Emotional abuse is a covert, dehumanizing, psychological and spiritual re-framing of reality that causes deep damage to the core of a person. Survivors of emotional abuse often struggle with depression, complex-post-traumatic-stress-disorder, muscular pain, vascular problems, brain fog, sleep disorders, and more. As long as you continue to live in the poisonous atmosphere of covert emotional abuse, you may wrestle with the ability to breathe the clean air of Truth and find the freedom and joy of living as the person God created you to be.
I have personal experience walking through these six stages of healing and looking back, I think it’s much like going from a caterpillar to a butterfly. So let’s take that analogy and look at each stage briefly, and you decide which stage you think you might be in. Please keep in mind that these stages may overlap a little or a lot depending on different factors.
Before the Stages Begin
You are in denial. You may know there is something horribly wrong, but you don’t have a category for what it could be. One day you think your relationship is fine and normal (and you want that so much), and the next day something happens that sends you reeling from the painful reality that your relationship is the most confusing and hurtful thing in your life, and that just can’t be “normal” or “fine” at all.
Your religious beliefs can feed into this denial. There are a variety of works-based theologies that encourage the kind of thinking that keeps women and children stuck in abusive situations. This isn’t the blog post to discuss those theologies, and folks who believe them and are able to make life work in healthy relationships are unable to recognize how they don’t work in unhealthy circumstances. The bottom line is this: the Word of God functions rightly in ALL circumstances. Not just ideal ones. So if something is “off” – it’s not the Bible. It’s the biased interpretation or spin that groups put on it. But that’s a topic for another day.
Let’s talk about what happens when the greatness of your pain no longer allows denial to be an option.
Stage One: Waking Up
(The caterpillar is born!)
This stage is like jumping into an icy cold lake in the spring right after the ice has just thawed. It’s shocking. Hurts like crazy. It’s a known fact that denial is one of the ways our bodies are able to absorb the initial shock of a traumatic event. In the case of long-term emotional abuse, denial is a way of life. Breaking out of it is like a punch in the gut that sort of keeps punching for a while.
I can remember when this happened for me. One morning, after spending a night in a hotel room contemplating suicide, I dragged my eight-month pregnant body to a local bookstore and started doing some research on my computer. I remember the dawning realization that I was in a destructive relationship that was quite literally killing me from the inside out. I wanted to believe I had married a good person. Someone who loved me. Someone who respected me and cared for my feelings. I wanted to believe we had a healthy family. A happy family. This was all I had ever wanted in life. Now that kingdom I had spent 19 years passionately pouring myself into was crumbling to pieces.
It hit me hard. It felt like something inside me died. I remember telling myself—forcing myself—to look at it honestly. To face it. To not run. I was aware in that moment that I had been running from the full impact of the truth for many years. When this happens to you, you can’t go back. In a sense, you are born. Like the tiny new caterpillar emerging from the tiny black dot of an egg, once you’re out, you can’t get back inside the protective shell of that egg. You have to learn to survive in reality now. Which brings you to the next stage.
Stage Two: Learning
(The caterpillar eats and eats and eats!)
In this second stage, you begin to learn everything you can about your experience. Just like a baby caterpillar eats continuously and grows daily, shedding her old skin to accommodate her new growth, so you learn and grow, shedding old belief systems that kept you deceived and trapped.
Compared to five years ago, the resources available on the subject of emotional abuse have exponentially multiplied as victims have finally started to come out of the woodwork to expose and leave behind their abusive relationships. This is GOOD NEWS for you! Not only are there excellent books on this subject, but there are several incredibly helpful and educational blogs and YouTube videos out there.
Back when I was in this stage, the first book I found that began to address what I had experienced was Who’s Pushing Your Buttons: Handling the Difficult People in Your Life by John Townsend. That book was a huge “Ah HA!” turning point for me. But it didn’t stop there. The next game-changing book was Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. Some other books that grew me up included:
Foolproofing Your Life: How to Effectively Deal with the Impossible People in Your Life by Jan Silvious is a Christian book, and she encourages women to stay married and learn coping skills. I gave this my best shot for two years, and nothing changed. I knew I couldn’t stay and hope to heal at the same time. One cannot fully heal when one is being smacked upside the head emotionally on a regular basis. Otherwise, she has a lot to teach us about how abusive individuals are simply Biblical fools – and how we need to treat them as such in order to live according to reality rather than in denial.
The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. I literally ugly cried my way through this entire book. I had no idea verbal abuse was all the things Evans describes. Highly recommend for identifying this type of covert abuse.
Healing From Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas, LCSW. Probably the most comprehensive book on the subject of healing from this type of abuse. Excellent.
