Understanding, Forgiveness, and Boundaries
Confusion and Ignorance
It took us a while to understand what exactly what was wrong with Marcia and Austin's relationship. Something seemed "off," but we weren't able to put our finger on it. In the beginning, we tried to give Marcia the benefit of the doubt. As a rule, we assume that people have good intentions and that we can trust them. However, our gut instinct told us otherwise. We looked inward to see if we were making it up. Were we being prejudiced because she was from Argentina? Were we just worried because Austin seemed young and inexperienced and not ready for this relationship? Were we being unfair? Were we overly concerned or protective? After all, Austin was an adult (albeit a young one), and he had a right to live his own life. Plus, in the beginning, Austin insisted that he was in love and wanted to be in this relationship. For this reason, we initially tried to put our fears aside and show our support for Austin in his decision to pursue this relationship.
However, the sick, gut-wrenching feeling never went away and we continued to see red flags everywhere. We saw that Austin's personality, judgement, and values were severely altered. We started to see signs that Marcia was increasingly exerting control over him. And most importantly, we saw that Austin was becoming depressed and withdrawn. Our fears were confirmed, when many other people who knew and loved Austin, admitted that they also were concerned about Austin and sensed a negative change in him. Austin had become almost unrecognizable to his close friends and family members. And, eventually, even Austin started to send clear signals that he was trapped and needed help. Something was terribly wrong. This was not a normal, healthy relationship.
Research and Recognition
After months of research and talking with professionals, we started to connect the dots with what we had been observing and feeling. We saw that Marcia was isolating Austin from his support network. He was being threatened and manipulated to the extent that his personal freedoms (the freedom to think and act in his own best interest) were being violated. It took us a while to even figure out what to research, but as we stumbled across the term "emotional abuse," and read countless articles on the subject, we found that Marcia's behavior's checked almost every single box on every single article that we read (See Danger Signs). Because, we were initially unfamiliar with the signs of emotional abuse, it had taken us a while to fully realize what was happening. But once we were able to connect the dots with the help of research and professionals, the evidence confirmed that Austin was in a serious abusive relationship and needed help .
Not only were we trying to find answers as to what was happening (emotional abuse), but we also wanted to know why it was happening. We were completely inexperienced in dealing with someone like Marcia. We did not understand what was driving her unhealthy behaviors. She seemed excessively insecure and threatened by anyone who was close to Austin. She showed signs of extreme and irrational feelings of jealousy. She seemed to have an unreasonable need to control every aspect of Austin's life. She constantly demanded Austin's complete attention and constant validation. Her mood swings were intense. She seemed to have extreme and unrealistic expectations from Austin and from their relationship. And when he did not measure up to her impossible demands, she berated, manipulated, threatened, and used any means possible to ensure his compliance. Following the abuse, she justified and defended all of her irrational and unhealthy behavior with bizarre explanations and excuses, which twisted Austin's sense of reality. She would constantly use Austin's reactions to her abuse as proof that he was the one that was mentally unstable. She often told him that he was bi-polar and had serious mental issues. She would repeatedly push him to his breaking point, and then when he reacted, she would accuse him of being the perpetrator--and convince him that she was the victim. After months of observation, we were eventually able to distinguish a clear and repeating cycle of anger, abuse, and aggression, followed by insincere apologies or acting as if the abusive behavior never occurred. The abuse cycle was obvious. But we did not fully understand what was driving the cycle. After more research, we found that the behaviors that Marcia was exhibiting were similar to the typical symptoms often seen in people who suffer from narcissistic, psychopathic, and borderline personality disorders. These disorders explained Marcia's inability to engage in or sustain healthy relationships. The more we learned about these disorders, the more we understood the seriousness of Marcia's illness. We realized early on that it was useless to reason with her. It was also highly unlikely that she would be able to change or stop her abusive behavior. She seemed incapable of admitting to or accepting responsibility for her abuse. As Austin slowly came to a recognition of the abuse that was occurring, he realized that the only viable choice was for him to leave the relationship and cut off all contact with Marcia.
