The lingering effects of an emotionally abusive relationship

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A woman sitting alone and depressed

Shutterstock: Image/Marjan Apostolovic

“I wish he would just hit me already.”

I remember saying this to my mom on the phone when I was venting to her about my ex’s emotionally abusive behavior. In a toxic environment filled with nothing but belittlement, temper tantrums and drunken fits, I had wished that what I was experiencing was physical abuse. Not because I wanted to be bruised or hurt, but because I wanted him to get help. I hoped that maybe if he saw a bruised eye or a bloody lip that it would help him see the damage he was doing. Maybe it would make his friends realize it. Maybe they could persuade him to get help. Maybe the yelling would stop. Maybe the scary episodes would cease. Maybe I could muster up the courage to leave. Maybe.

It wasn’t until the day that his fist was bloody from punching the brick wall I was leaning against that I realized that it didn’t matter if he hit me. The damage had been done. There was blood on his hands already, both literally and figuratively. My heart was damaged, my mind was strained, my nerves were shot. I had been hurt  day in and day out for months. And even without a purple and black eye, I knew my body could not take it any more.

Often times, victims of emotional abuse tend to downplay the situation by telling themselves “at least they didn’t hit me.” Or they make excuses out of love for the person. “He had a hard day at work,” or “He’s just got a little bit of a temper” are common phrases that victims will tell themselves or others trying to justify their behavior. This tends to put off confronting the problem until they are at a real breaking point.

Though I have left the toxic relationship and am doing so much better on my own, the healing process has certainly not been easy.

Here are some lingering effects of emotional abuse and how I’m tackling them personally:

Low self-esteem and self-worth

This is especially true before and right after you leave the abusive relationship. Your body and mind are in a state of utter confusion because you’ve been whittled down daily by the abuser. Your heart is whispering “You are worth something” while you have the abuser’s voice in your head repeating “You are worthless.” Being able to hear that little voice reminding you that you are worth something is the only shot victims have at realizing they don’t belong in that destructive environment.

Once you’ve left the abusive environment, your heart needs time to remember how it was before the abuse. For me, I knew I needed to surround myself with loving people and place myself in the care of those who truly cared for me, allowing myself to feel loved by family and friends while learning to love myself again. Eventually, if you give yourself time and grace, you will slowly but surely begin to reclaim your self-worth. It’s not an easy process, and certainly isn’t one that happens quickly, but if you are patient with yourself it will happen.

Restless nights

It has been 9 months since I’ve left my abuser, and I am just now beginning to get a good night’s sleep without the use of my beloved ZzzQuil. Victims of emotional abuse have been so used to walking around on eggshells that it takes time for their nervous systems to adjust accordingly.

Sleeping just gets harder after initially leaving. Whether it’s because our bodies are used having the abuser sleeping next to us, or because we replay those awful moments over and over in our head, the fact remains: Sleeping becomes difficult. Add getting no sleep to the already daunting task of healing after heartbreak and trying to put one foot in front of the other every day, it’s no wonder that you’re feeling exhausted and depressed. Sleeping through the night starts to become a rarity and a miracle when it does happen. Time tends to heal all wounds, thankfully, and as time has passed so has my inability to sleep through the night.


My bitterness wasn’t always noticeable to others, but I always knew it was there. I would hear kind, empathetic words coming out of my mouth, but would internally be cringing at every happy couple that passed in my general direction. Why do you they get to be happy? Why did I pick the mean guy? Why does it seem that everybody has somebody but me? All these questions would plague my heart and mind.

Not to mention that every time a man did show interest in me, I had the tendency to place my resentment for my abuser on them, as though I was already preparing myself for the hurt they would also cause me. My heart felt like a closed door, and try as I might to force that door open, I had to let the bitter-pill I swallowed work its way out of my system itself.

Eventually my heart started to entertain the idea of men and dating again, and I wasn’t so cold to the sweet couple standing next to me at the market. I was even going on dates, letting myself fall for people again. When I found myself really letting myself like someone new, I grew proud of myself. The bitterness is there at first to protect us, but the danger lies in the fear of never letting your heart open again. It’s a process, and coming out on the other end is possible.

Trust issues

Good ol’ trust issues. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them (or so it seems). We’ve all got baggage we are carrying around with us. But the baggage that victims of emotional abuse carry tend to feel like anchors pulling us back to the same place we tried so hard to swim away from.

We want to be able to trust people again, but we are constantly awaiting the familiar. We face new relationships and people with the same armor we faced our abuser, thinking “You’re going to knock me over, aren’t you?” Before even letting a new relationship get going, we’ve already got a scenario and label in our head. “He’s lying, that’s exactly what (insert abuser’s name here) did to me.” We use this excuse with everything. 

I am a firm believer that while yes, I need to work on being better about not distrusting every human being that walks into my life, I also deserve someone who can see through my trust issues and say “I see why you feel that way. But I am not that way. Let’s work on that.”

Good people will bring out the good in people, and getting through these trust issues is possible when surrounded by caring loved ones. They will remind you of all the good in this world.


Anxiety. My least favorite word. I have always been prone to an anxious mind, but never have I been more anxious than after leaving my toxic relationship. It was as though my entire life had been shaken up, and I was still reeling trying to find a way to calm everything down. I like to describe it like I was a bottle of carbonated water that my ex was constantly shaking up, not allowing me to have a moment of peace and always leaving me on the verge of bursting.

Developing anxiety or worsening anxiety once leaving an abusive environment is very normal – it is your body’s way of basically saying “Okay, so, that was rough. Let’s not do that again.” And while it is normal to have mild anxiety when leaving and starting a new chapter, it can be hazardous for your health if you let it get carried away.

My anxiety went through the roof for months after leaving my ex. I could be relaxing and enjoying a glass of wine on the porch, and all of a sudden get a surge of fear. For a while I never knew what to really attribute it to. Why was I all of a sudden fearful when I was trying to relax? It took weeks before I realized it was because he never let me relax. My body was taught to live on edge for months. I didn’t know how to be calm and not live in fear of him and his words.

Learning how to manage my anxiety has been a hard but satisfying chapter in my life. I have realized what methods work for me, and what methods I would rather live without. For me, it was all about finding myself again – reminding myself of who I am without my abuser’s thoughts and words tainting my own perception of myself.

The truth about emotional abuse is that the effects can be just as damaging as physical abuse and have the tendency to take a longer time to heal from. As a victim of both physical and emotional abuse, I can say this without being biased: My bruises would heal, but my mind would not. By giving yourself grace and time, you can eventually say bye to these lingering effects, or at least learn how to manage them with a clear mind and healing heart.