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“How I Recognized an Abusive Relationship from the Inside”

“Sometimes, this tendency to put our needs last stems from a lifetime of criticism and failure. Many of us are told over and over again (often by an abuser), that we are lazy or irresponsible or not worthy of love. Eventually, we come to believe it. And so when someone promises to love us, we will do almost anything to keep that love.”

I broke up with one ex-girlfriend 14 times over 5 years before I realized how deeply and habitually I was being manipulated. Over the course of that dozen or so breakups, and the years of finally getting over it afterward, I came to see that I was in an abusive relationship. But like other adults with ADHD who throw themselves fully and wholly into relationships, I was blinded by my own desire (fueled by low self-esteem, no doubt) to never let down my partner.

I wanted desperately to be the good guy. But staying in an abusive relationship didn’t make me a hero. She was having a bad time for reasons out of my control and I wanted to save her, but staying just made my life hard for years longer than it had to. And, in the end, she destroyed and abandoned me during the only time I ever really needed her.

What I learned from this relationship was invaluable: You don’t have to suffer just because someone else is in a bad place.

Adults with ADHD commonly struggle to gain and retain others’ trust; despite this, we’re very trusting and loyal to others. We’re also incredibly forgiving and tend to let go of negative incidents in an effort — subconscious or not — to be a peacemaker or people pleaser, not truly appreciating the damage we are accumulating.

Sometimes, this tendency to put our needs last stems from a lifetime of criticism and failure. Many of us are told over and over again (often by an abuser), that we are lazy or irresponsible or not worthy of love. Eventually, we come to believe it. And so when someone promises to love us, we will do almost anything to keep that love.

But abuse never stems from love; abuse stems from disrespect and disregard. Abusive behavior may include making the victim feel consistently guilty for ADHD-related mistakes, and utilizing that guilt-driven narrative to maintain control. Abuse is not the same as a fight. Abuse begins when a partner won’t drop an issue after it’s been resolved. Abuse escalates when you find yourself crying because of your partner’s consistently hurtful behavior and feeling powerless to stop it or responsible for it when you aren’t.

[Read This Next: ADHD Self-Doubt, Shame & Gaslighting]

In my experience, abuse comes in short- and long-term moves, like consistently dismissing your truth or views when you try to express yourself, or telling you you’re always wrong or confused when you’re actually not. Sometimes an abuser will sprinkle in some drama, sex, and emotional blackmail to throw you further off course. Over time, you grow increasingly submissive to their views, or you just lose the energy to deal with their crap if you set your own boundaries, and thus give them authority.

It’s so important to recognize that bullying language: regular threats and shut downs whenever you bring up an unresolved issue. If it’s unresolved, then it’s not “all in your head”; it’s both of your problem.

“Harsh truths” that are typically extremely personal criticisms that “you can learn from” make them the teacher and you the student, especially when they won’t hear any back. These “truths” actually just further destroy your self-esteem and needlessly expose your insecurities to make them steal the spotlight from the actual issue. You’re not “in denial” about your personal flaws; there are just some battles that you don’t have to fight, and ones that someone who really loved you would never insist upon.

Despite what they may say, your partner is not the only one who will be “honest” with you. Family and friends care about your long-term wellbeing. Check in with them, even if you’re worried they will judge your relationship.

[Click to Read: After the Shame: How to Re-Center Your Bruised Emotions]

Abusive relationships happen for all sorts of reasons, and not every abuser is inherently evil. In my experience, abuse stems from insecurity. Your first instinct might be to try to fix your partner and resolve their problems, but you actually can’t because it’s not your problem or fault. When they fall, you can’t wish away your partner’s scraped knee and when they act abusively, you can’t love away their insecurities.

Memories and Self-Blame

Sometimes, we allow abuse to go on too long because the abuser is linked to happy memories of a good person we loved for a lot of good reasons. But memories are past events. Nothing more. Use your ADHD power to feel what’s happening in the now.

At the same time, accept that you will drop the ball sometimes, too. It’s normal and it’s OK to mess up small things. It’s OK to not text back immediately. It’s OK to run late and apologize for it. It’s OK to actually have your own space. It’s not OK for them to hold that against you and it sure doesn’t match up to them cheating on you.

If you fear that you are in a psychologically abusive relationship, here is my advice for gaining perspective and the strength to put yourself first:

  • Write everything down. Take the time you need to reflect and write down your feelings, THEN form your own opinion or argument.
  • Don’t jump to respond when they trigger strong emotions. Sit in your feelings. The longer you give it, the better you’re able to see the whole image of what’s happening.
  • Don’t blame your ADHD and don’t let them do it either. Just because you have ADHD traits doesn’t mean you are an irrational actor or an idiot in every situation.
  • Don’t let them go through your phone or social accounts and don’t go through theirs. If you’re looking for dirt, you will always find it. This behavior only leads to insecurity and drama. It also shows a lack of trust, which is as big a problem. You both have a right to private conversations. If you suspect they’re spying on you, change your passwords and log out of all devices.
  • It’s OK to have things that are personal to you or private from them. Friends, a hobby, or even a different gym.
  • Owe no debts. Pay people back quickly and secure a reliable record so they can’t take advantage.
  • If you feel threatened or trapped, get out of there. If they keep reacting in extreme ways (the silent treatment, violence, continually digging at you, withholding affection, etc.), disengage. Women, never forgive or excuse physical violence. Men, don’t let a woman slap and scratch you just because they know you’re bigger and won’t fight back. There’s no shame in walking away from a fight; no one deserves to be hit or hurt.
  • Turn off your phone if they’re blowing it up. Phones are an easy leash and a major life distraction and addiction. You don’t have to tell them exactly where you are, just that you’re safe and need space until you are ready to re-engage. Dictate a time when you will get back to them and turn off the phone.
  • You aren’t incapable of functioning without them. You were a fully functioning individual before, and you still are.
  • Misery loves company and craves empathy. Their feelings are not your problem or your fault. You get 70 years on this planet – how much of your time and energy do you want to spend fixing someone? Get them a therapist; don’t become one.
  • What you do should never be held over you for longer than it takes to resolve the issue through a discussion, some cool-off time and a practical and amicable plan to move forward to show that you’ve both listened to each other. You need not do what they want every time.
  • “I love you” does not dry tears and you do not deserve to cry. Neither does good sex or a few days of treating you well before returning to the same negative behavior. It’s also easy to forget that you never cried so much before you fell in that hole. Emotional pain can become addictive and overwhelming. It’s rarely therapeutic.
  • Relationships need to be 50/50. You are not selfish for having wants and needs. It’s respect and partnership, not supply and demand.
  • It’s OK to be friendly to strangers and other people. Laughing with a friend of the opposite sex doesn’t mean you can’t be trusted or that you’re a disloyal cheat.
  • Stop making up the middle ground. If someone is doing something that makes you feel suspicious or upset, communicate that and insist that they take you seriously. Without respectful listening, a relationship cannot survive.
  • You could just be annoying them that day because … well, ADHD. It’s part of your very positive and lovable package, but there are always going to be days when your ADHD blows up, and that’s not you or your fault. You deserve to be loved for both the good and the bad days. You deserve to be taken as you are – a whole and inherently wonderful person.

Abusive Relationships and ADHD: Next Steps

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