After Divorce: Disconnecting the Auto-Pilot Response to Domestic Abuse

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By Beth Cone Kramer, Senior Editor - November 18, 2015

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If you’ve spent any amount of time in an abusive relationship, divorce may seem like the end to painful and stressful times. Years after the divorce papers have been finalized, those fight or flight responses can be difficult to manage. You may still need to engage with that ex-husband (or ex-wife) when dealing with your kids or finances. As much as you try, the auto-pilot surge of anxiety continues when you face certain triggers. Will you ever be able to disconnect that auto-pilot response?

Stacy Kaiser, Editor at Large of Live Happy and licensed psychotherapist says, “You really need to get to know yourself and your triggers, as well as the after-effects, feelings, and behaviors that come with an abusive relationship. Get opinions from friends, a counselor. Be as thorough as possible, a detective for yourself.”

Advice about moving through an abusive relationship often includes forgiving the abuser, difficult to do when the abuse continues, albeit less frequently. Kaiser says forgiveness is healing – but suggests forgiving yourself instead of the abuser.

“Don’t beat yourself up for your response because you can’t help the kneejerk response. You’re conditioned to think, feel, or behave that way,” she says. “Forgive yourself for being in the relationship or having issues because of it.”

The therapist says recovery is about taking action steps to try to behave differently. For example, if you’re insecure or not trusting a relationship, push yourself to be more trustful within a healthier relationship. “You need to remind yourself that this is a new person with a clean slate,” she notes.

When those triggers come up, tell yourself, “Oh, here it is. This is happening now because I was in an abusive relationship.” Identifying and labeling the trigger behaviors helps diffuse the response.

If you’ve been at the receiving end of abuse, you’ll recognize the moment that feels like the aftermath of a fender bender, when each time you get behind the wheel after an accident you can sense a crash or aftershocks of an earthquake. Kaiser says we can’t help our emotional state but can work towards getting better.

“We can start to look at our mistakes but there’s a fine line between asking yourself what you could have done differently so you don’t repeat what you’ve done versus beating yourself up and criticizing yourself,” she adds.

The therapist shares about an interview she did on her podcast. “I interviewed a woman who was married to a guy with 150 different personalities, some of which were abusive. She was articulate and intelligent. I asked her why she stayed and she said she was emotionally caught up in his problems and wanted to help. She had a black belt but never fought back. Now, she sees how he almost killed her.”

Kaiser also had a patient in her practice who was married to a husband who would hit her. “She’s now dating a guy who talks with his hands. When her boyfriend’s hand pops up, she jumps. I tell her to try to avoid jumping and to tell herself this is a new guy who just happens to talk with his hands.”

Kaiser recommends if you’re trying to heal from past abuse to surround yourself with supportive people and a positive community, not those who point a finger at you. “Take a deep breath and shift the focus to something positive. This is part of what happened when you’ve been in a bad place. You’ll stay in that place if you don’t shift the focus,” she says. “Try to direct your attention on the good things in life now that you’re out of the situation, that you were brave and moved forward.”

She says it’s normal to be angry at the person who ruined certain moments. Let yourself be angry for a moment but know that you’re out of that life now. Maybe you have a great job or wonderful kids and terrific friends. Shift the focus to be grateful.

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