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This is one of the most common questions I hear from abuse victims.
It seems to defy logic - how could we possibly miss someone who mistreated us horribly?
Our logic is telling us one thing, yet our heart tells us another.
We feel like we're losing our minds.
Even where there is irrefutable evidence of abuse, we can still mire in sadness, missing the person that harmed us.
“I think perhaps I will always hold a candle for you – even until it burns my hand.
And when the light has long since gone …. I will be there in the darkness holding what remains, quite simply because I cannot let go.” ― Ranata Suzuki
No victim is immune to this feeling, including those that mustered the will to leave. Victims often feel a combination of confusion and shame for missing their abuser. The feeling is so strong that many run back to the abuser.
According to the Domestic Violence Prevention center, it takes the victim, on average, five to seven tries before permanently leaving their abuser.
These are the stats for victims that do make it out. Many return and never left again.
My mother's story is a case in point.
“What is the one message that only you can give? It's your story.” ― J.R. Rim
When she was in her 20s and pregnant with me, my father turned violent. Her father and three brothers dragged my father to the courthouse to force a divorce.
Sensing that the end is near, my father knelt on the floor, pleaded for my mother to take him back, and threatening suicide if she didn't.
My mother relented, and in subsequent years, gave birth to two more children.
Why didn’t my mother leave? Growing up, I heard variations of all of this from her:
'But I love him.'
'What if I leave and he finds someone else right away?'
'I don't want to end up alone.'
'Maybe he will change.'
'Sometimes he's good to us; let's focus on the happy times.'
When my mother was 65, my father sent her to the hospital after repeatedly bashing her head to the floor.
She is financially independent, but she chose to stay.
Had my mother left my father, she would have saved all of us a lot of pain.
“I used to pray you know, pray to God that He would somehow stop it. All the nights of listening to my mother scream and things breaking. Of holding my brother and sister and listening to them cry and begging me to stop it.” ― Emily Andrews
I realized that if I can motivate victims to leave for good, I can save children from suffering the way my siblings and I did.
So I write articles to educate people on abuse.
On to the question - why do victims miss their abuser?
When it’s good, it’s so good
I covered Intermittent reinforcement in a previous article, "Sneaky strategies abusers use to seize control in romantic relationships."
In short, Psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered that if instead of rewarding a rat each time it pressed a lever, he can get the rat to push more enthusiastically by doling out treats intermittently.
What’s even more interesting is that under these conditions, the rat will keep pressing the lever for much longer when rewards were no longer given.
The rat's behavior makes sense if we put ourselves in their shoes.
We can imagine them thinking, "I haven't gotten a treat for a while, but maybe if I press just one more time, the treat will come out…"
Casinos leverage this ingenious insight to design slot machines that dish out small rewards at unpredictable intervals, and gamblers are hooked.
Intermittent reinforcement affects us on a biochemical level; Activity in brain regions correlated with drug addiction light up when we receive these occasional, unpredictable rewards.
“It hurts to breathe. It hurts to live. I hate her, yet I do not think I can exist without her.” ― Charlotte Featherstone
In abusive relationships, where abuse is pervasive but pleasurable moments are unpredictable and few, the victim's reward circuit reacts just like the animals in Skinner's experiment.
"Most relevant to our story, activity in several of these brain regions has been correlated with the craving of cocaine addicts and other drugs. In short, as our brain scanning data show, these discarded lovers are still madly in love with and deeply attached to their rejecting partner. They are in physical and mental pain. Like a mouse on a treadmill, they are obsessively ruminating on what they've lost. And they are craving reunion with their rejecting beloved—addiction." ― Dr. Helen Fisher, Love is Like Cocaine
Self-Help Tip: Know that the feeling of missing your abuser is a symptom of the brain experiencing detox.
"No contact" speeds up the process.
Any contact is like scratching a scab; it will prolong the pain, something no sane person wants.
Oh the sweet memories
Euphoric recall is the recalling of past events or people in a positive light while forgetting or ignoring the negative aspects.
“...the fact that there’s a lot you have to blank out if you want to get through life...” ― Lucy Ellmann
It is a cognitive distortion - our mind convinces us of something that isn't true. Euphoric recall is why many victims could not resist the temptation and run back to their abusers.
Why do victims experience euphoric recall?
As discussed previously, a brain steeped in the cycle of violence is like a brain on drugs. The victim’s brain craves the surge in the feel-good chemical dopamine triggered by the occasional "sweetness" the abuser doles out.
When the relationship ends, the victim’s brain is low on dopamine, and it suffers withdrawal.
Euphoric recall is the brain's way of motivating the victim to go back to the abusers so it can get another dopamine hit.
“She wonders if memory is little more than this: a series of erasure and perfected selections.”
