When You’re Hooked On an Abusive Partner and Scared to Walk Away

“We set the standard for how we want to be treated. Our relationships are a reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves.” ~Iyanla Vanzant

I'll be honest. I knew my ex was a screwed-up guy. My head told me that not long after we met. The alarm bells were screeching. Could I hear them? Of course! Did I listen to them? No. My heart told my head to sod off and I agreed.

Here was a charismatic, gorgeous man focusing all his attention on me. I was the only one in his universe. Fireworks that would rival Sydney's New Year's Eve were going off. The sexual chemistry was intense. He was the best drug ever.

The high of being with him was intoxicating. Nervous butterflies were on a rampage in my stomach, which did a bit of a flip every time I saw him. And that's how I knew he was the one. Yeah, right.

Like most Narcs, it took a while for his darker side to kick in. But when it did I was already way too hooked on him; I needed more. So, I ignored all the warning signs. The ones that were there in front of my face, with bells on.

When Mr. or Mrs. Charisma has hooked you in, they have you. Then their dark side starts to come out. They start to become a bit moody. To pick a fight, usually over something “you’ve done.” So, you start to change your behavior in anticipation.

If his anger was over something you wore, you change your wardrobe to clothes less “slutty.” If she doesn't like your friends, you stop seeing them. But no matter what you try, nothing works. The goal posts just get moved. They find another reason to blame you for their anger.

Abusive people have all the answers as to why they treat you poorly. Past girlfriends or boyfriends have betrayed them. They've had a difficult childhood; bad luck has let them down. So, you believe them and keep ignoring the warning signs.

To you, this is still that gorgeous person who swept you off your feet. You can still see the good beneath the dark side. You think: all they need is someone like you to take care of them, to bring that charming side back to the fore. And that makes you feel needed, secure.  

But then the abuse gets worse. When they go into a rage now, they may storm out and disappear for days. They may even show the first signs of physical abuse. A push or a shove. Something that shocks you, as it comes out of the blue. (Something they’ll later dismiss as not being violence).

But the thought of breaking up and never seeing them again terrifies you even more than how they’re treating you. Hooked in as you were by the drug of when they basked you in their sunshine, you can’t or don’t want to see the real person they are. You ignored the early warning signs, now you deny the reality. It's true what they say. Love can be blind.

When their rage has calmed down and they reappear, you’re relieved to see them again. It helps that the remorse they now show is equal to the severity of their latest abuse. They say how sorry they are. They sob in your arms. They’re “ashamed” of what they’ve done. They’ll “never do it again.” Blah, blah, blah.

They admit that they need you more than ever to help them change. And of course, this is music to your ears. But this honeymoon period never lasts. The verbal and / or physical abuse, followed by remorse, repeats itself. Over and over, in a cycle.

This cycle of violence (emotional and/or physical) is a toxic turning of unpredictable highs and lows. With each spin, it breaks you down. Any shred of self-esteem you have starts to erode.    

You feel worthless and almost deserving of their anger. You start to believe it when they say you’re to blame for it. But you somehow rationalize it all by thinking that all they need is you to fix them to make the abuse go away. All you need to do is to love them more.

You don’t realize it, but loving them has become an addiction for you. You're addicted to an unavailable person—someone who is not there for you and who doesn’t care for you. They may even be more focused on their own addiction, to alcohol and/or drugs.

Your head might be screaming at you to leave. But you just can't. In your heart, you feel you love you them. “They need me,” you rationalize. You might even feel guilty if you abandon them.

You are just like an addict. If you admit that your life has become out of control and walk away, you’ll lose the very thing you are addicted to. That high you get from their charismatic, remorseful, attentive side. What you need to make you feel good again. After each dreadful low, you are desperate for a fix, that high, again.

But at some point, you will reach rock bottom—the abuse will become extreme. If they’re physically abusive, they may have even tried to kill you. My ex did, by strangling me. He wrapped his hands around my throat when I was seven months pregnant and with a demonic look in his eyes he screamed, “Die, you c***! Die.”

Like many women, even after that, I still loved him! My heart kept screaming at me not to leave him. Yes, even after he almost killed me.

If you're lucky your head will start to outweigh your heart. You'll stop denying that this person is no good for you. Finally, you'll dig deep and find the courage to walk away. I did. But not before going back to him many, many times.  The drug-like pull back toward him was so great. The high, after we first reunited again, was better than the pain I felt when I was without him, alone.

When you leave an abusive person, the withdrawal feels as agonizing as, I imagine it might be, weaning off heroin. It did for me, at least. You've been numb for so long that a gamut of emotions pour out at once. Shame, anger, loneliness, guilt—you name it, you feel it. It hurts.

I have never sobbed like that before in my life. I was so overwhelmed by the rawness of them. But you need to feel these emotions, as painful as they are. You need to thaw out. To go cold turkey in order to recover.

