'I spent years trying to fix it.' The relationship lesson I wish I learned years ago.

This post discusses abuse and could be triggering for some readers.

My husband said something sh*tty to me. I can’t even remember what it was. I only remember how my body seemed to cave in on itself, like I was trying to protect myself from being hit.

I looked up and met the eyes of the husband of the couple sitting across from me. He looked so sad.

He later told me, "I’ve never seen you get so... small."

Watch: What my partner doesn't know. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

My husband had that kind of power over me, to shrivel and diminish me with just a few words.

We were out to eat at a restaurant with another couple, hoping to get some help on the recurring issues in our relationship, particularly our problematic and ugly fights.

I’d just come back from the salad bar and was staring distastefully at the weird set of foods I’d decided to load my plate with. Why on earth did I get banana peppers AND raisins? I was thinking when my husband said what he said that crumpled me.

After that regrettable incident, the lunch with this couple we knew proceeded as planned: they walked us through some better communication and fighting strategies.


I nodded vigorously and nursed a tiny kernel of hope that maybe, just maybe, these would be the kind of tools we needed to finally have the kind of relationship they had, the one I wished we’d always had but still didn’t after years together.

If I’d known then this very important lesson, I could have saved so myself so much pain and heartache.

If your relationship has no emotional safety, your relationship cannot improve.

That relationship with my then husband was rife with abuse. He shouted, called me names, broke furniture, punched walls, and physically intimidated me. He gave me the silent treatment for days on end and ignored most of my attempts to connect.

A relationship with abuse cannot have emotional safety. A relationship with no emotional safety has no hope of ever being healthy or more intimate.

It’s simple, really, though it wasn’t to me for too long.

I believed if I just learned how to appreciate him more, communicate better, initiate time-outs when we fought, or any other popular relationship advice, then our relationship would improve. We’d feel closer and be more emotionally intimate.

I spent untold sums of money on therapy (individual, couples, group), coaching, couples workshops and retreats, and relationship self-help books. In my free time, I listened to relationship self-help podcasts and audiobooks. I watched TED Talks.

I wanted so desperately for my relationship to improve, and I thought in the next session or book or podcast or whatever, I’d learn THE key to unlocking the door to the relationship of my dreams.


But I was trying to fix the wrong problem. The problem in my marriage wasn’t an "us" problem. The problem was 100 per cent a "he" problem.

I was in an abusive relationship, and the ONLY way to fix an abusive relationship is for the perpetrator to want to change and get help.

In that marriage (which ended years ago now), I believed wholeheartedly that his abuse was an us problem.

How could it not be? I played a part, didn’t I? I’d acted in ways that were out of my character!

I’d yelled, screamed, lashed out, insulted. I’d slammed doors or pushed him when he tried to block me from leaving. And when our fights were over, he’d point out all the ways I’d acted "crazy" or "abusive" and blame me for why the fight happened, anyway.

I wouldn’t hear the term "reactive abuse" for years.

"Reactive abuse" happens as a result of being abused. When we’re attacked, whether it’s physically or verbally, our brain responds by going into fight, flight, or freeze. That means victims may seem or may be made out to be the "abusers," when in fact they’re just reacting out of self-defence.

After years in therapy and my own personal work, I can see now where I’d merely been a victim fighting back. It wasn’t ever that I’m an abusive or bad person. I was made crazy in a crazy situation. I was made crazy through a pattern of continual and recurring abuse over nearly a decade.

The MINIMUM for a healthy relationship is emotional safety.

All of those years I spent in improving my communication wasn’t wasted because I have a healthy relationship today, but there was no way to build on a house foundation that kept cracking the more abuse occurred.


If your relationship is lacking emotional safety because of abuse, it’s time to stop spending time trying to improve your communication skills, or practicing your partner’s love language, or seeing a couples therapist. It’s time to stop thinking the next tool or trick will work to fix the ongoing issues of abuse in your relationship.

It’s time instead to start holding your partner accountable for their behaviour.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. 

Tara Blair Ball is a Relationship Coach and Writer. Check out her other work at, and sign up to get her FREE "Be a Match for Your Dream Relationship" worksheet here.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit for further information.

The Men’s Referral Service is also available on 1300 766 491 or via online chat at

Feature Image: Canva.

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