― Cristina García
Most of the time, it is useful to listen to our bodies, but this is not always so. For example, our preference for sweet taste is generally adaptive. It cued our ancestors to eat nutritious fruits, but it becomes maladaptive when we guzzle sodas.
Euphoric recall is similarly maladaptive in this scenario - we must use our will power to fight it.
Self-Help Tip: Write the "He's not so great list" detailed in this article and read it daily as a prophylactic. Reread it whenever you are tempted to reach out to your ex.
The list should cover all significant abusive incidents that occurred in the relationship.
Even general statements such as, "My abuser put me down daily" or "My abuser isolated me from friends and family" helps you remember why you left, and stops you from minimizing the impact of the abuse.
What if I’m replaced right away?
Sometimes, the victim is hesitant to leave the abuser because they believe they will be quickly replaced, and the new couple will be happy while the victim is all alone.
This scenario is the victim's worst nightmare come true. To the victim, this proves that he or she is not good enough.
“It must be my fault,” the victim thinks to themselves. “If I am smarter, richer, thinner, more this, less that, then I could have made it work.”
Self-Help Tip: Learn about the cycle of violence, its inevitable nature of ever-escalating violence, and ever shorter honeymoon period.
Accept the fact that the abuser will likely find a replacement soon, and proceed to woo this new person. But do not waste time wondering how your ex is doing. The new couple may be in the love-bombing phase of the cycle, but it will not last.
Do "no contact" so you don’t have to deal with the unnecessary pain of seeing your ex with a new partner.
Focus on healing yourself and learning from the experience, so you are not trapped in an abusive relationship again.
But they promised…
Future faking is when a person lies or promises something about a possible future to get what they want in the present. It could be as simple as promising that they will call and never calling. Or it can be something bigger, like promising to buy a house together, marry, have kids, etc.
The abuser will promise the victim whatever the victim's deepest dream may be. The empty promises keep the victim easy to control in the present.
“His words were like Satin on her Skin. She just picked the lies she liked the best.” ― Efrat Cybulkiewicz
When the victim wisens to the abuser’s lies, the abuser may occasionally do just enough to appease. The abuser is skilled at stringing the victim along.
“Promises are only as strong as the person who gives them ...” ― Stephen Richards
By the time the victim catches on, she or he may have sunk so much time, emotion, and energy into the relationship that they are unwilling or unable to disentangle.
Self-Help Tip: Understand that this amazing future was never real. What was promised will never come to be.
If your answer to "Would I choose my partner again, knowing what I know now?" is a resounding "No," then swallow the hard truth, and take the loss.
Do not fall for the sunk costs fallacy (see ”Sunk Costs Fallacy” in this article).
If I can just prove my value…
A victim of childhood abuse is at high risk of falling victim to abusers and users. We tend to be comfortable with what is familiar, even if the familiar was abusive.
“Don’t confuse “familiar” with “acceptable”. Toxic relationships can fool you like that.” ― Steve Maraboli
Lacking an understanding of what a healthy partner looks like, a victim of childhood abuse is an easy target for abusers. Constant invalidation from their caretakers trained them not to trust their own instincts; they often ignore glaring red flags.
A victim of childhood trauma relives the nightmare of their traumatic childhood when they fall prey to an abusive partner. The abusive partner slyly assumes the all-powerful parental role, while the victim regresses to a child that is eager to earn approval and avoid punishment.
The victim will remain stuck for as long as they are party to this delusion.
Self-Help Tip: Wake up from this nightmare reenactment and refuse to play the evil game. The abuser is not your coercive parent, and you are not their tormented child.
If you feel you must earn love, you will attract people that are happy to use you.
Love yourself, and be your own best friend.
You need nobody’s approval but your own.
Leaving is hard, but staying, I promise you, will be much harder in the long run.
“Be willing to pass through a short term pain so that you can come out with a long term gain. Don't fear the horrible waves of the waters; just dare to cross and you get there!”
― Israelmore Ayivor
If you stay, you will do more, love more, try harder, jump higher, but nothing will ever be good enough.
The abuse will always escalate; your health will deteriorate from the emotional toll.
You will miss the opportunity to be with a loving partner.
You will look back one day and wish you left earlier.
Do you want to live with regret? Waste your life in the hands of someone who is not worth it? See your children abused?
It's time to wake up.
It's time to get brave.
It’s time to leave.
Be a survivor, not a victim.
You deserve better.
“If you walked away from a toxic, negative, abusive, one-sided, dead-end
low vibrational relationship or friendship — you won.”
― Lalah Delia
Don't forget to reflect and learn from the experience, so you do not make the same mistake again (see my reflection after a painful divorce).
Forgive yourself; you did the best you can with the knowledge you had at the time. The abuser taught you a lesson about yourself, and now it's time to let them go.
They belong to the past.
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