Unless you look hard at why you were addicted to an unavailable person in the first place, you risk going back to them. Or replacing them with a different drug, in the form of another abusive person. Either way, like any addict, you risk losing your life.  

You need to ask yourself the same questions I did:

Why is it I still love someone who abuses me? Why is it I need to numb myself with someone who is like a drug to me? Someone you know is no good for you, but is the only thing that will make you feel good again. Hopefully, like me, you'll realize your addiction started way before you ever met this person.

I'm sure you know already that it has something to do with low self-esteem. If we don't love ourselves, we're attracted to those who treat us as though we are unlovable. But it's not enough to just tell someone they need to “love themselves more.” “You need to work on your self-esteem!” That's easier said than done. Believe me, I know.

First, you need to understand why it is that you feel you are unlovable, or not good enough. How you came to be so low in self-esteem that you let a person abuse you. Only then can you break the cycle of addiction to them and recover.

You may be like me, having grown up in a comfortable, happy home. Never having experienced verbal or physical abuse before in your life. Or you may have suffered it in your family and be repeating the negative patterns of your past. Either way, the root of low self-esteem is if, in some way, your emotional needs were not met as a child.

It might be, for example, that one of your parents had an addiction say, to work or to alcohol. The other parent was then so focused on rescuing them that neither could meet your emotional needs.

It may be as simple as having a parent who was controlling. You weren't allowed an opinion or any feelings of your own. And if you voiced them, they shut you down, so you learned to mistrust your gut instincts over time. Or it might have been they were such perfectionists, the only way to gain approval was to be perfect in every way.

Our experiences are unique to us, so only you will know. But try to work it out.

If our emotional needs aren't met as a child, we grow up to have that fear we're “not good enough.” We also fear abandonment, as we know how painful that is already.

Our parents may have been there when we were kids, but couldn’t deal with us on an emotional level. So, we choose a partner whose baggage matches ours. Someone whose needs weren't met as a child either and who is as insecure as we are. Even better if they have problems that we can rescue them from—an addiction or a traumatic past.  For if they need us, if they depend on us, then in our subconscious minds, they're less likely to abandon us. To do what we fear most.

Besides, if we can be their rescuer, then we can focus all our attention onto them. By doing so we can deny, ignore, we can even numb our own feelings of insecurity and fears inside. It's them that has the problem, not us! And it's such an effective drug, we might not even be aware those feelings exist at all. I wasn’t.

The trouble is, this is a dysfunctional dance. The steps feel familiar, of course, as you’re recreating scenes from childhood to master them. But two people who are insecure are incapable of fulfilling each other's needs.

To feel secure, both have the pathological need to feel in control. While I was ‘rescuing’ my ex, I felt in control and confident he wouldn't leave me. But that left him feeling vulnerable, afraid I would see his flaws and walk away. So, he would need to push me away to regain his power.

Now I was the vulnerable one. Terrified he would abandon me, I would forgive him anything to get him back again. If I couldn’t, it would reinforce those painful childhood feelings I had of being unlovable. It would reveal the depth of my insecurity and fears.

And so, I tried to please him, to prove I was worthy of his love and my weakness gave him strength again. The love he then showered onto me was just the drug I needed to numb those fears away and gave me security to start rescuing him again. And so, the cycle begins.

But is this love? I had to ask myself the same. He was a man who treated me as worthless, I knew that. Yet I couldn't leave him. I still “loved him.” Or so I thought. Until I understood that this is not love, but an addiction. An addiction to someone who could never love me, who could never meet my emotional needs.

He said he loved me all the time. But he never showed me I was lovable. I told myself, too, that I loved him. But in fact, I just wanted to rescue him, to turn him into something I had projected him to be, not who he was. A pity project, perhaps, that could distract me from how f***ed up I was.

When I finally left, I had to treat my addiction to this unavailable man the way any addict does. Go cold turkey. Thaw out. I had to feel all those painful feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Those hideous emotions that poured out.  But that was the only way to heal.

I had to go back to the root cause of my lack of self-esteem, where it was seeded in my childhood. Not to judge my parents. Like me, they were doing the best they could at the time. But to understand how I’d come to be this way.   

As painful and as hard as this is, once you get it and face those fears down, your insecurity will start to melt away.  And little by little you begin to love yourself.  I started by doing one nice thing for myself each day. Eventually, I found that self-esteem that everyone had been going on about.

You only attract someone equal to what you think you are worth.  Abusive people, who previously saw a chink in your armor, will now see you and run a mile. They'll see that you get they're not good enough for you.

Those people who are self-confident and don't need you to rescue them, will no longer terrify you.  And among them will be the one, like I have since found. The person who treats you with kindness and respect. The person who meets your emotional needs and brings out the best in you.  The person who allows you to be vulnerable, but safe. They'll never use that vulnerability as a weapon against you.

