Divorcing after Decades in an Abusive Relationship involves complex grieving. There is deep regret for staying so long, shame for not recognizing the abuse earlier, confusion, and a deep sense of betrayal and rejection. Then there is the incredible stress of divorcing an abusive spouse who manipulates the legal system to further abuse and stalk their partner, even if the abusing partner asked for the separation. These are “difficult divorces,” known as contentious divorces in legal circles. There is deep grief over the long years spent in a painful relationship with little in the way of emotional nurturing. There is deep grief over having much less time to create a satisfying new life and doubt and fear about their ability to create a new relationship that is loving.
Many of the participants have voiced the fear that they were the only one who stayed in an abusive relationship so long. The mirror effect of group is highly effective in breaking down the shame, isolation, and confusion shared by members. Group members sometimes exclaim, “Are you sure you didn’t marry my husband?” Group members benefit by learning ways to cope with abusive behavior during and after the divorce. And group members increase compassion for themselves as they feel compassion for each other’s suffering.
Typically, the abuser has mental health issues – often a personality disorder. The attachment issues of being abandoned, neglected, and abused at an early age fuel the persecutory behavior of the abuser during and after the divorce. People with personality disorders are deeply conflicted about attaching to another person. To the outside world the abuser may look very normal, but inside the relationship, the old terrors fuel abusive behavior. This is of course a sad, unfortunate situation for both parties and any children involved.
Unfortunately, people with personality disorders can be highly resistant to change. Because the abusive partner may look wonderful* to the outside world, the abused partner may not be believed when she* shares her difficulties. This further serves to isolate the abused partner. Inside emotionally abusive relationships, the abuse is relentless (although sometimes subtle) and abused partners can find themselves in a painful, isolating Catch-22. Group breaks down the sense of isolation and helps heal the pain.
Group counseling can help members to see these patterns and break through the confusion and brain washing in ways that are hard to do through individual counseling alone, although a combination of individual and group counseling is ideal for healing. No longer confused, group members can see themselves more clearly, separate themselves from the abuse, and start reclaiming their worthiness and identity.
*Men can be in emotionally or otherwise abusive relationships too. Personality disorders are fairly common among men and women. I see men in my practice who are in emotionally abusive relationships. Sometimes, they join the Circle of Healing group. In some cases, both parties have personality disorders or other complex mental health issues.
*Wonderful: Under close examination, this perception by the abused partner often doesn’t hold out as the abuser often has friends that have serious issues, may have acquired a number of enemies, and be involved in unethical behavior. The abuser is perceived as wonderful by his/her group of friends, which the client sometimes shares and may lose in the divorce.