Why Does He Do That? By Lundy Bancroft. This is another must-read, not just for victims, but for those who care about them. It explains the pathology behind abusive behavior and is very practical in the waking up process. Knowledge is power.
Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare by Shahida Arabi. Has a “mean” title, but it’s really about becoming yourself instead of being what your abusive partner wants you to be. When you are YOU – that is his nightmare.
Safe People by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Helps you figure out who to get close to – and who to avoid.
In Sheeps Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by George Simon. Big wake up call.
Character Disturbance: The Phenomenon of Our Age by George Simon. Another eye-opening book that will change how you think about human behavior.
The number one blog I recommend for education and support is A Cry for Justice. I also love Leslie Vernick’s blog, and Self-Care Haven. I also absolutely ADORE the Youtube Videos by Patrick Doyle. I think I’ve listened to almost all of them – and several I’ve listened to numerous times. Whenever I’m in doubt – I go back and listen to his stuff and get grounded again. I wrote more extensively about him and one of his videos HERE.
Stage Three: Grieving
(The caterpillar goes into a chrysalis and begins transforming.)
This stage definitely overlaps with stage two. As you learn more, you feel a strange release of some kind of hidden, inner pressure, and it brings a sense of relief in many ways. You discover you are not crazy, after all. However, now that you are beginning to see things for what they really are, it dawns on you that you will need to do something with this new understanding. It means that life cannot go on as it always has.
As painful as the relationship was, it became your “normal.” And when something feels normal to us, we are reluctant to change things. It feels scary and uncomfortable to think about all the unknowns ahead. You are also realizing the relationship was a farce. Your spouse didn’t love you. The relationship wasn’t what you dreamed it could be. The hopes you had were never realized. The wall you kept hitting was real, and you now know it is never going anywhere.
You are now convinced that your attempts to make a difference in your relationship never worked, and to think they will work at some point in the future is insane. You were living in a dead marriage where the vows were broken long ago, and now you will feel the full impact of that loss.
You will inevitably need to move through the grief cycle in order to find hope and healing. This process can take two years and longer. Many people will not understand that you are grieving since you haven’t lost anyone to death. If you look at the chart below, you’ll see the different stages of grief. Please notice that this process is not linear. It twists and turns through loops that overlap, move forward, and then fall back again. Give yourself the time and compassion you need to get through this part of healing and choose to ignore those who are unsupportive and don’t get it. They will only keep you from doing the hard work that lies ahead.
I spent over three years going through the grieving process. The worst part for me was all the anger that surfaced after so many years wasted in vacillating between hope and despair. I was also angry at the people I had reached out to for help who ignored me and actually took his side in blaming and shaming me rather than addressing the serious issues in his life. They applied grace to him though he was unrepentant, and they laid down the law for me when I most desperately needed support and love. It was extremely hurtful. I was angry at myself for putting up with it for so many years. I was angry at God for letting me marry him and believe all the rubbish I had believed that enabled the abuse. I was angry at all the things he continued to do that were hurtful and shaming and deceptive – all with the support of other religious men and women who had no idea what was really going on.
I did eventually get clinically depressed. I was having panic attacks and ended up going on medication for anxiety and depression. Something I never thought would happen to me. But I made it through! Eventually, I came out on the other side a whole, intact person who is no longer stuck in the pain of the past, but who is looking forward to the future. It just took time.
The grieving stage can be compared to the caterpillar when she spins her chrysalis and begins the hidden process of transformation. This is a dark, quiet stage where there seems to be no movement forward from the outside. It takes a long time and feels suffocating. It’s cramped, and everything in you is undergoing major changes in how you think, feel, and what you believe. But just because you can’t see the transformation taking place, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. This hard stage is where the most painful, most miraculous stuff is actually taking place. I recommend just immersing yourself in the Psalms during this stage and let yourself do a lot of ugly crying.
Stage Four: Getting Out
(The butterfly emerges.)
The caterpillar is no longer a caterpillar. She is now a completely different creature altogether—a beautiful butterfly with the capability of doing things she could never do before. But first, she needs to shed the remnants of her old life in order to be free to move into all her potential.
If you’ve ever seen a butterfly work to get free, you will know that it isn’t always easy. This work is critical, though! While she struggles, blood is pumping into her wings, prepping them for their future flight. This takes time and effort, and others should not interfere with this process, though they may try to circumvent things by trying to control you as well as the process. You’ll learn about healthy boundaries and apply them here, gently letting others know you are capable of making decisions for yourself now. You’re all grown up and can take responsibility for your own life.
