emotional abuse

relationships and the space around us

“Sorry, babe, but I need some space.”

“Needing space” has become a clichéd reason for stepping back from a relationship, a generic phrase that basically equates to: “I want to give you less time and/or intimacy,” and possibly even “you have too many demands/expectations.” It lives right alongside the classic lines “it’s not you, it’s me” (=”I don’t want to be with you”) and “I’m just not ready” (=”I’m not interested in continuing this or moving forward”). Another glib excuse to break up that really means nothing at all.

But the more time I spend thinking about conscious dating, it’s become clear that space has actually mattered a lot in my relationships. Not just a safe and comfortable physical space, but a safe, comfortable and expansive mental and emotional space. Like having healthy boundaries, having healthy space just wasn’t anything I valued or even really noticed before.

A depressingly apt is example is that during the two-plus years I was involved with a toxic and manipulative partner, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for space. I was heavily attached to him, while most of the time he was distant and withdrawn from me, even if he was sitting in bed beside me. It was a very lonely feeling. As far as I was concerned, I needed more from him, not less—more quality time, more affection, more everything.

I was wrong, though. Because the truth is, I had absolutely no emotional space with him. He crowded that from the moment he began love-bombing me, overwhelming my better instincts, zoning in on my vulnerability and kindness to achieve his own ends. And I allowed it. My gut told me that things were moving too fast, but I couldn’t seem to say no, even though nothing felt right. When I was able to take some kind of stock, I was already unbelievably entangled and had few boundaries left standing.

Added to that, my home wasn’t a safe space when we were dating. He moved in “temporarily” two months after we met, and temporarily turned into two years. Even when he wasn’t present, my apartment wasn’t mine. When he was there, I never knew what sort of mood he’d be in, if I’d find him in an icy rage or self-pitying funk, or if I’d accidentally set off the cycles of emotional abuse, crisis and seduction he excelled at. Home just wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

I was always uneasy, always watchful, always struggling against tides that I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize that I was being crowded, suffocated and besieged, even though that’s exactly how I felt. Finally the tides shifted, circumstances began to change, I started to pay some attention to that strangled feeling and push back in small ways, and he cut his losses and agreed that it wasn’t going to work.

The day he moved out, I felt utterly, wildly free. I felt like myself. Suddenly there was space around me, all the space I could ever want. Emotional space to feel everything I needed without the exhausting burden of attachment or anxiety over his moods and drama. Mental space to clearly understand what had been going on, identify, process, evaluate. My home was a place of comfort and safety again, where I had full control over the emotional climate. I couldn’t imagine how I’d been surviving for all those unhappy months, or why I’d believed that he was worth everything I gave.

I relished my space. I dove into it and found peace. I was giddy with the freedom it offered. Space to grieve, to think through, to repair. To forgive myself. To imagine new possibilities.

Only when mine was restored did I start to understand how important space is, and begin to really notice and value it. It’s central to personal freedom and self-empowerment. It allows for true intimacy, creativity, growth, mental clarity and emotional well-being. It doesn’t stop us from being close to others, but does stop us from getting entangled with them in unhealthy ways.

Any relationship can push into our space if we allow it. When we feel like we just don’t quite have enough psychological “room” for ourselves, enough time to consider each choice, enough detachment from emotional burdens or expectations, or a safe enough environment, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to live an authentic life and be aligned to what matters most to us. We can feel trapped and smothered, anxious and exhausted, painfully aware that something just isn’t right.

Whether the crowding is innocent or intentional, whether we allowed it or inherited it, it’s not an easy thing to change. Recognizing the issue is probably the hardest part, since we almost never seem to value our space until it’s opened back up around us. Like all challenges in relationships and life, nothing changes until we do, until we’re ready to make the hard choices and take the hard steps.

Space matters more than I ever imagined it could, especially space between us and those we hold most dear. If we feel as though we’re emotionally stifled and entangled and have no room to breathe, desperate for some time alone or away to recharge and reset, that’s a pretty glaring red flag that our space has been compromised and we probably need to step back from the person or relationship, even just internally. It doesn’t have to mean the relationship is doomed or the person isn’t good for us, but only that we don’t have the space we need to thrive.

