The Real Reason You Can't Get Over Your Emotionally Abusive Ex

The hardest part isn't breaking up — it's what happens after.

Ten years after experiencing the hardest breakup up of her life, *Ani, a writer, speaker and domestic violence advocate, sat facing the man who used to build her up and destroy her all at the same time. They reconnected four months prior when she had sent out a text via group messaging app Whatsapp wishing her friends with Oct. 24th birthdays well. Though he had hurt her all those years ago, she included him in the group chat. A way to put those years of therapy, which had taught her that the easiest way to heal was to forgive, to the test.

"Wow, thanks," responded the now-stranger.

"No problem," she replied. 

And that was that. Until it wasn't. A short time later, Ani changed her avatar and received a second text from him: "Nice pic."

Soon, the two were texting back and forth when he asked her if it would be weird if he still sometimes thought about her. She said no, it wouldn't. Their conversations continued on and off until months later, when Ani found herself willingly sitting at a table across from the man who hurt her all those years ago. The man who, according to Ani, was a pathological liar and master manipulator; who left her depressed, anxious, and bedridden for months; and whose name she could barely speak since their breakup in 2004. She says that over time — and months of self-help after struggles she had faced to let him go — he had lost the magical edge. But apparently not his gravitational pull or her need to know why. 

"I was curious. I was just very curious," Ani says of the encounter. "I didn't have expectations, except maybe a hope of getting a better understanding."

Most people wouldn't comprehend that seemingly desperate and pathetic hope, especially when it's to understand someone who has hurt another human being so badly. But victims of emotional and verbally abusive relationships know those feelings all too well. They know how just the thought of that person — no matter how far removed — can stop them dead in their tracks. Ani was no different.

"There are things that can bond stronger than love, and that's trauma," she says.

A Mental and Emotional Toll

Emotionally abused women, though their abuse isn't visible through physical scars, can experience post-breakup symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A study titled "Psychological Abuse: Implications for Adjustment and Commitment to Leave Violent Partners" found that the more PTSD symptoms a psychologically abused woman exhibits, the less resolve she'll have to leave, or in this case, get over her partner.

Symptoms such as anxiety and depression, as seen in Ani's case, can occur. But Rachel Sussman, a New York City-based relationship expert, says that more covert symptoms of trauma can also limit an emotionally abused woman's ability to lead a mentally and emotionally stable life.

"You might misread signs in relationships and not realize if they're normal or not. If your emotionally abusive ex got mad at you every time you talked to a guy, you might feel like you're doing something wrong, even after the breakup," Sussman explains. "You may have obsessive thoughts about him. Even though you don't want to get back together, you can't stop thinking about him."

*Jenna, 35, and *Lilah, 22, both exhibited various versions of these symptoms following their emotionally abusive relationships. 

Jenna's ex-boyfriend would constantly belittle her. After a year and a half of getting told she wasn't sexy, after countless times she was dumped and then asked for forgiveness, after having her insecurities picked on, she started to believe this was the treatment that she deserved. She believed those hurtful words her ex had said about her to be true.

"Mentally, I took on a lot of those things that he said, things like not being sexy, [and] I held onto that," she says. "I spent a lot of time trying to prove to the world and myself that I was valuable." 

Post-breakup, between 25 and 30 years old, Jenna says her subsequent relationships felt invalid. She didn't have one serious relationship in that span.

"I think [my past relationship] had affected my self-worth, how I thought of myself, my self-trust" she says.

Lilah was also belittled in her emotionally abusive relationship and the way she was treated by her ex also shaped the way she was able to interact with new people she dated. Her ex, who she calls "S," had always threatened her when she tried to date other people and would constantly get angry with her for the most minor of offenses, from not wanting to have sex, hug or kiss, to the restaurant she wanted to go to. 

She blocked him on social media after they broke up, but he sent requests to connect with her on LinkedIn at least three or four times over the past two years.

"I have an uncomfortable feeling I can't shake for a week or two after," she says.

Unlike Jenna, who formed relationships with the same kind of negative person following her breakup, Lilah did find someone who she genuinely liked. But her abusive ex still haunts her.

Once while kissing her new boyfriend, she stopped suddenly, feeling extremely anxious. 

"The way he kissed reminded me of S," she says.

