Q: My ex-boyfriend was put in jail because he missed his court date regarding criminal charges he was facing for domestic violence. My family thinks this is a win for me because he has caused me such grief and heartache but I can’t help feeling so much guilt that he is in there. I know I didn’t force him to beat me or to miss his court case but, I just can’t help feeling sad for him. He tried to kill me but still, I feel sorry for him. –AV
Listen, tough love time. I think you need to re-read your letter to me, specifically the last sentence: “He tried to kill me.” (In journalism, we call this “burying the lead.”) This man didn’t just get angry one night and throw his dinner plate dramatically into a wall—though that type of temper is more than enough reason to kick him to the curb—he tried to end your life. He tried to murder you. It might help to say that aloud—my boyfriend wanted me to die.
Trauma-related guilt is a very real thing that survivors can experience. Trauma-related guilt is also a liar. It will tell you that you played some part in his abuse and just as you somehow caused it, you could have somehow stopped it. Let me make this very clear: THIS IS NOT TRUE.
How do I know it’s not true? Because at one point or another, most survivors have asked their partner who is abusing them to stop abusing them. And you know what? The abuser doesn’t stop. In fact, in many cases, the abuser escalates the abuse from control to intimidation to threats of violence to violence outright to, in some cases, homicide. Now, if survivors truly had some measure of control to stop it, wouldn’t the abuser have listened to their request?
Except abusers don’t. Abusers choose to abuse. No outside influence forces them to abuse. Drugs and alcohol don’t make them abuse. Previous trauma doesn’t force their hand to strike you. It’s an abuser’s choice each and every time.
This could make sense logically and still your heart can ache and tell you that you feel bad for this person. Maybe your brain is only reminding you of the good times the two of you had—and wouldn’t it be nice to get back to that?
Here’s something to keep in mind: those feelings may be the direct result of manipulation from your partner. According to Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, abusers have been known to turn on the charm after abusive and violent incidents in order to confuse their victims.
Abusive partners purposely spin a complicated web of cruelty and violence interspersed with loving acts. This manipulative pattern entraps their partners who think that if they can only ‘do better,’ they will be treated lovingly once again.”
Even locked up, your ex-boyfriend might be manipulating you into thinking this was somehow your fault. If only you hadn’t made him so mad. If only you hadn’t told someone, he could be “getting better” now. Your relationship could have a chance.
These kinds of accusations are a type of coercive control. According to Fontes, the side effects of this type of psychological control are a plummeting of self-esteem in the survivor, an increase in anxiety over keeping the abuser happy and a hefty dose of self-blame when abuse occurs. This may be where your feelings of guilt and sadness are coming from, and why it’s hard for your family to understand.