The People of the Mind

As if it wasn’t hard enough to deal with the people who hurt you, you also have to deal with their representatives you carry around in your head. Actual people you can divorce, send to jail, move across the country and never see again; the people of the mind follow you, they share your bed despite divorce. Regardless of orders of protection, they dog your footsteps, day and night. It’s imperative you find a way to cope with these imaginary people or they will do you more harm than the real ones ever could. Continue reading

Take Out the Garbage

I once facilitated a group for people recovering from severe mental illnesses. We met once a week and they talked about how things were going for them. They tried to support each other. One day a member of the group came in and said his landlord was going to evict him if he failed to clean his apartment. Landlords can do that if the apartment is really bad. We knew that just talking about it and offering moral support was not going to help him much, so, the next week, we all went to his place to help him clean. In the end, he got to keep his apartment and I got a story about letting go. Continue reading

The Re-Negotiated Relationship

Once you’re in a relationship with someone, you’ll always be in a relationship with that person. It’s like the Hotel California, you can never leave. I don’t care if you never speak to her again, if you move to the other side of the world, and put up a dartboard with her face on it; you’ll always be in relationship. There will always be a corner of your brain, I dare say, a corner of your heart, that has her name on it. Continue reading

Getting Closer by Separation

Look at the shoes you’re wearing. Your two shoes go together, they match. No one can say that they don’t. Even if you lose one and leave it behind in the road, they are still a pair of shoes.

Now tie them together, one to the other. Go ahead.

Now try to walk.

You’ll be able to do it. You’ll take short, mincing steps. If you had to walk that way, you could. If you lived in a world where everyone tied their shoes together that way and walked, you might not consider doing it differently. However, I think you’ll agree it’s not the best way to get around.

Go ahead and retie them the way they are supposed to be tied. This is the end of the demonstration.

Now think about your relationship with the person who hurt you. How tightly are you tied together? Continue reading

The Escape Plan Checklist

Every Problematic situation needs an escape plan. Escapes that are not planned tend to go awry, so plot your exit strategy beforehand. These are the elements of an escape plan to consider when a loved one has hurt you.

What would trigger the escape? 
The most important part of any exit strategy is figuring out when you might use it. What kind of event would put it into motion?

There are three kinds of triggering events and three corresponding exit strategies. The first kind of triggering event is when you just can’t take it anymore; when you’ve become emotionally flooded, on your last nerve, and ready to scream. You and your partner start off having a discussion, it’s turned into an argument, and next it’ll be a fight. You know that if you keep going, nothing good will come of it.

When this happens, you need to make a small escape. Take a walk, go for a drive, or even just be in separate rooms. It’s best not to make big decisions when you’re in this state; but little ones, like deciding to take a break, can make a big difference.

If your partner doesn’t let you take this kind of break; that proves your need to take it. It shows that the problem may be much more serious than you thought. Then, you’re going to need more time apart and higher security measures.

The second kind of triggering event is when there’s an escalation or a return of the harmful behavior. If your verbally abusive husband ever puts hands on you, you know that things aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse. Or if the recovering alcoholic starts drinking again: you know you’re in for another round of the same. Get out now, if only for a while, for your own safety, or because you always said you would.

The third kind of triggering event is when you see no improvement over a period of time. There haven’t been any dramatic scenes, only daily misery. He makes promises to take action against the problem, but fails to do so. He hasn’t gotten roaring drunk, or spent a thousand at the races, or threw another chair through a wall; but, if he hasn’t gotten the counseling he promised, if he still studies the racing pages, or if he hasn’t fixed the wall; then you may not want to hang around forever, waiting for the next shit storm. I would recommend setting a sell-by date like grocery stores do with milk.

If you’re going to use the sell-by date to motivate your partner to make changes, then it needs to be far enough in the future for her to make recognizable changes, but soon enough so she doesn’t forget it’s there. If you’re going to use the sell-by date to motivate yourself, then it’s helpful to put it at a natural turning point in your calendar like a birthday, New Year’s, or an anniversary. Sometimes it’s when the lease is up, when school gets out, when the children leave home, or at retirement. Women who want children may want to consult their biological clock when setting a sell-by date.