Sure, they could walk away any day. But you'll no longer fear that. For if they do, you'll just figure it's not meant to be. You'll still be there. And you'll be enough to meet all your own emotional needs, with or without a partner.

About Vivian McGrath

Vivian McGrath is a TV Executive Producer who makes documentaries for major US, UK, and Australian broadcasters.  She is also a survivor of domestic violence. Her book Unbeatable (How I Left a Violent Man)—her story of surviving abuse to finding success—will be published soon. She hopes her blog will help others become strong, fearless, and successful too.

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  • In case you’re searching for a close, dedicated relationship, a man living in another state, or who is married or still in love with another person is not going to be there for you.

  • Bret Jahnke

    I was the abused one. She had me convinced it was me. She would have these episodes and then go dark for days. No communication. I tried everything to reach her. We were together for three years and when it was finally over she accused me of many terrible things. It was the hardest thing to accept. The woman that I was engaged to once lied so she could hurt me. It’s strange because I grew up in a loving supporting environment. She didn’t. I thought I could bring her along. This is a very real problem. It’s been almost a year and I still miss her. Terribly. But I’m getting help trying to understand my part in all of it.

  • Tara Curran

    This article is my situation right down to the last tiny detail. Thank you so much Vivian you have opened up a whole new realisation for me as to why I stuck it out so long with my ex-partner and yes it all stems down to low childhood self-esteem issues where I was bullied at school and my parents did little to stop the situation, hence the worthless feelings from both sides. I am so grateful to you Vivian for being brave enough to write this article as you are an inspiration to people in similar situations. Time to start the cold turkey process! 😀

  • rt

    When in an abusive or controlling relationship,physically or psychologically and you finally realize this is not living,this is not happiness you make a major life changing decision. You decide no matter how hard or if you have to do it alone (which I am) because you deserve so much better for the rest of your life,You Get Out!

  • rt

    And Vivian congratulations on finally finding the strength and courage to get out! We all deserve to be respected,safe and happy. Thank you for sharing your story. When we realize we deserve so much better eventually we find the strength and courage to step out of this kind of relationship.

  • ALC

    Wow I cannot believe how deeply this piece reasonated with me. Thank you Vivian for sharing your story and wisdom in such an inspiring way. I had made many of these realizations on my own and tried to break away many times…but just like a junkie, the way you described, I continued to succumb to those withdrawals and go back for another hit, and temporary high, knowing very well the low was looming just around the corner. The withdrawals, those feelings of emptiness and worthlessness without their need for you, seemed unbearable, the mental anguish, and awful physical sensations just like those for the heroine addict coming down. I am actively fighting the urges to go back despite the pull, by reminding my self I am lovable and have value, despite my ex’s attempts to slowly erode my self-esteem. Knowing others have experienced and overcome the same situation is of tremendous comfort and support! Thank you again, Vivian!

  • Lisa Crowe

    Shockingly close to my story. And I just moved 3000 miles across the country so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back, again. Thank you for your words. I still have so much more work to do on myself, and so much left to feel and accept. But I think I’m on the right path, and your words have given me hope and strength. Thank you.

  • Katieb

    Thank you so much for this article. It resonates so deeply and perfectly describes my current difficult situation.
    I still feel sad for my partner, though, he is incapable of love (both giving and receiving) and I now realise his future (not mine) will be forever thwart with anger, pain and suffering. I am currently veering through a multitude of emotions, anger, deep sadness, weeping and some numb form of peace. At times, I feel incapable of recovering, heavy, listless and even incapable of moving. Like the author, I make sure I do something special for myself each and every day and take great comfort in the little, simple pleasures life affords us.
    If you are suffering similar difficulties, please know that things can improve and you can feel stronger. Yoga has helped very much and the breathing exercises alone can calm a spinning mind and relax a tense body.
    My thoughts are with you, whoever and wherever you are.

  • Anonymous

    It may be worth pointing out (especially for those reading) that if you treat your partner with love and respect instead of someone who is broken and needs fixing, then he/she may not react and eventually play this role of an “abusive” partner.

    A relationship goes two ways, putting the blame on your partner without fully recognizing your own makes you no different than your abusive partner blaming you for things.

  • Katieb

    Why is the word abusive encased in commas?

    And playing the role of abuser? What do you mean by that? A person either is abusive towards his/her partner or not. Are you saying that a person suffering abuse is not being loving and respectful enough? That is incorrect, the person abusing is solely responsible for their actions, certainly in the eyes of the law.