"Commonly, the perpetrator of emotional abuse does not know that she is being abusive. Rather, she may be aware that she feels insecure about whether or not her partner loves her, so she feels compelled to accuse him of cheating, blame him for her unhappiness, or constantly check his voice and text messages, etc. The accusations, the blame, and the constant checking up are forms of emotional abuse." https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/traversing-the-inner-terrain/201609/when-is-it-emotional-abuse
Understanding and Acceptance
Marcia not only wreaked havoc on Austin's life, but her actions caused immense pain and suffering for many of his family members and loved ones. We were angry and confused as we tried to make sense of her behavior. It was unclear to us whether Marcia was intentionally controlling and abusive or whether she was truly under the delusion that her actions were harmless. She may have believed that Austin was the perpetrator and she was the victim. However, eventually, we realized that it didn't matter whether Marcia was overtly malicious or not. It was not our job to judge her intentions. What mattered was that Marcia was seriously mentally ill and capable of severe emotional (and physical) abuse and that the abuse had to stop. It didn't matter what her intentions were. We did not want to harbor ill feelings against her, so we decided to give Marcia the benefit of the doubt. We assumed that she did not have the maturity to take full responsibility for her behavior. Austin reported that Marcia had often blamed many of her actions on her own past abuse. Of course, we felt sorry for her. It was apparent that her excessive need to control Austin and the extreme measures she took to ensure that he stayed in a relationship with her stemmed from a deep-rooted history of past abuse, mental illness, and deep insecurities. We sensed that she lacked a normal, healthy sense of self-worth, and, instead, she allowed her value to be wholly determined by the opinions of others. If anyone rejected her, it would shatter her world and she would feel abandoned and worthless. No wonder she became irrationally jealous and controlling. Her insatiable need to be constantly validated and admired required complete control over those who supplied that validation and admiration, and thus her sense of value. When Austin's life revolved around pleasing her, she felt this validation. However, when he asserted his own will, she felt like she was losing control, and her sense of self-worth became dangerously threatened. When this happened, Marcia felt compelled to do anything in her power (threats, manipulation, guilt,) to regain her control over his actions so that he would not abandon her and thus threaten her very identity and value. This also explained Marcia's extremely controlling behaviors: her anger, her suicide threats, her manipulation tactics, and, why, as a last resort, when she feared that Austin was actually going to leave her, she decided to get pregnant in order to ensure that Austin would be forced to marry her. This was most likely a type of distorted self-preservation...a frantic and desperate attempt to ensure and assert her own worth and value and an extreme attempt to avoid rejection and abandonment.
As we began to discern the depth of Marcia's mental illness and emotional issues, we felt truly sorry for her. We saw that she was incapable of true empathy. Her own needs were too insatiable to allow her to put someone else's needs ahead of her own. It was also apparent, that continuing her relationship with Austin would only exacerbate and encourage her unhealthy abuse patterns. In fact, the longer the relationship continued, the more severe the abuse became. The yelling, hitting, threats, berating, and accusing continued to escalate at an alarming rate. Her need for absolute control over Austin continued to intensify. It was clear that Marcia would never heal while still in a controlling relationship with Austin. It was also evident that it would be unsafe to bring a child into this violent and abusive relationship. Austin felt strongly that the baby would be much safer if he and Marcia were not in contact with one another. He knew that he had to cut off all ties with Marcia, even though this meant that he would have limited or no access to his own child. He knew from experience, that as long as Marcia had any direct interaction with him, she would use any means possible to exert her control and that the abuse would continue. He also knew that Marcia would not allow him to have any say in raising his child. Austin tried to convince Marcia to place the baby for adoption. He wanted to provide the best future for his child. He felt certain that being raised in a home with a single mother who suffered from severe narcissistic and psychopathic tendencies could have some very negative effects on his baby. He wanted his child to have a loving and stable mother and father; to be cared for financially; and to have the best that life had to offer. Of course, Marcia vehemently rejected the idea of adoption. Adoption is not widely accepted in her culture. Also, Marcia's insatiable need to be loved and needed would be compromised if she gave up the baby. Marcia made it very clear that she was in absolute control of her baby and would never relinquish any of that control to Austin.
The ongoing abuse had broken Austin. He was mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically spent. In fact, our entire family needed to heal from the trauma caused by this horrendous experience. However, given the difficult and sensitive situation (Marcia's pregnancy), we weren't sure what to do. If we had been dealing with a mentally stable and safe person, we would, of course, have reached out and befriended Marcia. However, because Marcia was unsafe and because we could not trust her, we felt that it was necessary to establish clear boundaries and to cut off all direct communication for the time being.
