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How you can become isolated in an unhealthy relationship

When someone tells you negative things that other people have said about you, it's hard to think beyond the stinging words of what has been said. This can happen in every type of relationship, but for this article, I have used romantic relationships of any gender.

Unhealthy relationships and isolation

At the start of the relationship, these will generally be positive; “my friends think you are great” or “my mum thinks you are amazing”. This can come across as flattering, and to someone with low self-worth or confidence, it can give them a much-needed boost. It releases those feel-good chemicals that really bond us to someone else.

As time goes on, these start to become a little bit negative, or hurtful; “Karen is jealous of you” or “Karen thinks you’re clumsy”. This seems minor at first, but you believed the nice things said, so why would you question something so small? However, this allows room for a bit of doubt to creep in, “is Karen jealous of me, does Karen think of me like that, does she think I’m clumsy?”. The next time they are with Karen, it will be in the back of their mind, albeit with a fair degree of uncertainty. They will also use anything you have said in the past, however minor, to try and back up their point; “remember the time Karen said she wished she could do what you do, that’s because she is jealous” or “remember that time Karen went on about how you dropped that plate, that’s because she thinks you are clumsy”. This leads to further self-doubt, “do I know Karen, I didn’t even think she thought negative things about me, we’ve been friends for years?”. This uncertainty starts a small crack in that friendship, and as time goes on and more small things are mentioned, this crack becomes a wedge until Karen is no longer around.

The abuser will constantly be assessing the partners' reaction, watching the outcome to know if they can up their game. At the beginning stage, the partner may go directly to Karen and ask. When finding the truth and going back to confront the abuser, the abuser will either cry, shout, act out, accuse them of disloyalty etc, or claim that Karen must be lying because they are telling the truth. Confusion really sets in at this stage, so to keep you on-side the abuser moves to game two, love bombing; “you know you are the most important person in the world to me, I would never hurt you”, “you know I can’t live without you”, “why would I lie, I love you so much, I just want what’s best for you”.

Once this stage has been achieved, it will slowly start to be stepped-up. Boyfriend comes home, girlfriend tells him that his mate made a pass at her, “they don’t respect you”, “your friends all think you are a loser”, “my friend Daisy thinks I can do so much better than you”, “your mum said you were selfish as a child”, and so on. All these slowly chip away at the person's self-esteem, self-worth, their confidence, their belief in who their friends and family are and, most damaging of all, doubts about who they are as a person, their judgements, their ability to trust people. The unhealthy relationship is in full swing. It's like a game played out where only one person knows the game and the rules, and the other person is confused and constantly doubting themselves and everyone else.

As this confusion and uncertainty go on, it can feel like your brain is in a washing machine. It’s hard to see anything clearly, as what you thought you knew is thrown into disarray. This makes it easier for the stakes to be raised higher. Husband tells the wife, “the neighbour came around earlier and said they heard you shouting at the kids, you are a bad mother, she’s going to report you to social services, you’re going to lose the kids”. The wife instantly goes into panic mode, and starts mentally trying to evaluate “did I shout at the kids, am I going to lose them, how can I face the neighbour again?”. The next time they see the neighbour, they are mortified and keep their head down with shame. The neighbour thinks that’s a bit odd, but probably doesn’t say anything and the isolation from yet another person has started.

“Why don’t they leave?” is a question I am constantly asked. Because at this stage, the person that is by their side, most of the time, is the person drip-feeding them slowly with these lies. After leaving an abusive relationship, the hardest thing to come to terms with is that the person you entrusted with your life, your hopes and dreams, the person you married, had children with, trusted to have your best interests at heart, was your worst nightmare. In order to see the truth, the person must come to terms with a very harsh reality, and that can feel too large and overwhelming to cope with. If they do face that reality and make their mind up to leave, the abuser comes into part two of his game – love bombing.

Abusers are very good at saying how much they love you; don’t forget their mum/brother/friend said: “they are always saying how much I do for you, how lucky you are to have me, you wouldn’t be able to cope without me…”. They know how to win you over and get on your right side, otherwise, no one would be in a relationship with them. This behaviour is so conflicting, it's hard to understand. We only want the best for our partners, so surely they feel the same about us?

In counselling we call this cognitive dissonance - they believe the person loves them and wants the best for them, yet they are causing them to feel pain, self-doubt, to question everything they thought they knew. It does not make any sense, so it cannot be true. If this sounds like your relationship, it may be time to explore those feelings with someone not involved who can give you some perspective on what is going on for you.

At the beginning of a romantic relationship, it's very easy to be swept up in the dizzying excitement of hormones that we sometimes gloss over things that make us feel uneasy. However, the next time someone tells you what someone else has said behind your back, firstly work out how that makes you feel – good, well that’s OK. If bad – then more investigation is needed.

Secondly, what are the person's motives for telling you that? Are they too cowardly to tell you themselves, or is it a cowardly way to make you feel bad whilst passing the blame onto someone else? Did the person really say that, can you check with them?

Thirdly, why didn’t your partner stick up for you? Loyalty is key in relationships - we all like to think our partner is treating us with respect when out of earshot; why did they not politely say “please do not talk about my partner that way” or “I love my partner, please do not suggest that to me”. It may not appear to be much, but it is what a loving and respectful partner would do.

Lastly, consider what you would do if someone had said that about your partner? What would you do? What would you think? Would you tell them? The reality is, if you are a loving, respectful partner, you would likely ignore it - if it persisted, you would ask them to stop.

So, at which stage should we start to take notice of what people are saying about us? When they say it to our face?

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Michaela Rolls Counsellor (Reg.MBACP) Dip.Couns.

Michaela Rolls is a counsellor working in Shropshire.… Read more

Written by Michaela Rolls Counsellor (Reg.MBACP) Dip.Couns.

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