The Attachment

Ten years is a long time to harp on "why" things happened the way they did or obsess about the relationship — or person — over and over again. But for victims of emotionally abusive relationships, it's a common yet understated occurrence.

Unlike healthy relationship splits — where two parties may feel hurt but ultimately move on — emotionally abusive relationships can take a larger psychological toll. Sussman says this is because the abuser literally manipulates the abused person in the relationship to stick around until they're "through" with them.

"[The] guy is insecure, narcissistic. Charming in the beginning, goes above and beyond to court you" she explains. "Slowly there might be red flags: [He] gets jealous a lot. There might be little digs that make you feel insecure."

If the victim doesn't recognize the abusive signs, which they often don't because of the manipulation tactics of the abusive partner, the chances of the abused person having a clean break are slim. They're already emotionally attached.

People may think that once a victim leaves the relationship the hurt will end, but by that point, the damage may be done. If anything, the pain will get worse.

"It's a highly complex phenomena," Sussman says. "The victim is brainwashed by the abuser."

After all of the abuse, and subsequent breakup, Ani sat in her bed for months, depressed, eating Lucky Charms out of the box. She had her two children, then 14 and 9, order takeout, and every night they would eat disconnected from each other, watching "Law & Order." She cried every day. When the crying eventually stopped, she was still left with the why. She still felt like they belonged together.

"I felt like half of my soul had ripped away. He was that much a part of me," she says slowly over the phone. "Feeling like that was your soulmate and you lost your chance at utopia."

But the guilt didn't end there. For the next 10 years, she straddled the pain of losing someone who she felt was perfect for her, while not being able to trust others and also hating herself for not being strong enough to get over it.

"As women, we're socialized to fix things in relationships," Ani says, as if to justify her contradicting emotions. "There was an incredibly chemistry between us that I have never experienced before and the time since."

In her mind, she had invested so much time, love and energy, and lost.

Moving Forward

Despite more than half of women experiencing an emotionally abusive relationship in their lifetime, the inner turmoil a victim faces months, years, or even decades after the fact isn't widely talked about. But Sussman says the mental repercussions run deep, perhaps even deeper than physical ones.

"The scars that are mental and emotional are even worse," she explains. "If you have a battle scars, people can say, 'How can I help?' but if you're walking around perfect on the outside, but shattered on the inside, no one understands."

That's where treatment is key, otherwise, Sussman says, the disease can last forever.

Lilah had only been with her abusive partner for a few months, but the toll he took on her mental health is something she is still working to get over. Jenna's relationship started in 2004. And only now does she feel like she's starting to make headway on her self-worth.  

"It's constantly a process of letting go," she says.

Sussman would agree. She says that understanding why you remained in the poisonous relationship in the first place can help surface aspects about you that you need to fix. 

A 2006 study titled "The Effects of Forgiveness Therapy on Depression, Anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress for Women After Spousal Emotional Abuse" cited "forgiveness therapy" as a way for victims to overcome their trauma symptoms. Authors Gayle L. Reed and Robert D. Enright concluded that when victims let go of both self-blame and resentment in treatment, they were truly able to alleviate their depression and anxiety, and improve their self-esteem.

Sussman used the term "exposure therapy."

"The best thing you can do is talk about it so much that it takes the strength out of it," she says. "If you talk through [it] over and over and over again, you realize you're in control. It takes the power away from that person. He can't hurt you anymore."

Ani engages in exposure therapy (and regular therapy, too) through speaking, writing and advocating on behalf of survivors of both emotional and physical abuse. In doing so, she has begun to overcome the deep yet mentally crippling connection to her ex, who she says for years prior haunted her like a ghost. But it wasn't until their dinner date last year that she was truly able to be set free.

As she listened, really listened, to him speak at that table — about how his marriage had failed and why he thought so — she was finally able to discern the truth. She was finally able to recognize the very same patterns that caused her relationship with him to rise and fall.

"I realized that over the course of time, we were still dealing with that same fundamental issue. And I just got it. He is who he is," she told me. 

Ani then read a passage from her book on the subject, with one line standing out above the rest.

"Knowing why would not prevent the ship from spiraling down to its inevitable demise."

She left the dinner table that night and hasn't gotten back on the boat since.

*Names have been changed to protect the identify of the sources and those involved.