Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been in an on/off relationship with an older man. He’s charming, sexy, funny, and clever. On a good day we have such a loving, meaningful connection; we’ve supported each other through hard times, and bonded over our miserable childhoods. I really feel that I love him. But sometimes he is patronising, manipulative, disrespectful, and downright cruel, and I wonder if I even know him at all.
The relationship runs in a cycle where we get close, he panics and pushes me away, I push him to let me back in, he gets angry, we fight, he refuses to speak to me, I apologise, we make up, and it all begins again. Each cycle gets shorter, and each fight escalates, and they have recently become violent. In the most recent incident, he slapped me across the face so hard that I fell down, I got back up and shoved him, and he raised his fist, but stopped before actually punching me. He said that I wanted him to beat me up, so I could show off the bruises…
It’s been a while since the last fight, we’re back in touch, but haven’t met up yet. I can’t get him off my mind. I feel like I’m addicted to him. It’s so frustrating and confusing. He makes me unhappy, and unstable, and destroys my self-worth, but I keep going back for more.
I know enough to see that this is unhealthy and abusive. This isn’t the kind of relationship I want, or deserve, and obviously it can’t continue. I would tell a friend to cut all ties, and move on. But it’s easier said than done; I still love him, and want things to work out.
What should I do?
• • •
Dear Brave Correspondent,
I read a very interesting article recently about OxyContin addiction, and why it’s so prevalent. The article explains that the manufacturer insists that doctors prescribe it for 12-hour usage (because that’s what they staked their patent on) but that it doesn’t actually last that long, so people are constantly experiencing withdrawal and then relief cycles, and that this—not the drug but the intense peak-and-trough situation—is what triggers the addictive behavior. And so, when you write in your letter that you feel as though you are addicted to this man, my initial reaction is to say “Yes, that sounds right.”
The experience of feeling relief is powerful. The swoony-sweetness of new love, or newly invigorated love, is delicious. Those things are working against you here, though, I’m afraid—they are poking the pleasure centers of your brain and making your parasympathetic system associate him with Very Good Feelings. Also with bad feelings, but the nature of addiction is that we remember the pleasure of relief more clearly than the pain that preceded it. This is obviously not the only thing at work, but it’s a relevant thing.
It seems pretty evident, Brave Correspondent, that you know this is not good for you. You know it isn’t healthy. And yet, you are having some trouble taking the step of telling him to fuck the entire fuck off with his gaslighting and violence and meanness and never come near you ever again, ever. So, let’s talk about why.
There are some prevalent myths about intimate partner violence, and the one that I find the most infuriating and counterproductive is the trope of the victim who is too weak to leave. In my experience, it takes a tremendous amount of strength, savvy, and resilience to continue to exist in a violent or abusive relationship. One theory I have about why some people have trouble leaving is that they are super competent, capable people who are convinced that there is some way they can make their relationship, or indeed their partner, less awful by better management of situation, more careful attention to details, or possibly sheer force of will.
It makes sense that you’d think so, especially if you are a person who is often very effective in the rest of your life, but the secret trap here is that your partner is not just resisting change, he is actively resisting your competence. He is working against not just your goals but also your sense of self-worth that is derived in part from handling things. He—like abusers generally do—wants for you to feel small, or stupid, or worthless. It serves his need for power and control. So no matter what you do, even if it is the most Correct thing in the history of all things, he wants you to be wrong—and to feel wrong—so much that he will change his tactics in order to keep you wrong. It serves him.
Another relevant myth is that if we love the person who abuses us we are somehow at fault, or we are insufficiently put-upon to really be “abused,” or some other nonsense. But the fact is, Brave Correspondent, that if you didn’t have feelings of love for him you would have handed him his hat and shown him the door some time ago. It may even be that he has feelings of love for you. Another equally relevant fact, though, is that love has to be much more than a feeling for a relationship to work—it has to be an action item, every day. We can love our partners, friends, children in many ways; there’s even the concept of “love languages” to help people discuss what love actions most make them feel loved. They can be a mix of big ways and small ways, they can ebb and flow as people have more time or more challenges… all those variations are valid and expected. Love is present in all of them and that is how relationships thrive: by being willing to do the things, grand or mundane, that love someone. It can mean taking on the bill-paying so they don’t have to do it anymore or stocking their fridge the day before they come home from a long trip—these are just as much ways of loving someone as sending a grand arrangement of flowers.
Being hit or threatened are not.
It may also be helpful to think less about unhealthy (or healthy) relationships, but unhealthy or healthy relationship behaviors. It’s not that the relationship is always unhealthy, but that there are significant relationship behaviors that are reason enough to end it. This means you are not arguing about the totality of the relationship and your shared history, either internally with yourself, or externally with him. Instead, you can focus on the pattern of unhealthy behavior that you need to not have in your life any longer.
Though to be honest, even as bad as physical violence is, the fact that he said he thought you wanted him to beat you up so you could show off your bruises is the most chilling part of your letter. That’s a kind of twisted thinking that suggests a profoundly manipulative person seeing manipulations everywhere.
The fact is, Brave Correspondent, that this is not going to improve. You are going to have to figure out how to break this cycle. Worse, people who know what’s up may say things like “Good riddance to bad rubbish!” and imagine that you’ve, I don’t know, changed your phone number and fled him under duress, not that you’re struggling with how difficult it is to just sit and suffer in the painful part of the cycle, denying yourself the possibility of that sweet relief. That sucks, and I am sorry in advance. But listen: you have to do this. You are worth doing this, and the awful pain that makes you feel like surely you should be able to die of something that hurts so much will not actually kill you. Things will improve glacially and irregularly but they will improve. At some stage, you’ll stop yearning to figure it out one more time. You will stop feeling love for him. It will get easier. Not right away, you will kind of have to do the emotional thing of detox and it is awful and if you have a good enough friend you might want to ask them to take you away camping beyond reach of cell phones for a bit. This will help you break your craving but also, as soon as he sees that you’ve stopped trying to win him back again, he is going to turn on all that charm and humor to get you back on the hook. That’s his game. To assert his power. To gain control.
Resist it at all costs, Brave Correspondent. Resist with every fiber of your being. Do not go back there. You can do this, and you should, and we both know it, and now all that’s left is to turn the action of love toward your very own precious self, as you deserve.
Love and courage,
P.S. if it turns out that it takes another cycle, or two more or three more, until you can get free for good, don’t beat yourself up about it. Addictions are powerful, and we humans are complicated creatures. It can be hard to admit that we cannot change a dynamic or situation we have determined to change. Letting go of this doesn’t make you weak any more than dropping a hot pan does. Sometimes, strength and intelligence means letting go of something before it can do you any more harm. I’m just saying.
For this reader and anyone else in an abusive relationship, Bear recommends two resources for support, guidance, and information: Scarleteen is a great community dedicated to promoting healthy relationships for teens and The Network/La Red is a survivor-led organization committed to ending partner abuse.