  • Jerry Martin

    I see my daughter going through this same kind of relationship. He is narcissistic, controlling her every move but never being the one in the wrong. The last time he grabbed her by the throat and she called the police. It was all about his not having “his” french onion dip. Really? Of course every time he is called on it, it is her fault, he did nothing wrong, he spends the night in jail, he changes her mind, and he is home again because he has been “humbled” by the experience. And this happens every 3 or 4 months. When I try to help, I am told “its not my place”. I am at the point of no longer caring, building a wall around my heart and mouth so I don’t “interfere”. I only hope she will see what is happening before he hits rock bottom and takes it out on her. What else can I do?

  • Vivian

    Thank you for your feedback. That thawing out period, where you feel every emotion under the sun is hard. But once you get through it to the other side, life can become wonderful. Glad to hear you are on the road to recovery.

  • Vivian

    Thank you for your comment. Take one day at a time, one step at a time and keep going in the direction towards recovery. It will get better, even if at times you might feel like you are going backwards again. Healing takes time. But it is worth it. My life is so different now you wouldn’t recognise it.

  • Vivian

    I’m so glad to hear this and thank you so much. My friend once said to me ‘it’s like a plant … don’t put water on it and it will eventually wither’. She’s right. Resisting the urge is so hard. But if you don’t feed that addiction, it does start to ease and die away. The only way for me to do this was to go cold turkey and have zero contact. And to fill my life with people who validated and supported me until I got through it. Keep going, you’ll get there and life on the other side is so much more amazing than you’ll ever have with that person.

  • Vivian

    Thank you again. It was a long time ago now, so I’ve had lots of healing since. I’ve since found a very healthy long-term relationship with a man who is available to me. My life bears no resemblance to what it was back then. There is life after abuse and it can be wonderful.

  • Vivian

    Thank you. I am so glad it is helpful. I had to go cold turkey. It was very hard, but the only way for me. The withdrawal and gamut of emotions you’ll feel will be overwhelming at times. But once you get through it to the other side life can be amazing. Mine is incredible now. I’m writing every week on this subject on my blog, which may be helpful to you too x

  • Vivian

    It can happen to men too, sadly. I grew up in a loving, supportive environment too, with no history of this. I’m glad you are getting help. I needed support to recover and heal.

  • Bret Jahnke

    Thank you so much for your validation. Sending Aloha your way.

  • Christy

    What a powerful story, Vivian. I can see myself there, though, fortunatelly, physical abuse has never knocked on my door. I lost my voice, the one I realized I never really had, and was called a liar, for not giving him what he explicitly told me he needed. I promissed to help him, but I did it the way I could, not the way he wanted. We have a lovely son and I feel trapped. From time to time he says he is leaving and I feel powerless, like a child. I think we do not belong together, I’m no good for him and he is no good for me. So hard… Anyway, thank you so much for sharing it!

  • Thank you for sharing Vivian! I could have written this story myself. After 4 years of being addicted to an emotionally unavailable and abusive man, I broke free and haven’t looked back. I’ve done a lot of work over the last 2 years to build up my self-esteem and truly realize my own worth. When I was riding this emotional rollercoaster, I felt so isolated because no one understood how I could keep going back to such a dysfunctional and abusive relationship. You really summed up the reasons in your story. My advice for people trying to break free from this type of relationship is to spend more time working on yourself and quit trying to fix them. This will give you the strength and clarity to move on quickly and decisively. We are all worth it!

  • Kate

    Check out Ross Rosenberg on YouTube. He’s an expert on the Narcissist:Codependent dynamic and will explain why codependents ALWAYS go for narcs 🙁

  • Leeann

    God bless you Vivian

  • Vivian

    Thanks for sharing your story with me too. Glad you are a survivor like me.

  • Vivian

    Thank you so much. I hope you can find the strength and courage to look after yourself. If you can, perhaps try and get some help and support. I couldn’t have done this alone.

  • Thomas

    There are a few points that I would like to touch upon with respect to evolve this blog.

    1. Has anyone here heard of the ‘Celestine Prophecy’ and the ‘intimidator-victim’ dance whereby the more one expresses one of these energies it naturally brings out its polar opposite.

    2. What’s the difference between a man (because abusive women were not discussed in this blog) that is moody (which is perfectly normal) and one that is abusive and/or may occasionally lose his shit and then calm down? What are the boundaries here between abuse and general moodiness because EVERY human has that? Is it not down to pure subjectivity?

    3. What about people in relationships who are passive aggressive (sulking, ignoring, poison dripping, twisting the psychological knife, goading etc). Is that abuse? Add to that, those people that do the more subtle abuse and then, when their victim barks, turn into the victim themselves as a means of control and so manipulating the situation into some power gain.

  • Koukla

    I couldn’t believe when I saw the title to this post…I am in this exact situation..I can finally see my husband for who he really is and I know now he does not love or care for me at all…I am in the process of leaving him. I have to wait and be cautious as he is violent and vindictive and I am afraid of what he may do to me if he discovers I am planning to leave. Reading this story has given me the encourgament and also comfort in knowing there is life after abuse. Thank you