Fear and Guilt Will Keep You in an Abusive Relationship If You Let Them

[via flickr user ajari]
[via flickr user ajari]
You’ve long suspected something is not quite normal about your relationship with your parents. Perhaps you even sought answers and read about the signs of emotional child abuse.

Now, you have come to the hard, cold realization that you’ve been emotionally abused as a childand that the abuse has extended into your adulthood.

So, what do you do now?

Your First Few Steps Towards Healing

First, you need some emotional breathing room to just grasp the reality of what has been happening. That means to take a break from interacting with your abusive parents. (Whether the break is permanent or temporary isn’t the focus right now.)

The focus is you—your coming to grips with your past abuse and present situation, your attempts to reconcile what you thought was real and what actually is, your desire to get a clear view of your life, your younger self finally feeling relief at being heard.

You need to breathe deeply. Think. Find a therapist. Pray. Think some more. Research.

Your abusers will not want you to think freely. They want your thinking to be only what they want you to think. Like Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic novel Ninety-Eighty-Four, your abusive parents do not want—nor will they tolerate—your thinking critically about them or your thinking well of yourself.

But don’t give up on yourself!  You need this time. If you want, tell your parents that you need some time to think about your relationship. Loving parents will understand and/or pray and hope for you. Abusive parents will go bat-shit crazy with fear of losing you or just freeze you out.

But don’t be afraid in giving yourself thinking time. Here’s why:

“Emotionally abusive relationships can destroy your self-worth, lead to anxiety and depression, and make you feel helpless and alone. No one should have to endure this kind of pain—and your first step to breaking free is recognizing that your situation is abusive. Once you acknowledge the reality of the abusive situation, then you can get the help you need.” (Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D, HelpGuide article)

What Creating Space Really Means

Creating breathing and thinking space for yourself means you have moved yourself up from being the lowest person on your own totem pole to the one in a higher position. It means making yourself a priority. It means putting your parents in their appropriate place on your totem pole.

Unfortunately, adult survivors have a hard time in setting such boundaries. Most adult survivors of emotional child abuse have been conditioned by their parents to habitually…

  • Jump up to answer their calls immediately
  • Answer their emails instantly
  • Drop everything to help them with non-emergencies (that the parents erroneously label “emergencies”)
  • Be completely available at every second of your day via text
  • Rearrange your work schedule to suit them
  • Organize your family schedule to accommodate your abusive parents’ demands
  • Plan your meetings with friends/co-workers/spouses/children around your abusive parents’ schedules
  • Report everything you do, think, or feel to them
  • Seek their constant approval by going through hoops
  • Act, dress, feel, think, and be in the ways approved by the abusive parents

In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent and adult children respect one another’s boundaries and the fact that the parent and adult child have their own separate identity and life. Parent and adult help one another sometimes. But in an abusive parent-child relationship, the parent demands to be the center of the adult child’s world, eclipsing the adult child’s own needs, friendships, relationships, work, well-being, everything.

Should You Tell Your Abusive Parents That You’ve Been Abused by Them and Need Time to Think?

That depends. Dr. Jonice Webb, author of Running on Empty: Overcoming Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, offers advice that applies to adult survivors of emotional child abuse:

“Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN [childhood emotional neglect] based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you.” (Dr. Jonice Webb,How to Deal With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents“)

For now, you can just tell them that you need some space to think. You don’t need to give them a deadline for your thinking to end or healing to being nor give them updates. It’s all right to breathe and search for healing and answers.

Even if doing so feels scary.

Fear and Guilt Will Hound You at First (But Not Forever)

Breaking out of an abusive relationship—especially a parent-child one—is very, very hard at first. It’s stepping out into the unknown.

Because an adult survivor of emotional child abuse has been conditioned to stay in his/her cage, the survivor will feel a hurricane of emotions. There will be heart-pounding panic, a sense of impending disaster, an almost overwhelming sense of loss, depression, and just the conditioned response that the adult survivor is going to catch absolute hell for acting against his or her parent.


The adult survivor may experience panic attacks and myriad symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A person thinking about leaving an abusive relationship or actually leaving one may feel gripped by…

  • Fear of “getting in trouble”
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of retribution
  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of being a disappointment
  • Fear of people thinking badly of you
  • Fear of not “fitting in”
  • Fear of losing friends
  • Fear of not being believed

Some of those fears may happen, but they will not crush you. Some may never take place. Either way, the fears should not keep you in your abusive relationship.

