How To Succeed At No Contact (In Both Abuse Situations and Breakups)

We have to start with being honest with ourselves

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Over the years, I've helped several people leave toxic relationships.

One lady, let's call her Kara, was raised by violent, abusive parents. With Kara's permission, I'm sharing her story with some details altered for privacy.

Kara's parents abused her mentally and physically. They controlled her through force, intimidation, and invalidation. They also limited her interactions with the outside world.

To prevent her from making friends, they had a rule that she must return home within 5 minutes of the school bus drop off. Every minute she is late, they add a whip to her beating.

Because of their abuses, Kara has difficulty individuating and becoming her own person. Often, she is not sure about what she thinks or feels, and she relies on others to make decisions for her. 

Eventually, after years of therapy, she found the courage to move out of her parent's house to a nearby rental property.

Though Kara harbors deep resentment and anger towards her parents, she had difficulty cutting them out of her life. She knew that her parents' way of judging people based on looks, academic achievements, wealth, etc. is wrong, but she could not stop measuring herself this way.

Kara loves to garden, and she especially loves to grow flowers. Every week, she would head to a small community garden in front of her parent's house to care for plants.

Often, when we talk, she would tell me how strikingly beautiful the blossoms are and share pictures with me. But on occasion, she would be in a heightened state of anxiety, almost always because her parents verbally assaulted her while she was in the garden.

These confrontations could upset her for days, sending her into a depressive spiral. 

I've suggested many times that she could consider gardening elsewhere, but she always came up with plausible reasons why that wouldn't work. She's highly intelligent, and I found myself persuaded.

One day, while she was ranting about yet another encounter at the garden, I had an epiphany.

"Kara, this might sound strange," I said. "but is it possible that you garden there because you miss your parents?"

Consciously, she knew that she had to cut them out of her life. Her therapist, friends, and anyone who knew about the abuse told her so. Still, she found it hard to let go. She is concerned about her parents’ health, as both of them are in their late 60s. But what really kept her stuck was the hope that one day, they would finally acknowledge the pain they caused her, make amends, and be the parents she always wished she had. 

Why We Lie To Ourselves

Sometimes, we spin tales to fool ourselves. I've done this before, and I know how tricky it is to see through the ruse we weave. 

"The truth only hurts when you want to believe a lie." ― Jennifer McVey

When my first marriage dissolved, I spent months pondering all possible ways to "change things" in the past and thereby change the present situation. Unfortunately, all of them required the use of a time machine.

In "Why do I miss my abuser?" I explained the psychology behind trauma bonding. Victims often drum up clever excuses to explain why they “had to” break no contact, but the real reason is often simpler - they miss the abuser.

Parents in abusive relationships sometimes claim they are staying to protect their children (see "It's not all about you"). The reality, though, is that many don't leave because they are trauma bonded to the abuser, or are afraid of striking out on their own.

"The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We live in denial of what we do, even what we think. We do this because we're afraid. We fear we will not find love, and when we find it, we fear we'll lose it. We fear that if we don't have love, we will be unhappy.― Richard Bach

Truth is just hard to admit to sometimes.

It Starts With Our Brain

All humans have two brains: the thinking brain (or cortex) and the emotional brain (limbic system). We know our thinking brain well because this is the part of the brain we use to think about something and solve problems. Our developed cortex is what helped us get to the exalted status we have today relative to other animals.

The cortex is the top layer of the brain and the latest part to develop evolutionarily. The limbic system, also called our mammalian brain, is a much more ancient part of our brain that we largely share with other animals. It sits underneath the cortex.

The limbic system is the brain's emotional center. We don't have direct control over it, but we feel its effects through physical sensations (racing heart, sweaty palms, queasy stomach, etc.) and emotions.

The limbic system is especially sensitive to danger. There is a particular part of the limbic brain called the amygdala that is alarm central for our brain. When the amygdala senses danger, it sends us through the "fight-or-flight" response. If the emotional intensity is very high, our thinking brain shuts down, and we may start to behave irrationally, "in the heat of the moment."

All this is to say, though we're not able to consciously control our limbic system, it is powerful and it continuously runs in the background, checking for danger.

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Our Brain In A Heartbreak

When a relationship with someone we were close to is severed, the amygdala sees this as a threat to our survival. In caveman days, losing key relationships reduces our odds of survival, so the amygdala sounds the alarm.

The amygdala does not understand that through our cortex, our thinking brain, we have made a logical and thoughtful decision to leave an abuser. It also does not know that we no longer live in the jungle - there are no wild animals to fend off, and food is plentiful.

So our limbic system and cortex proceed to engage in a painful tug of war. Our cortex wants to cut contact, and our limbic system wants to reunite.

This struggle is why it takes 7-12 tries for most victims to break free permanently. The limbic system's hold on us is very strong; it takes a lot of will power to pull us out of its grip. 

Back to Kara. Ever so smart, her brain concocted the garden scenario so she could appease all sides of her brain. She can claim that she's keeping to no contact per her cortex's instructions, but also satisfy the limbic system's desire to see her parents.

How To Get To The Truth

When other people say things to us, we might question their motives, and therefore, not let it in fully. However, we trust what we tell ourselves completely. This is why the lies we tell ourselves are the hardest to catch. 

To get to the truth, we must re-examine our thought patterns from time to time, and see if they move us towards what we say we want in life.

We have to question our motives and be honest with our answers. 

"The best lightning rod for your protection is your own spine." ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

And sometimes, it may take a friend's cortex's brain to cut through the fog for us.

Always be willing to see things as they are. Be brave, set truth free, and lay it out in the open. The truth allows us to decide if we want to accept the status quo or choose differently.

Truth gives us a choice.

PS Kara donated her flowers to a local school and will no longer be gardening by her parent's place. She now works with traumatized kids to help them learn good coping skills.

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