One of the most positive, empowering things about my current relationship is all the space I continue to feel around me. From the start I had unlimited room to react, analyze, process and make decisions that were right for me. It was beyond reassuring to feel that we could take our time and explore the possibilities freely and joyfully. Not once have I felt rushed or invalidated or anxious. I’m deeply attached to my partner, but that attachment has never put pressure on my emotional space.

I believe successful relationships have their foundations in profound respect: respecting the other person as a whole, unique being separate from us. Respecting their time, privacy, belongings and money, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, perspective, experience and opinions. I respect my partner’s emotions and feel empathy without taking on his feelings or worries as my own. When we disagree or muddy the waters, there’s always space to communicate, listen, forgive and compromise.

Space to ourselves is also one of the biggest benefits of singlehood, something I took for granted in the past. As I’ve written about previously, consciously being single is incredibly empowering and revealing, giving us one of the best chances we’ll ever have to recognize and prioritize the things that matter most to us, the places we need to grow and wounds we need to heal. Having no romantic entanglements, or only casual ones, allows us to fully appreciate the space we need and ensure that we keep it in every new relationship.

Right up there with healthy boundaries and knowing what you want, noticing and valuing our need for space makes it possible for us to develop stronger, deeper connections with others and a more empowered, authentic self. And that’s definitely worth paying attention to.

 

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dating advice: the balance of power

Dear Stumbling Toward Truth,

I don’t know what shifts, or what happens, and suddenly my boyfriend is in a horrible mood. Whether he’s angry with me, or simply in a dark place, it’s difficult for me to tell. I feel defensive and strained, as if all the joy has been taken from our relationship, and that makes me afraid. I don’t know what to do.

We’ve been together almost two years. I met him just when I was starting the process of divorcing my husband of 9 years, but I’d been separated for about 10 months before that. I’d dated a couple of people, nobody seriously, and then I met this man. He was incredibly charming and sexy and so into me. He completely swept me off my feet. I was attached to him right away, and felt so thrilled about the relationship it seemed to make me more anxious. Like I was almost desperately afraid to lose him from the start. I don’t even remember how things got to this place. He asked if he could live with me part-time a few months after we started dating, and now it seems like we’re settled in this pattern. He says he hates living off of me, it causes a lot of tension between us, but he’s always borrowing money from me and never pays me back when he says he will, which I find upsetting but don’t know what to do about it. His two daughters, from different marriages, come and stay with us every weekend. I like them, but I don’t feel very close to them and something is stopping me from moving forward.

His moods are causing me to be constantly on edge, like I have to second-guess everything I say and do. Texts from him during the day make my stomach knot up because they mostly are asking for something and I know I’m going to have to carefully craft my response. I love him so much and he says he loves me. He tells me all the time how he couldn’t do without me, how much I mean to him. He usually says he’s sorry after we fight, if it’s gone to the extreme that I’m not responding to him. Most of our communication is through text and sometimes email. I’m afraid to talk to him in person because he’s blown up so many times. When I say something that upsets him, and even when I don’t and he senses how I feel, and sometimes for no reason at all. I also find I’m often paranoid about what he’s doing when he’s not with me, especially on late-night drives, but the few times I’ve questioned him he’s gotten very angry. It’s hard not to feel hijacked in my own home, but I’m not sure where he would go or what he would do if he wasn’t with me.

I’m so tired of feeling afraid all of the time. I feel like every move I make could be WRONG move and could lead to WRONG interpretations, but sometimes I’m just too tired to keep up a super-sensitive, super-positive front and make sure I don’t do anything wrong or say the wrong thing or give him the wrong impression. Because if I do, there’s fallout for days. I’m tired of it. I’m trying to be my authentic self and I keep getting tripped up in my own conditioning and also in his sensitivity. Between the two of us it can be a minefield, but I always end up being the one blown up emotionally while he gets to get righteous and angry and punish me.

I’m feeling so lost and strange, I don’t know how to describe it. I feel like I fell into a black hole. As if I’m not heard at all. I say things and make requests and they get swallowed up and ignored and eaten and turned to dust. It confuses and hurts me, and it makes me doubt my own strength and ability to assert my needs and feelings.

I don’t know how not to care about him. I don’t know how to let go. And I don’t know how to do this anymore.