We’re telling you this not as excuses or reasons to not leave an abusive relationship, but to let you know that all those suffocatingly awful feelings you’re experiencing are normal for an adult survivor of emotional child abuse getting out of the abusive relationship. Those emotions are common and understandable.

And those emotions will not always be as huge and dark and overwhelming as they seem in the beginning. They’ll seem as vicious as monsters at first, but through therapy and prayer and time and reading, you’ll see those feelings become smaller and more manageable. And sometimes, a few of those terrible feelings disappear in the light and brightness of an emotionally healthier life.

False Guilt

You very well may lose friends and relatives and your social circles and your assigned place in family interactions when you decide to break out of the abusive parent-child relationship. People might give you absolute hell for how you are treating your outwardly-appearing-good parents because those people do not know the truth about your parents.

And in facing such opposition, you may begin questioning what really happened, gloss over facts, bury some unhealthy emotions, and jump right back into the abusive relationship—all out of guilt and fear.

That guilt, however, is not true guilt from doing something wrong and having our well-formed conscience tells us we need to ask for forgiveness and remedy the situation. This type of guilt is very different, according to psychologist and author Dr. Gregory L. Jantz. This guilt is how emotionally abused adults make false sense of what happened to them: “The reason given for the abuse varies: you are bad, stupid, ugly, or wanted, or you are the wrong sex, the wrong age, or the wrong whatever. You are guilty of causing the abuse.”

“The guilt you are feeling is not true guilt. True guilt is brought on by a realistic understanding of your behavior and its consequences to yourself and others. False guilt is an oppressive burden that is not based on reality but on the warped views, ideas, and attitudes of others. Emotional abuse transfers those warped views onto you, and those warped views produce mind-numbing, action-paralyzing shame.” (Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse)

But you need to face those fears so that you can become emotionally healthy.

“Emotional abuse leads to intense feelings of anger, rage, resentment and bitterness. Submerged feelings of guilt and fear of your abuser can lead you to choose a safer target for your anger that your abuser. All too often that target is you. Unspent anger continually works inside the body using up energy, causing feelings of fatigue and apathy.” (Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse)

You’ll need to tackle the reality of what happened, which means getting out of your current “comfort zone.”

But you know what? It really, really, really wasn’t working well for you in the first place. That “comfort zone” you were in with your abusive parent(s) wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t safe. It was “known,” which has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with habit and brainwashing and conditioning.

The reality is that if those fears are actualized, you’ll still be a thousand times off better than when you were in your abusive relationship.

Because you’re walking in the truth now. And in doing so, you’re walking away from the shadows and into a healthier present and even healthier future.


[via flickr user Henry Liriani]
[via flickr user Henry Liriani]

Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, Loyola Press, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.

19 thoughts on “Fear and Guilt Will Keep You in an Abusive Relationship If You Let Them

  1. This perfectly articulates the fear I experienced at my awakening. I still feel misunderstood by many, but perhaps it is a lingering result of feeling misunderstood as a child. I have learned to prioritize the people in my life by their ability to validate my feelings.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Barbie Beaton.

      I understand perfectly your fear. This is a common feeling when emerging from abusive relationships, particularly family ones. We are conditioned to accept or tolerate abuse from blood relatives. Honouring our parents does not mean that they can abuse us but many of us feel guilty for putting ourselves first. We have been conditioned from childhood to feel this way and it can be extremely hard to let that go.

      Many people will not understand you or your decision. That is their problem. You do not have to explain yourself to anyone. You are an adult. Adults do not control other adults. By not giving your family of origin what they want, you are not punishing them. If we continue to make excuses for their behaviour, they will never learn and will never set themselves free. They cannot deal with what they refuse to acknowledge. Therefore, we are doing more damage to them.

      I am delighted that you are prioritising the positive people in your life. Keep it up!


  2. The real Hell of it is when a survivor forms relationships with people who are exactly like the abusive parent. The therapy is worth it, getting healthy and shaking off conditioned responses i difficult and requires the kind of insight that most people never have to develop; but the hard one freedom is worth it; to finally take possession of your own mind and body is worth the work..One day you wake and up and realize that no means no…and you say it and you mean it…and that is a victory.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Thank you so much for this post! I find this website so helpful. Almost seven years ago, I went no contact with my father and very low contact with my mother. I have posted here before, so to keep things short, I won’t regurgitate it all again but as you all may know, I am getting married in five weeks time.