What’s the level of security you need?

The more danger there is, the more protection you’re going to need.

To determine the level of security, think about the worst your loved one has ever treated you. Just how controlling, insistent, intrusive, pestering, violent, and unable to take no for an answer can she be when you try to be independent? Imagine one click more. That’s the amount of danger and level of security you’ll need if you try to escape.
Therefore, if your partner is pretty easy going, figure on him being more than just piqued. If she’s given to verbal abuse, she’ll be making threats. If he’s already made threats, now you’ll see displays of anger. If you’ve seen holes in the walls and thrown objects, the next target will be your body. If she has put hands on you before, this time she’ll use weapons. If he’s already used weapons on you, now he’ll mean to kill.

The reason for this is the Problem. Remember, the Problem wants you involved. It ultimately wants to get its claws into you. If you’re leaving, even if it’s just to clear your head, it’ll double its efforts to keep you near. The person possessed by the Problem believes the Problem’s interests and his are the same, so he’ll act in concert with the Problem’s promptings.

Next, assess the comfort you have for these kinds of risks. If you’re a six-foot-four football player and your partner is a hundred pounds, soaking wet, then you can tolerate physical danger better than when it’s the other way around. If you’re the kind of person who can brush off insults, verbal abuse, and the mind games that are sometimes played, then it’s different for you than if you believe everything everyone says about you. If your financial status can accommodate losses, you can tolerate more risk than when you live hand to mouth.

Also, think about others who might go with you or help you escape. How much drama can they handle? A young child, or an older one with a case of the nerves, is not very well equipped to handle tension. They might be better off further from the Problem, too. If you’re staying with your mother and your mother is a nervous type who can’t handle your husband stalking you with a gun, you’ll need to take security measures you might not think necessary.

Will you tell him before you go?
Ideally, you should tell your loved one that you have to take a break before you do so. Not only is it common courtesy to keep her informed, but giving her a warning that you may leave could motivate her to turn against the Problem and make changes. But, the level of security will determine whether you can give her notice. If she’s likely to go ape shit and there are real risks, then it’s best if you leave a note and disappear when she’s not around.

Where would you go?

The level of security determines the distance you should put between yourself and the person who harmed you. You should go to a place where you are safe.

It could be as easy as going for a drive, taking a walk, or, even hanging out in another room. If you can go to these places without the person following you there, and can clear your head, and return refreshed, then that’s as far as you need to go.
But if she doesn’t permit you even that little space, then you need more of a break. You can approach the question of how far to go in degrees if you want: first by trying the walks, then, if that doesn’t work, by staying with your mother. If she follows you to your mother’s, then you’ve got to go further.

How long should you be gone?
The further you go, the longer you need to be gone; sometimes you need to be gone for good. In milder cases, like when you go for a walk to interrupt an argument, then twenty minutes is long enough as long as you don’t spend those twenty minutes rehearsing zingers. If you are, then you’re not ready to be back.

If you’re escaping to stay with someone else, then remember that fish and houseguests go bad after three days. If three days is not enough of a break, you either need another couch to surf or your own place.

When planning how much time you’ll need away, you should take into account the emotional progression your loved one, who you’re leaving, is likely to take. The initial reaction is often rage. She’ll feel betrayed by you. You won’t want to walk back in the door while she’s still steaming.

Next she may go through a period of self-pity and may do something self-destructive. If you come back then, you’re going to be roped into taking care of her. Resist the temptation to do this. Instead, wait for the point when she’s ready to take responsibility for her actions and has begun to make repairs. Notice I didn’t say when she makes promises to make repairs, but when she actually starts making them.

Depending on the level of security you need, and the level of pathology, you may need to prepare to be gone forever. If that’s the case, this road doesn’t go all the way to reconciliation, but it can take you as far as personal peace.

What should you take?