This was a confusing issue, because we desperately wanted to do what was right. Doesn't every human deserve forgiveness and a second chance? It seemed very unloving and unchristian to establish a "limited contact" policy with Marcia; even though we knew that it was logical and imperative to put Austin's safety first. After struggling to understand how to make things right with God and with our own conscience, we came across the following quote, which helped us to realize that it was completely acceptable and possible to forgive and also to disengage from Marcia and her abusive behaviors.
"Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the offense ever occurred or pretending it never happened. It does not mean that you allow the abuse to continue. It does not mean that it is possible for all relationships to be healed. And it does not mean the offender will not be held accountable for his or her actions. It means the Savior can help you let go." https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/get-help/abuse/is-it-possible-to-forgive?lang=eng
Because the abuser suffers from internal discomfort and conflicts they don’t know how to address, no amount of logic, submissiveness or kindness will be enough to compensate or satisfy their insecurities.
They are not seeking to understand or respect others because they do not fully understand or respect themselves. They hide from their own weaknesses by trying to make others weak. They can’t control their own emotions, so they look to control others. While they may have positive qualities, they hold toxic and unrealistic expectations which cannot be met. Those who try to meet these expectations will end up feeling like a failure because it is a game they cannot win.
Much Needed Boundaries
We found that every interaction we had with Marcia was traumatic and anxiety inducing. Because it was a completely new and foreign experience to deal with someone as emotionally aggressive as Marcia, it took us a while to understand the need for firm boundaries. It was clear that we could not fix Marcia. We also knew that we were not responsible for Marcia's actions or emotions, although she sure tried to make us feel responsible. With time, we finally realized that the only way to protect ourselves from Marcia's unhealthy emotional aggression was to set very firm boundaries. Setting these boundaries was not easy. We knew to Marcia, these boundaries probably seemed cruel and heartless, because she was incapable of understanding how how toxic and unhealthy her behavior was.
Boundaries are the only way to break the abuse cycle
The emotional abuse cycle follows the same pattern as that of physical abuse — once the victim of emotional abuse figures out what’s going on and starts thinking about leaving or seriously calls the abuser on [her] actions, the abuser will suddenly become very apologetic and romantic, trying to woo [him] back into the fold. He[She} will buy flowers, cook suppers, tend to the children, or whatever else he[she] has to do to make her[him] believe that what she [he]thinks [he] saw, what she [he]believes to be true, is actually false. No, he[she] is a perfectly good husband [wife] or partner, and there is absolutely no reason for her[him] to be thinking about leaving. But as soon as she [he] comes back around and begins to trust that he[she] will no longer emotionally abuse her [him], he [she] starts back up with the same old abusive patterns. Now, it is harder for her [him] to leave, because she [he] has begun to believe in him [her] again. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/traversing-the-inner-terrain/201609/when-is-it-emotional-abuse
The only way to break things off is to refuse to react. It is only by refusing to play the game, that you can stop the abuse.
Expect Resistance to Boundaries
Marcia, like most emotionally abusive people, could be very sweet when she was in control and calling the shots. However, when she felt like she was losing control, she lashed out and became extremely aggressive. This pattern continued even after Austin ended the relationship. For the first few months after Austin cut off contact and attempted to set up boundaries, Marcia relentlessly resisted and refused to comply with Austin's "no contact" requests. When Austin blocked Marcia on most social media sites and on email, she refused to comply. She tried every possible means to contact him. She would pose as someone else in order to trick him into responding to her. She found obscure sites (like music sharing sites, which he had not thought of blocking) and sent messages to him through those platforms. She contacted his friends and asked them to get messages to him. She told those friends that Austin still loved her and was being controlled by his family. She would say things like: "Please contact Austin. I know he wants to be with me, but his family won't let him. What they are doing is evil. " She would ask these 'friends' to try and contact Austin secretly (without his family's knowledge) and encourage him to reach out to her. Of course, this didn't work, since all of Austin's close friends were aware of the situation.
