stop worrying that people will judge you if you leave. Any people who would judge you for leaving an abusive relationship are already NOT your friends. You aren’t really losing them. By leaving, you’re just forcing them to be more open about their lack of care and concern for you. Anyone who won’t support you leaving is already not on your side. They are already against you.
Leaving everything that’s familiar is hard. Staying gone is hard, too. It’s tempting to go back to what’s known even when it’s harmful. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being selfish or irrational or too harsh toward the other person, the abusive person. Or at least that’s what I struggled with. But at the end of the day, I knew it was a bad place for me to be because if it was good then I wouldn’t have wanted to leave and I wouldn’t have spent years daydreaming about escaping from him.
I can look back now and see that when I left “everything”, I was really leaving behind nothing of value. It’s so easy to say that now. It took a long time for me to come to terms with that and acknowledge the truth of it. I fought for so long to convince myself that what I was protecting in that relationship was worth protecting, was somehow valuable. But it was all trash and lies and manipulation and deception. It was my pride wanting to convince my Mom and everyone else in my life that I’d made a good choice, that I’d “hit the jackpot” of relationships, that my life was enviable, that all my wildest dreams had come true. What a crock!
The truth is that I still have occasional nightmares about that relationship. It’s gotten less intense as God continues to gently restore and heal me from the abuse. Little by little I’m gaining ground, improving in health and increasing in freedom and peace and joy. Every victory brings me closer to who I was always meant to be, who God created me to be, who I will be for all eternity. I am on a path of becoming.
I have learned to love the adventure that this faith walk is and that this relationship with the Lord is. Even in the mess and grief of recovering from trauma, I am discovering unimaginable things about myself and about the Lord. I wouldn’t trade this walk with Him for anything. Every day He blesses me with what I need and what I want – good gifts, unexpected blessings, undeserved rewards and unending attention and affection. The Lord is the “jackpot” of all relationships!
I invite you to let go of your pride and shame and to let the Lord love you and lead you out of prison and into freedom.