    My sister in particular has extreme difficulty in with my decision. My older brother sent me an email confirming that he will not be attending my wedding due to work shifts. I gave him 18 months notice but I did anticipate his response. This is his way of registering his displeasure at my decision. I find all this difficult as they are all very well aware of the abuse that we all suffered. My older brother even moved to a different country with his wife and children to get away from it.

    Last weekend was my hen party. My sister was well behaved for the most part of it but when she tried to antagonise me and bring up my parents, in front of my friends, I called it a night and went to bed. I did not respond in anyway to her usual provocations. This didn’t stop her though. She went to my friends saying that what I am doing to my parents is a disgrace. She also said that I should have gone away to get married and not caused all this trouble (as I am not inviting my father, my mother is being barely tolerated). She told them that everything I do is to provoke and hurt them. My husband to be has never met my father but my sister stated that he needs to meet my father and make up his own mind and not be controlled by me. My husband to be made up his own mind when he saw the sixteen burn scars on my legs inflicted by my parents. I am continuously villified for breaking free and would be described as a classic ‘scapegoat’.

    Thank God that I have such good friends who stood up to her. When they confronted her, she started crying. I love my sister and remember all the abuse that was inflicted on her. She is in a great deal of pain but sadly is deflecting it onto me. I will continue to pray for them all but I would appreciate any advice as to why I am constantly being blamed for this highly toxic family dynamic.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. mb1099,
      You are being blamed because you’re the Strong One. You’re the Rock in the family, and rocks almost always get the shoddiest treatment. The Rock is expected to be impervious to all abuse. Others in the family can break down from the abuse, run away to another country even, but not the Rock. Oh no, Rock must stay on, maintain normal contact to absorb all the abuse so the others can go free, or at the very least, that they others will suffer minimal abuse.

      Your sister’s actions at your party could possibly stem from jealousy that you’re free and she’s not. In her book, maybe that’s not how it’s supposed to be. You don’t Go No Contact, and leave her to take your place in the shadows. She lacks your immense courage to break free and go towards the Light, so she wants you back right where you always were.

      It takes a very strong person to be able to pray for those who hurt you, and you are that person. I disagree with the notion that the Strong must remain in abusive relationships, just because their strengths help them to absorb hurt. In fact, to remain status quo is a tacit nod for the abuse to continue, and that is wrong. All of us here in this blog are in the business of putting an end to abuse, helping others to break free and be reborn into the lives we were all meant to have and we all rejoice in your coming wedding.

      You’ve flown free; don’t let anyone put you back into the cage.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Thanks very much for your response Caitlynnegrace, it is very encouraging.

      When I post here, my intention is not to portray myself as the ‘all knowing, enlightened one’. For many years, I too could be very contrary and abusive to those close to me. I have an almost 21 year old son and the relationship that I had with his father was toxic. For many years, I did not live up to my parental responsibilities and continued the cycle of abuse myself. My son suffered greatly as a result of my inaction and enabling. I allowed him to be exposed to my toxic parents behaviour for far too long. I am genuinely sorry for this and have asked God and my son for forgiveness.

      I was once very much part of an abusive, inter-generational toxic family system but thankfully at 25, I started to ‘wake-up’. I took steps towards recovery, praying to God and getting into therapy which finally worked but it took almost 10 years to complete. The steps that I took to protect my son and myself are seen as ‘punishing’ my family of origin. I was always blamed for everything that went on in the family and this has continued despite the fact that I have nothing to do with them for many years now.

      According to my sister, I am the one holding on to everything and bottling it all up. I am apparently the most selfish person on the planet and everything I do is to ‘get at them’. My sister is 37 years old and said that I am a disgrace for not organising a 21st Birthday party for her years ago. My sister at the time lived in another country and still does. I sincerely believe that she is confusing me with her mother. That was not my responsibility, it was our parents. May I add that my parents are only now 62 and 64 years of age. They are not old by any means or are in anyway physically disabled but apparently I am the one who needs to go to their house and look after them!! Even my grandmother is still alive at 91!

      The reality is that I refuse to engage in the dysfunctional dance anymore by discussing my parents ‘ad nauseum’. It’s sad that instead of following my example, by handing it over to God and seeking help, they all want to bring me back to the old ways of relating and to maintain the status quo. What I now have, is available to everyone. There is no need for jealousy or spitefulness. Our Heavenly Father is full of mercy and forgiveness and wants us all to live a healthy, fulfilled life. They can avail of this too.

