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Q&A: Getting Over An Abusive Ex

Dear Dr. Brit and Amy B.,

I just got dumped from a 9-year relationship with someone who emotionally abused me. You’re probably thinking, ‘Great! You just dodged a bullet.’ And that’s what all my friends say, but I don’t believe it. I want him back, and if he called me up right now and said, “I’m sorry,” I would forgive him. It scares me that I’m that hooked, that I might miss out on being with someone amazing, and that I might hurt myself because I am so unhappy I can’t eat, sleep or go to work. Please help me get over this controlling person that I still adore so I can finally start living my life.

Sincerely, 

On the Hook

 

Dear On the Hook,

The first step to overcoming an addiction is admitting you have one, which you’ve done, and that’s great. You know you’re on the hook and you don’t want to be on the hook anymore. If you asked us something about how to get your abusive ex back, that would indicate a setback, but instead you’ve taken the first step by wanting to get over your ex.

The person who dumped you did you a favor, though your emotions may tell you otherwise at this stage in recovery. This is completely understandable for many reasons. For one thing, being socially rejected–even by someone whose opinion of you doesn’t matter–hurts. Your brain registers it the same as if you had been physically hurt. In addition to this physiological response, you’re probably feeling withdrawal from oxytocin, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. These brain chemicals generate feelings of reward associated with being bonded to another person. When a bond is broken unexpectedly, you experience a stress response, in which your sympathetic nervous system puts you in ‘fight or flight’ mode. (Here are some tips from Dr. Brit on getting through this period.)

The dumping may have been the end to a long roller coaster ride of ups and downs with your ex. Erratic relationships, swinging between bad and good times, can have similar effects of new love addiction. When things are going well, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine generate feelings of pleasure and reward. You’re delighted to not be in conflict and hopeful things will stay this way, even if fear of abuse nags at you. When your relationship becomes dysfunctional again, pleasure chemicals plummet, leaving you miserable and hopeless; you’re an addict without her drug. Right now, you may be waiting for another ‘up’ that will not arrive.

Another reason why you’re feeling such intense grief is that you were with this person for nine years. Depending on how old you are, this could be a large chunk of your adulthood. Not only will you need to grapple with the loss of a partner (even if a shitty one), but you have to figure out what your new identity will be without this person. You have to grieve not only the loss of a relationship but the loss of your previous life and previous self. Take solace in the fact that you have friends who want what’s best for you and who will be with you as you craft your new self sans abuser. Foster these friendships, as the strength of social support is the number one predictor of how well a person can recover a psychological setback. Without a controlling boyfriend, you have freedom to be with your friends and to become the person you want to be.

You may be thinking, ‘But the person I want to be is his girlfriend!’ Is that really so? The pain you’re feeling right now may be lying to you. You may be wishing you could “fix” the breakup since you’ve already invested so much time in the relationship. You may be hoping to justify what seems like wasted years by continuing the relationship. This is an example of ‘escalation of commitment.’ But what would it be like to be with your ex for another year of your life? If you got back together, you would lose more time to find healthier, rewarding relationships. You’d lose more time to do other things that can enhance your life in the long run, like continuing education or picking up dancing. You’d invest more energy on something that is ultimately not good for you. You’ve already learned what you can from your ex. Now it is time to move on.

This is easier said then done. Unfortunately, if you’re still hooked on your ex right now, there’s no immediate cure for your affliction. This is a kind of pain you will have to go through, but know that grief over losing someone is a universal experience. You can become even more resilient by getting through it. Be kind to yourself right now. Don’t judge yourself. This grief will pass, even if it seems like it won’t.

Love,

Amy B. & Dr. Brit

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