This stage would not be possible unless that caterpillar had already done the transforming work in the chrysalis. In the life of the emotional abuse survivor, this stage is the last horrible one. It’s like the Final Battle. It’s where you take all the things you’ve learned and integrated into your life, and you bring it all to bear on this last effort to break free. Your old life struggles to keep you trapped.
Your spouse may put up a big stink and make breaking free via separation or divorce hell on earth. Abusive individuals do not want you to have healthy boundaries, and they will do everything in their power to maintain control. They may launch a smear campaign against you, making it appear to others that you are actually the crazy, abusive one while he is the innocent victim who just wants to keep the marriage together because he loves you soooooooooooooooooooo much. Sadly, this usually works in the man’s favor. Be strong! Just because people believe lies doesn’t make them true. Healthy, respectful people will come to you to find out about your life—not just listen to your abusive spouse and his allies, buying their juicy gossip.
I’ve talked to hundreds of women, online and in person, who have told me horrific stories of how their abusive husband ended up being coddled and comforted in their religious communities while the victim was actually kicked out as a liar and a vow-breaker. And it happened to me. We are all in good company. (I love People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson. She’s got a great video HERE.)
Breaking free means saying goodbye to old friends who weren’t really friends. Saying goodbye to your reputation. To your church. To your marriage. To your financial stability. To your previous dreams. It hurts. It requires much of you, but remember that in this stage, you are a new creature. God has given you the power and desire to do it. To fulfill your destiny and the purpose for which He created you. Satan can no longer destroy you through your spouse or your religious community. You belong to God, Himself, bought with the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. Nothing can snatch you from His hand. It’s just you and Him, now, and that’s all that is required for flying. Really!
Two books I recommend in this stage are
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. GAME CHANGER for me. I wish I had read this book many, many years ago. Boundaries are something I now teach my kids regularly as life unfolds for them. People with healthy boundaries won’t fall into abusive relationships because abusers completely ignore boundaries.
Necessary Endings by Dr. Henry Cloud. I know God had me read this book right before I lost two close friendships as well as my church and my marriage. I was ready for those endings, and they were, indeed, necessary. It would have been far more traumatic had I not been prepared.
Stage Five: Rebuild Faith and Friendships
(The butterfly’s wings dry and stretch out.)
Once you reach this stage, you have passed through an almost unbearable crucible that has likely caused extreme pain for many, many years. Your life has been shattered in a million pieces, and you need a break. You need to rest and consider.
When the butterfly completes her struggle to get free from the chrysalis, she rests and her wings slowly dry out. She stretches and practices using her wings, strengthening them and getting them ready for a new life of flight.
This stage is a crucial one because this is where you process your entire belief system and all the pieces land where they need to for now. You organize your thoughts. If your faith in God was shaken, you find out where the fragility lay, and that part of you gets strengthened. Often, your faith will be more real and powerful than it ever was before, much like a broken bone that has healed.
Friendships will change during this stage as well. There will be some friends who walked through the entire ordeal with you, loving and supporting you every ugly step of the way. Others will have left you in your pile of shit, never looking back. Cut your losses and be glad for the opportunity to discover the reality of your friendships.
But the exciting thing about this time is that you will actually begin to form new friendships that are healthier because as your boundaries and courage and confidence return, you will attract other healthy people. I’ve absolutely been amazed at how God has replaced 100-fold everything I’ve lost! The tearing down was just His way of doing some awesome renovation in my life, and this will happen in your life as well, if you allow yourself to courageously embrace and walk this entire process.
Stage Six: New Life Begins
(The butterfly spreads her wings and flies away.)
This is the part we all want to get to NOW, without the pain of everything that comes before. But do you see how all the stages are necessary in order to finally make it to the flying part? You can’t fly otherwise.
When you are finally rebuilding your life, your career, and your relationships, having left all the fully processed past behind, you are flying into your future. And boy, does it feel incredibly exciting! You can think clearly. You can see clearly. You can feel again. You are embarking on a new path, hopefully moving toward the fulfillment of all that God created you for. This life you were given is now being responsibly stewarded, and you are finally free to worship and obey God, not men. Those who are on the same path will be flying right alongside you on the wings of grace.
One of the exciting parts of flying is helping others who are still crawling on the ground see how they can also fly with wings of grace and freedom. God will use you to help set captives free. Your testimony is powerful. Anything purified and concentrated with fire is powerful.
So where are you in this process? Are you right at the beginning? Just starting to realize there is something more seriously wrong in your marriage than you could have ever dreamed? Or maybe you are toward the end, getting ready to start a new life in Christ. Wherever you’re at, Jesus Christ is right there with you. Even when you can’t feel Him. He loves you and will faithfully walk you through.
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