      I will continue to pray for them but sadly, with the current situation being what it is, I cannot have them in my life. It would destroy me, my marriage and my relationship with my son. I am looking forward to my wedding in just over four weeks time and a new blessed life. Amen!

      Liked by 2 people

    3. Yours is a story that has sad echoes in far too many lives. Reading your posts, all I can see is someone who has been hurt deeply, but still loves – albeit, in the God-ordained way now. And that is so beautiful and courageous. The correct belief in the True God sets many apart from others. We are a sign of contradiction if we say Yes to the True God. We are expected to be martyrs, continually shedding blood for others. What many fail to understand is that when we truly believe in God, we carry the Crosses that He sets out for us, not the ones chosen and forced down on our backs by others. I will pray for you and your boy. If he hasn’t already, he will one day realize how much courage it took his beautiful mother to flee the cage. God bless you, Survivor.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. In answer to the question, “Why I am constantly being blamed for this highly toxic family dynamic?” The designation of “scapegoat” by the family is a lifetime designation. It NEVER changes. They will never perceive you as anything other than the scapegoat, no matter what your life entails.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have a very difficult time trying to get out from under my emotionally abusive parents. I’m 21 years old, still living at home, and still answering to my mom and her husbands every beck and call. I have a hard time trying to be myself and do what I want than what my mother and her husband want me to do. When I had first tried to move out at the age of 18 my mother had called the police on me and told them I was a run-a-way. I feel like they make it impossible for me to even try to move out. My little sister gets treated completely differently…. And I don’t understand why that is. And everything has to do with money, I am now paying rent to live in my room in my mom’s house, and she charges me 50 dollars if Im a day late on payments. She told me to not think of her as my mom, but to think of her as my landlord and boss….. I don’t know how to even begin to try and get out of this relationship. If I try to go to therapy, my mother wants to know what doctor and where and what meds I’m going to be taking. It is so bad that she knows my boss at work and told him to have a talk with me about how I look. And she wants me to go to her financial adviser so that she can monitor my money.

    My boyfriend told me last night that he wants me to stop confiding in him about what happens between me and my parents. He said he is tired of hearing about it……

    I don’t know what to do or who to talk to.

    Is it normal for parents to only target one of their children? My mom only targets me…. but her husband could care less about either of us.


  5. I am so grateful for this blog! As someone who has recently broken free from a very abusive step mother (so lovingly nicknamed Mommy Meanest), it feels good to know that others have experienced my tragedies and now my triumph.

    It took me over 30 years to find my voice and believe me, my family NO LIKEY, but the more in love I fall with myself, the more I know this change was needed.

    Every relationship I’ve endured as an adult (with friends and significant others) have been direct reflections of the continued abuse I experienced as a child. Isn’t it interesting how subconsciously repeat patterns of toxicity because we don’t know any better?

    I say better late than never, and I am so excited about getting to know the REAL me first then sharing it with the world.

    Veronica! You are a Godsend!!


  6. I am 21 and still live at home but through seeing a psychologist and having a mentor who was a social worker, I have found out that the way my mother treats me is abusive. I always thought I had to take it because she was my mother but my mentor has advised me to distance myself and perhaps reconsider going home during the mid-year vacation. I have a part time job and could afford to live alone but I am so scared of what they could do to me although the thought of never having to live with my mother makes me so happy because I can finally come home to myself. The way she has treated me over the years has led to my depression. I’ve been putting her on this pedestal and for what? Here I am, 21 and with no self-confidence and a low self-esteem.

    I think I came across this article because the universe is guiding me to make this decision. Everything I have experienced, all the hardships I have encountered, have led me to this moment where I have to choose myself. Although reaffirming, it is still difficult. Thank you, Veronica.


  7. Have put myself first-my own need for space, to be valued for me, for time alone. A sense of peace has come over me-a contentment to be who I am and comfortable with that. I think I always felt that-but allowed myself to be affected by other’s wants, and need to dominate. It’s hard-you’re lonely at times. But your soul constantly thanks you and instinctively you know it’s right. I awakened to the truth about many others and in the process found my own truth to live out the rest of my life with. So no-I guess I’m not alone at all – for the first time in my life.


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