-Lost in a Black Hole*

 

* This is a composite letter from myself. I wrote most of these things while I was in my last relationship with a toxic and abusive man. I put the broken fragments together and thought about the advice I really needed at that time. I might not have taken it, but it’s the best advice I can give to anyone in a similar situation with hindsight and perspective.


Dearest Lost,

Reading your letter, I feel such sadness and empathy for you. I’m so very sorry, Lost. I can relate to everything you’re going through, and my heart aches for the pain and anxiety you’re experiencing. It’s so real—all of it, the love you feel, the conflict, the fear, the frustration.

It sounds as though after many months of strain and very hard work on your part, you’re reaching a crisis point both internally and in your external relationship. The paradigms that were set when you started dating—and it’s extremely telling that you don’t remember exactly how these paradigms or boundaries were set, don’t really feel you agreed to all of these patterns, yet here you are, living with them—were not necessarily in your best interest.

From the viewpoint of someone on the outside looking in, they were entirely in your boyfriend’s best interest, and not in yours at all.

There are a lot of things you don’t talk about in your letter, like how the two of you interact, how intimate you are. But from everything you said about how he makes you feel, the answer is: unsafe. Something in you is telling you not to trust him, and you’re trying to convince that thing that it’s wrong.

But that thing is your intuition, and it’s never going to be wrong.

I wish I could tell you that if you just find a way to honestly communicate with him, everything would be fine. That’s what I’m sure you want to hear, what you keep telling yourself. If you can somehow push past these ongoing issues, solve your internal struggle, stop being so afraid, he’ll be the man you believe him capable of being. The man you wanted him to be when you met, when he swept you so completely off your feet. I’m guessing that you were feeling very vulnerable when you began dating. Ending a marriage is no small loss; the grief is real and intense, no matter the situation. It’s a process that can take many years to heal from.

Just as you were starting this process, you met a man who made you feel extraordinary. He was charming and attractive and—most appealing of all—very interested in you. In his intense courtship, you said you became quickly attached, to the point where you were “almost desperately afraid” of losing him, this person you barely knew. And now, two years later, you’re living in a black hole of confusion and hurt, feeling like you’re not heard or respected, deeply attached to someone who makes you feel unsafe. Between his rages and your distrust of him, you don’t feel like you can be yourself around him—no matter how hard you’ve tried, or how much you want to.

This feeling you describe is powerlessness. The dizzying swings between fear and frustration, gratification and longing. Always waiting for the other person to dictate how things will go, even though you don’t remember agreeing to that. Finding through painful experience that you can’t direct the conversation, change the dynamic, even ask for change at all—or if you do ask, you won’t be heard and honored. These are signs of a massive power imbalance, impossible to fix unless both people are wholly invested in balancing it. Most of the time that’s just not going to happen.

This man has all the power in your relationship. All of it. The only power you hold is financial, in that you’re supporting him. And yet even in that, he’s taken the power from you—he makes demands for money, you have to say “yes” or he becomes angry, and no matter what he doesn’t pay you back when he says he will. That’s a horrible position to be in with anyone. Giving a loan to someone with the understanding that they’ll pay you back, and then finding that they have no intention of doing so, leaves us all feeling powerless and angry and confused.

Your situation is not a happy or simple one, Lost. The way this man treats you is not OK, and you know it isn’t OK. I’m sure your friends and family tell you the same and you find it very hard to hear. His behavior certainly sounds emotionally abusive, not to mention exploitative and manipulative. You excuse it, you slip away from what you know is true, you don’t want to face it.

The problem is, even if you can rationalize away what others think, it’s very hard to do the same for our own inner voice, requiring exhaustive effort. Even then, it only works for a while before the internal conflict starts to take its toll on us. There’s a reason you haven’t connected with his daughters—your instincts are holding you back.

After two years of this, dear Lost, you’re at a breaking point. Nothing will be easy going forward, but I promise you: it will be worth it. The pain of stepping back from this relationship, though searing and seeming impossible, is nothing to the pain you are experiencing while in it.

I know it’s hard to hear, but I believe the only way you’ll be free of this pain, the only way you won’t feel lost anymore, is if you leave the relationship, temporarily or forever. At the very least, allow yourself a chance to take a breath and get some perspective. Maybe it could work with him in the future, if he’s able to own his abusive behavior, perhaps get help for it, and you’re able to redraw all boundaries and establish new agreements.