If the level of security is low, all you need are the usual things you take when you go for a walk or a drive. If it’s high, you should already have a bag with essentials packed. Keep it in the trunk of your car or at the place to where you might run. Put in that bag all the important things you’re going to need: a burner phone (he can trace yours), phone numbers, copies of keys, identification, and important papers and keepsakes. Since credit card use leaves a trail, you should have some cash saved up and stashed aside where he can’t find it. If there are items she might attempt to use as hostages like heirlooms, pets, or children, plan to take them. too. You don’t want to have any reason to go back unless you’re ready.

If the level of security is in the middle range, you may still want to pack a bag. It signals that you are determined to protect yourself. It fortifies you to take that step, if you need it.

Un-merge money
No one with a persistent problem in their relationship should have a joint checking or credit card account. In a sense, your money should escape his control before you do. Long before you leave your residence or end the relationship, if it comes to that, you should equitably split up assets and obligations. This is not only to facilitate your escape, if it comes to that; it’s also to keep the Problem from feeding off your financial assets, defines boundaries, and heads off future disputes.

Loans and mortgages that you have in common are another impediment if you try to escape. If it’s possible to terminate those obligations, then do so; but it’s not always possible. At the very least, avoid getting into any new ones. All the more reason to separate your other assets.

Who can you count on?

Except for when the level of security is low, part of your escape plan should include notifying or, at least identifying, allies and supports. Take inventory of who your real friends are, who you can call on to spend the night or take the kids while you keep an appointment. Choose the people you can trust who do not have a conflict of interest between you and your partner.

Take inventory of the support you can get from the community. Do you need an order of protection? Is there a probation officer who’d be interested in what he’s been doing? Do some research into the resources your region has in place for people in your predicament: homeless shelters, if it comes to that, women’s shelters, father’s rights organizations, and the like. Do you have a therapist you can bounce things off of? A church congregation that can send up some prayers? If divorce is part of your escape plan, then see an attorney before you decide to take that step, so you know what your rights and obligations will be.

How will you control communication after the escape?

You won’t want to go through all the trouble of leaving your home, only to have her pestering you wherever you go. Think about what you’ll need to do to control communication. Block his number or, if you need to be reminded of all the trouble that comes when you pick up the phone when she calls, change her name in your contact list to “Don’t Pick Up”. If your security needs are high, this might involve getting a new phone, changing your number, and not leaving a forwarding address. If things get verbally ugly, think about getting out of social networking sites for the time being, just so nastygrams don’t get posted there.

Part of devising a plan to control communication may be to give him a channel for communication. That’s what lawyers can be for, or mediators, or saintly relatives, if they’re willing to be put in the middle. Have your ex call them if he needs to get in touch with you. Set this up beforehand, while you’re formulating your plan. If your security level is lower, then you may not need to do this. In that case, set up regular times, places, or media to use to discuss matters.

How will you support yourself?

If you’re financially dependent on your partner or parent, then a crucial part of your escape plan will involve finding a way to support yourself. This is the time to get a job, if you don’t have one, and deposit your earnings into your own account. In addition to financing an escape, a job gets you out of the house, away from the Problem, and it gives you an opportunity to make new friends, who can be a support.

If you’re not able to work or you can’t find a job, then you’ll need to arrange other forms of financial support. This is the time to apply for welfare or disability.

What will you tell people?

I’ve found that one of the major things that holds people back from making their escape is that they don’t know what they would tell people who need to know. You don’t know how much to tell. You don’t know if you can tell it without breaking down. You’ve been saying everything is fine for so long, you don’t know how to admit there have been problems. You’re not even sure, yourself, if you have a good enough reason to leave.

It’s best to tell the truth to everyone, but you’re going to need at least two stories: a long version for the people you owe a full explanation and a short version for the others. You’ll need to make up your mind who really needs to know, versus the ones who are looking for food for gossip. If there are kids involved, you’ll need developmentally appropriate versions to tell them that don’t alienate them needlessly from their parent.

Having an exit strategy, and executing it is just a prudent, responsible thing to do. It doesn’t mean you don’t love the person. It means you love him too much to let him keep doing things he’ll regret.