For months, Marcia continued to barrage Austin and us with inflammatory and angry emails and messages, accusing him and us of being heartless and cruel. She accused us of having evil intentions and of controlling Austin. She wrote about how awful Austin had been and how much she had suffered because of his and our cruelty. At one point, she contacted Austin's sisters and tried to convince them what a terrible person Austin was, trying to convince them that we (like her) were all victims of Austin's unhealthy and abusive behavior. She repeatedly threatened us that unless we complied with her wishes, neither we nor Austin would ever see the baby. It became increasingly difficult to distinguish what parts of her story were real and what parts were contrived; and we all felt our anxiety increasing as we were pulled into Marcia's twisted world. We saw first hand how enraged and manipulative Marcia became when barriers were placed in her way and when her control was limited. She was used to getting her way by using unhealthy, abusive behaviors (threats, manipulation, anger, accusations, etc.) to remove those boundaries. As we stood firm in our boundaries and refused give into her demands, we experienced Marcia's wrath first hand. We initially found ourselves feeling guilty and distressed. However, the more firmly we adhered to the boundaries we had set , the safer we felt. We soon realized that Marcia was using the same mind-games on us that she had used on Austin. This gave us increased empathy for what Austin endured for almost a year. No wonder he felt so stuck and guilt-ridden. It also helped us to understand first-hand the incredible mind power that an emotionally abusive person is able to exert over their victims.
What To Do When Others Resist Your Boundaries
1. Realize that the person who is angry at you for setting boundaries is the one with the problem. If you do not realize this, you may think you have a problem. Maintaining your boundaries is good for other people; it will help them learn what their families of origin did not teach them: to respect other people.
2. View anger realistically. Anger is only a feeling inside the other person. It cannot jump across the room and hurt you. It cannot “get inside” you unless you allow it. Staying separate from another’s anger is vitally important. Let the anger be in the other person. He will have to feel his anger to get better. If you either rescue him from it, or take it on yourself, the angry person will not get better and you will be in bondage.
3. Do not let anger be a cue for you to do something. People without boundaries respond automatically to the anger of others. They rescue, seek approval, or get angry themselves. There is great power in inactivity. Do not let an out-of-control person be the cue for you to change your course. Just allow him to be angry and decide for yourself what you need to do.
4. Make sure you have your support system in place. If you are going to set some limits with a person who has controlled you with anger, talk to the people in your support system first and make a plan. Know what you will say. Anticipate what the angry person will say, and plan your reaction. You may even want to role-play the situation with your group. Then, make sure your support group will be available to you right after the confrontation. Perhaps some members of your support group can go with you. But certainly you will need them afterward to keep you from crumbling under the pressure.
5. Do not allow the angry person to get you angry. Keep a loving stance while “speaking the truth in love.” When we get caught up in the “eye for eye” mentality of the law, or the “returning evil for evil” mentality of the world, we will be in bondage. If we have boundaries, we will be separate enough to love.
6. Be prepared to use physical distance and other limits that enforce consequences. One woman’s life was changed when she realized that she could say, “I will not allow myself to be yelled at. I will go into the other room until you decide you can talk about this without attacking me. When you can do that, I will talk to you.”
Return to Joy
We found that it was only after we had established strict boundaries, that we were able to start the process of healing. It took everyone involved a period of several months of having no direct contact with Marcia before we once again felt safe. This was especially true for Austin. The few times that Marcia was able to get through to him, he was thrown into a depressive tailspin which lasted several weeks. During this difficult time, while Marcia continued to ignore boundaries and before Austin had the strength to stand up to her, he continued to meet with a counselor. He also read several books about psychopathic, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders. He was beginning to truly understand the extent of Marcia's manipulation and the crucial importance of boundaries in abusive relationships. In time, he found the strength to resist Marcia's continual attempts to push past the boundaries he had established.
We found that the stronger the boundaries, the better and safer we felt. It took almost 6 months after leaving the relationship before Austin felt safe and happy again. We were overjoyed to see Austin return to his former self. The boundaries were a crucial factor in his ability to heal and feel safe. In fact, the firm boundaries have helped our entire family to feel safe again. And once we felt safe, we started to feel joy return into our lives. The heavy, gut-wrenching weight and fear was finally gone, and in its place was peace, hope, understanding, and, eventually, joy.