But those are big ifs, Lost. You know they are.

My advice to you is this: stage an intervention for yourself. Just as you would for anyone you care deeply about who’s stuck in an unhappy place, reach out and get help.

Tell your most trusted friends everything you’ve told me and more. Right now, as soon as possible. Whether it’s one person or three, parent, sibling or friend, choose the people who are the least judgmental and most supportive in your life and call them. Ask them to hear you out without judgment, then ask them to support you through the scene of telling this man you need him to leave your home immediately. Figure out with your friends exactly what you need to say to explain why you’re choosing this, and have them come over when you know he’s going to be there to support you as you say it.

There will be no right time for this. It will always feel like the most horrible and unimaginable thing to do, now or in the future. I say do it now.

Have your friends wait with you while your boyfriend packs a bag of essentials and you agree on a time when he’ll come to pick up the rest of his belongings—also with your friends present. It’s not up to you where he goes. He’s a grownup. He’ll have to figure that out without your help. Believe me when I say: you have done enough.

Ask him for his key, then and there, and ask him not to contact you. You can tell him your phone will be off—and then turn it off or block his number. If he wants to talk, and if you’re open to it, tell him you’ll consider scheduling a neutral lunch in the next few weeks, but that this is your decision for now and he needs to respect it.

Give yourself time to figure out what you really want and need without his presence clouding the issues. Give yourself a chance to see things from outside of the black hole.

It will hurt like hell, Lost. He may be very angry and sad, he may say he’s blindsided, he may be ready to promise you anything to stay. This is why your friend or friends being there will be crucial. You need them to stand beside you—not in another room, pretending not to listen, not inside while he pulls you outside to talk. But right there, having your back, listening and silently supporting you. The words and actions are yours, but they’ll be there to help, while you talk to him and after he leaves. They won’t let you be bullied or punished or sweet-talked into anything. They’re witnesses and deterrents to his behavior who will keep you strong and centered.

Once your friends go home, that night or any other, please don’t even consider opening the door if he knocks. You’ve asked him to leave your home. He needs to respect that. Period.

This may seem extreme to readers. It probably does to you as well, Lost, and I know you can talk yourself out of it if you try. But this man is not bringing you anything good. He has taken everything possible from you and left you feeling empty, lonely, hurt and totally powerless in the relationship. He doesn’t honor anything you ask for, or even allow you to feel like you can ask. You say his frequent rages take all the joy out of your relationship—and I assume that means that occasionally he puts joy into it, maybe just enough to keep you wanting more. Enough to keep reminding you of how exciting and wonderful and good it was at the beginning. But it isn’t that way now, and it isn’t making you happy or fulfilled. It’s making you desperately unhappy, exhausted and anxious.

He isn’t the man you want him to be or believe him to be. Whether or not he’s capable of respecting you, honoring your needs, living up to his promises and sharing the power is up to him—but in two years of accepting your loving and seemingly unconditional support, he doesn’t seem too interested in changing.

Lost, you know you deserve better than this.

If letting go feels impossible, if even talking openly to him is terrifying, don’t do it alone. It isn’t cowardly, it’s the bravest thing you can do to ask for support in this. You chose to say “yes” to him at the beginning, and “yes” to his continued presence in your life—and now you have the power to say “no.”

You deserve to feel at home in your own home, Lost, not hijacked. You deserve to feel safe and authentic in your own life. You deserve to feel empowered to make decisions and to feel that you’re respected, listened to and honored by those who you trust and love. You deserve to always have a choice.

Talk to your friends now. Make a plan with them for moving forward. And through it all, keep writing about it.

Write everything down—all the sadness and fear and upset you feel. All the unfairness and anger and resentment. Write letters to him, to yourself, to your ex-husband, letters that you won’t send. Write a letter or a paragraph or a poem a day, exploring how you feel in going through this hard and complicated thing.

There are wonderful books on breakups that will help ease you through this painful time, not to mention on emotional abuse and manipulation. Buy yourself one, ask your friends to recommend one, and start reading today.

I believe in you, and I believe you’re strong enough to let go. It’s time to come out of the black hole of loneliness and fear, to feel the warm sun and breathe free air again. It’s time to take your life back.

Love,
Stumbling Toward Truth