Healthy Healing vs. Critical Complaint: Talking Openly about Intimate Partner Violence
Talking to supportive friends can help you triumph through your journey from victim to survivor.
I’ve received so many grateful emails about my article, “His Ex Was Monstrous … She Made Him into a Monster” that I decided a follow-up post was in order. Most of the messages I received were from readers sharing similar stories, and how they came to realize that something was seriously wrong with their partner. After all, a normal, empathetic, and cognitively-stable person doesn’t demonize others—no matter what the other person supposedly did. A normal, cognitively-stable person doesn’t obsess over what others did to them to the point of it interfering regularly with their lives. A normal, cognitively-stable person doesn’t make sure everyone knows how monstrous their ex was and how it negatively affected them—unless they’re chronically looking for a scapegoat to excuse away their own behavior.
Other messages I received contained questions, most of which can be summed up like this: “I’ve told my friends about the bad things my ex did to me. Does that mean I have an abusive personality, too?”
While I can’t say for certain since I don’t know each of you individually, the fact that you’re asking the question in the first place—and are genuinely concerned—is a clear indication of the answer:
No, you are not abusive.
There are several key distinctions between unloading on your friends about how your ex mistreated you, and playing the victim by chronically demonizing him to anyone who will listen. The key thing to remember is this: motive matters.
One concerned reader asked me, “My girlfriends and I went out for drinks the other night, and I felt relaxed enough to tell them everything—even the worst things he did. Now I feel horrible, like I betrayed him or something. I’m also afraid I’m becoming like him.”
The first thing that struck me about this message was that author experienced regret, remorse (whether warranted or not), and a fully-developed, empathetic conscience. Those are not the reactions of an abuser.
Secondly, I urged my reader to ask herself why she unloaded on her friends. Did she need to release, to let out her grief to trustworthy and supportive people? If so, what she did was healthy and normal. She’s not abusive. She’s processing the damage of abuse so she can heal and get on with her life.
On the other hand, did she say those things to try to put a victimization frame around her own bad behavior? Did she want to make her ex look all-bad so she could look all-good in front of everyone? Did she want others to hate him? If so, I urged her to take a deep, serious look at her motives, and seek further healing from the trauma she’s endured.
Understanding your own motives can give you greater clarity into your abuser’s motives.
I also encouraged her take a hard look at who she’s talking to. Is she telling a supportive loved one who can help her heal and give solid advice, or is she telling a potential new partner she barely even knows? Is she gossiping to co-workers and other casual acquaintances, or is she careful to keep her private life private with people she isn’t particularly close to? What about her children, is she burdening them with negative stories?
Another thing that’s a huge red flag indicating an abusive personality—and sadly an all too common one—is telling children about the bad behavior of their other parent. It doesn’t matter if the kids are five or twenty-five—to bring them into the marital dispute in any way, at any time, is a form of emotional and psychological child abuse. It’s an attempt to pit one parent against another, an attempt to put yourself at the top. Would you do that to your children? Hopefully your answer is no. If you would pit your children against their other parent by “kindly” telling them private matters of your past relationship—Stop, immediately!1
It doesn’t matter if your children are five or twenty-five—to bring them into your marital dispute in any way is a form of emotional and psychological abuse.
If you’re open and brutally honest about your own actions, someone else’s may become even more clear to you. Here are a few more questions you can ask yourself:
Do you chronically complain about your ex every chance you get? Do your friends get tired of hearing stories about how horrible he is, over and over?
Do you demonize him?
Are you still openly obsessing about your relationship years, even decades later?
Do you blame him for all your problems, and take no responsibility for your own actions and choices?
Do you blame him for everything that went wrong in your past relationship, without exception, as if you were all-good and he was all-bad?
Do you talk negatively of him to anyone, not just to trusted friends but to co-workers, acquaintances, and other people you’re not particularly close to?
Do you make it a point to convince your family and friends what a monstrous person he is?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then I urge you to take a deeper look at yourself and reach out for further healing. We’ve all been through a lot. Healing is a slow, yet glorious, process—if you open yourself up to discovering all aspects of yourself, good and bad, and clear away the cobwebs of those habits and ideas that are toxic to healthy living. Erase … Create Soul Space.
However, if you don’t feel the need to demonize your ex as a way of gaining sympathy, portraying yourself as the victim, or as an attempt to convince others of how horrible he is, then you have a healthy mindset that’s conducive to healing from your domestic abuse journey. Talking honestly about your anguish in a balanced way and with loving, close friends is one thing; obsessively demonizing your ex is another. People demonize others when they feel insecure, vulnerable, and filled with shame. They have a fragile sense of self, and attempt to compensate for it in negative and damaging ways. Most of the survivors I’ve spoken with, although deeply hurt and traumatized by their (ex) partner’s abusive patterns and horrific behaviors, still stress to me that there’s good inside him (somewhere), waiting to come out—if he’ll let it. They tell me he needs help, but won’t change until he admits all aspects of his abusiveness (which often never happens, except for those who have the courage to authentically seek healing). Even individuals who have left a toxic relationship in anger and frustration don’t turn to the black-and-white thinking of demonizing him and chronically slandering him.
Domestic violence survivor, advocate, and author Natalie Collins points out, “Where someone has children from a previous relationship and communicates with them about their mother in negative ways, this can be a form of domestic abuse known as maternal alienation, which causes significant continuing trauma to children and their mother” (Out of Control: Couples, Conflict and the Capacity for Change, 45). The phrase “maternal alienation” was coined by Australian DV researcher Ann Morris. “Maternal alienation occurs in a context of violence against women and children, whereby perpetrators of abuse try to destroy the relationship between children and their mother. Research shows that maternal alienation is used as a strategy of abuse across a continuum of violence and abuse, which includes child sexual abuse, and domestic violence. It is a form of emotional abuse that is used in conjunction with other types of abuse to enforce secrecy, maintain power and control, injure and punish” (“Working With Maternal Alienation in Domestic/Family Violence and Child Sexual Abuse, https://cwasu.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Working-with-Maternal-Alienation.Practitioner_Resource2.pdf).