Australian psychologist and Without You author Monique Toohey returns to Mspiration to unpack the challenges of leaving an abusive relationship.
Your new book, Without You, tackles the topic of abuse in an interesting way. It’s not an essay type study into the subject and it’s not a memoir either. Is it accurate to say that it’s a collection of thoughts and reflections on how to overcome an abusive relationship?
What I tried to do is present powerful statements that will allow the reader to personalise moments that might be familiar to them if they are either in an abusive relationship or one that is really unhealthy. I would not say that it is therapy in a book but the statements are very useful for clients when I am working with them one-on-one. Through my experience I was hearing this common language of what people say to themselves to keep them stuck in a relationship. That’s why I called the book Without You, because that concept is the hardest part of leaving an abusive relationship. For example; on average when a relationship is heading downhill, people would think of divorcing or separating three years before they do. This process of detachment is what this book is about. I hope it supports that process in order for people to move on from something that is abusive to find themselves again to become healthier.
You adopted an almost lyrical writing style for Without You. Was it a challenge to present such a dense topic in short and sharp reflective passages?
We are in the era of the lyric in that people memorise them easily. So in its simplicity I want it to be memorable. I want it to be in their head long enough for them to ruminate, replay it in their mind and replace the kind of thinking that might be unhelpful. There is also something about a one-liner. There is a simplicity to it, in that it allows people to stop and contemplate. It pulls the reader back to reflect on the statement they just read. When you are trying to help people grow, move on or change then reflection and insight are completely necessary for that. I find that all it takes is sometimes one sentence for it to gell with someone. To make them stop and reflect. With my book I want them to understand that their experience of being in an abusive relationship and trying to get out is very common. It is a really familiar story. The more they read this book they will see that it is a shared experience.
What laid the seeds for the book?
My first serious relationship was fantastic to begin with, like most relationships are. Then after about five years thing started to deteriorate. I was studying psychology at the time. Things started to go downhill and you realise you are not the psychologist in your own relationship as much you might have some knowledge. Things started to turn quiet ugly and I found myself in the last few years of a ten year relationship that it got to the point that it was emotionally abusive and manipulative. I had to work out how to get myself out of that. For me the leaving bit was the easiest part, but it was the decision to be without that person that was extremely difficult to navigate. There is just so much introspection in that you have to look inside yourself and make a decision in what you value in life. I made the decision to be without my husband at the time because it wasn’t healthy for me and the daughter we were raising.
Are the statements in Without You the thoughts one goes through before leaving an abusive relationship?
When you are in an abusive relationship you are doing a lot of feeling, you can feel that things are not right but you can’t articulate why. Any relationship is complex but when you add on tones of what looks like manipulation and abuse, then it becomes even more complex. So with this book I am trying to pull apart and break down these thoughts with these statements.
Your book seems to follow an arc moving from sadness and anger to forgiveness of self. Does that cycle apply to most victims of abuse?
I think there are similar patterns in the clients that I worked with and the literature that I read. One of which is that people are really sad. Anger is also very heavily present because that is an energetic catalyst to get people out of something that is unjust. Once you are out of it you need to let the anger go. This is because it was useful and it got you out of the relationship but then the tricky situation is how to stay out of it when the anger dissipates. I spoke about this with clients and they say that (after the anger) they experience a surge of positive emotion, then they get a little bit confused in that they say ‘I feel better now, maybe the relationship wasn’t that bad.’ Their own recovery tricks them into believing the relationship wasn’t that hard. Where in fact what is really happening is that they are healing and there is less poison in their life. But because of habit they feel they have to direct that positive energy, that love, care and forgiveness back to the relationship when really there is nothing there that is left. People go through trial and error. On average people go back to an abusive relationship six times before it really sinks in that it is not really working. I am trying to highlight that in the book very gently. I am not saying just get up and leave because I know how difficult it is. I want people to develop the insight into what might be influencing them to go back or stay in that very unhealthy relationship.
Do you find that some of us have to hit rock bottom before deciding to work on getting better?
I think that’s true for many of us. The body is an amazing thing. If you are trying to avoid feeling a particular emotion then the body will take you there. The mind may be replaying a story where you feel “I probably should get out of this relationship but I can’t”. Then the body keeps sending you the message of “sad” till you get depression or frustrated and irritated. So in a way I hope the books helps you in getting that realignment between the message sent and what action you need to take.
One of the themes of Without You is boundaries. Is the lack of boundaries a key cause of relationship breakdowns?
Absolutely. In many societies the marriage vowels espouse “two people will become one.” That is rubbish. Two people never become one and problems arise from that point onwards. I think, unfortunately, in most countries we don’t get instruction in knowing what a healthy relationship looks like. I am very pleased to see the in the last five years some programs in high-schools start talking to young people about what is a respectful relationship. That is a fantastic move because prior to that many generations had no understanding on how to do a healthy relationship. The only thing that we normally reference is the blueprint which our parents left us with. If you are a person who observed their parents have a healthy relationship then you are lucky. The truth is people do the best they can with whatever is a reference point for them. A lot of us are just winging it.
How would you describe a healthy relationship?
I sort of describe it as a way where there are two hands coming together as if they are about to clap, but instead they are leaning on each other for support. I see that as a healthy relationship. Now if you imagine both hands becoming interlocked, thats when people get confused on where they and their partners start and finish. Then you add in roles and responsibilities of each person and then it just gets tricky – to the point of ugly.
Is there any final message you want to pass to the readers of Without You?
Leaving or rising above the impact of an abusive relationship is difficult but not impossible. People are always saying it’s too difficult and they can’ do it, but we do difficult every day. The truth is staying in an abusive relationship is difficult so they are already doing it quite well. What I am saying is that it is not impossible, it is a move that they can make and I hope the book shows them how they can make that.
Without You by Monique Toohey is out on March 24th and can be ordered online from www.moniquetoohey.com. Monique is a Consultant Psychologist and Owner/Manager of the private psychology practice, Nasihah Consulting in Melbourne, Australia. For more information, click on www.nasihahconsulting.com