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How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

I’m guessing that most of the women reading this blog are mothers. Not all of you – but most of you. And even if you’re not a mother, you probably know something about giving birth. Maybe you’ve been at the birth of a younger sibling or a niece or nephew or a friend’s baby. Or maybe you’ve heard stories passed down from your own mothers and grandmothers.

Leaving an emotionally abusive relationship is a lot like giving birth.

How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

A Seed is Planted

First there is the realization that you are pregnant. It doesn’t seem real. You can’t see a baby. You can’t feel a baby. All you know is that the line on the stick is pink, and that means something significant. Something powerful is happening in your body.

A seed has been planted and is beginning to grow.

Waking up to emotional abuse is like that. When you first see that meme or read that article or hear that testimony, it doesn’t seem real. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. All you know is that a light bulb went on somewhere in the depths of your soul, and it means something significant. Something powerful awakens inside of you, and you realize who you are has been dead for a long time, but now she is coming to life again.

A seed has been planted and is beginning to grow.

How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

The New Life Grows

The first three months you may be sick. As your body hormones swell and change, you begin to experience nausea in your belly and soreness in your breasts. You may or may not be excited. You may feel ambivalent and wonder if you should be feeling something different. “What’s wrong with me?”

You still can hardly wrap your brain around the reality of your situation. But deep inside your body that seed is doing what seeds do. It is growing. Every day the cells multiply faster and faster so that each day the changes make it unrecognizable from the day before.

Unless something arrests its development, the inevitable will happen. The baby will eventually grow too big to stay. It will have to come out.

Once a survivor wakes up to the reality of her dysfunctional relationship, she will often feel sick. Sometimes she will feel an overwhelming sense of relief that what she has experienced all these years has a name and is a known and recognized problem.

She is not alone. She is not crazy. She is the normal one.

But sometimes she will feel an overwhelming sense of fear about what this means for her future. That fear drives her to learn more about her situation, and her knowledge begins to increase exponentially as she devours books and articles and podcasts and videos about her life.

She senses deep inside of herself that unless she sinks back into denial, the inevitable will happen. She will eventually grow too big to stay. She will have to come out.

How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

False Labor

The baby is almost full grown and ready to come out. By now you know there is a baby. A real, live, kicking, growing person inside you. You have accepted this reality, and you’ve planned for this person to become a part of the rest of your life. You’ve got a room and a crib and diapers and clothes all ready. You’re a bundle of excitement and fear as your anticipation rises.

You begin to experience contractions in the evenings as you near your due date. Every night you wonder, “Is this it?” Your heart begins to race as your adrenaline kicks in. You want it to be over, and yet – no. You don’t. You’re not ready. And the moment passes, and you are disappointed again.

This happens again and again.

And again.

An abuse survivor finally gets to the point where she sees herself and decides to take care of the one she sees. Maybe for the first time in her life. She stands up in full color and says, “I am a person worthy of love and respect. If not from others, certainly from myself.”

She begins to see herself through the eyes of her Creator instead of through the eyes of her abuser, and she likes what she sees. One night she experiences a determination to rescue herself. To get out. She begins to dream and think and plan. But the next day she sinks into despair. The mountain is too high. The hurdles, too many.

She thinks she can make it work if she stays. Maybe she can keep growing and still stay tucked inside where everything remains as it always has. It’s painful, but at least it’s familiar.

This happens again and again.

And again.

How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

Labor Begins for Real

When labor finally begins, you know it. You can tell that something is different this time. This time your body means business. This time the baby is coming out. For real.

The contractions get closer and closer together. The pain intensifies. In between contractions, you get a break. You catch your breath. And then the next wave hits you harder than the last one, until something happens that makes you go under and under and under without any time to think or breathe.


All you can feel is pain upon pain as the waves hit your body, and it’s all you can do to hang on to your sanity. I remember screaming, “I JUST WANT TO DIE!!! SOMEONE PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY!!”

And I swore a few times.

An abuse survivor often goes back again and again, believing there must be some way to keep herself intact and whole in that relationship. Some way to make it work. If she could just be stronger. Better. Smarter. More self-controlled. Cleverer. Sweeter. Harder working. Cleaner. Sexier. Skinnier. Richer. More of anything. Something.


All she can feel is pain upon pain as the waves of reality and injustice and despair hit her body, and it’s all she can do to hang on to her sanity. She may want to die.

She may swear a few times.

How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

A New Life is Born

Your body is in free fall. Operating on its own now. The long push as you cooperate in letting life come. And it does. Life comes. Head and body and wet and weight and real. So real.

You are reborn in the birth of this life. This mystery of flesh and love in your arms and heart. Relief. Joy.

Your life will never be the same again.

When the time is right, an emotional abuse survivor will step off the cliff of all she has ever known and drop into free fall. She will cooperate with the inevitable in letting life come. And it will.

How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

She will go through the crucible of loss and come out purified gold. Relief. Joy.

Her life will never be the same again.

Fly free sisters,

Natalie Hoffman

How Leaving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship is Like Giving Birth

Flying Free Sisterhood

An online coaching, education, and support community for women of faith in destructive relationships.

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The Comments

  • Avatar
    Jennifer Jenks
    March 12, 2023

    This is an amazing analogy. It really spoke to me. Natalie, you have an amazing ability to write things that make so much sense.

    I am about to jump! I am so scared.

    I have started to jump before, but pulled back.

    Divorce is incredibly hard. I have beat myself up for pulling back so many times, but the way you described it as false labor makes so much sense.

    The analogy to giving birth is excellent! I have had to grow so much as a person to get to this point. I have felt ready before, but have pulled back for various reasons, but the contractions are coming much more often and much stronger now. I am feeling ready more often now and I have more things in place and ready for my new life.

    This is truly like starting a new life. Thank you so much for this article!

  • Avatar
    Alison Smith Wildermuth
    November 29, 2022

    This was perfect. A description no birth mother cannot relate to. THIS is what I was feeling, THIS is how it progressed. I wept when I read these words, because it is me.

  • Avatar
    January 30, 2021

    I wish I could have Read this 23 years ago perhaps it would’ve helped me see the process I was going through. Now from the other side of a divorce I can see many of the things the author explains. The mountain in front of me seemed insurmountable as a stay at home mom. My husband said he wasn’t going to “make it easy for me”. With 3 children under 14, I am here to tell you I made it against big odds and God took care of me even when I was angry with him. My ex acted very self righteous and liked to make the situation of our failing marriage a big show for all to see. He was even given a SS class to teach at our church during this time! What a relief it was to get away from his control. This journey was worth it.

  • Avatar
    Free Woman
    June 1, 2020

    After 33 years of marriage to a Narcissist, I finally jumped!
    I was told by my therapist, “No one can help you see, you’ve been seeing it and feeling it for a long time. When YOU finally see, that’s when you will be free!”
    I’ve filed for divorce and it has been the fight of my life!
    Sad that my husband is a minister and is still ministering and has everyone fooled except his family. Our three older children no longer speak to him or want anything to do with him. Our family has been through so much behind closed doors.

    • Avatar
      → Free Woman
      June 22, 2020

      I got goosebumps when I read this “When YOU finally see, that’s when you will be free!” So very accurate!

  • Avatar
    June 1, 2020

    I am a doula. Your article is perfect and so poetic. I am getting near the edge of the cliff. Looking over. Gathering strength. Thank you for your work, Natalie. xo

  • Avatar
    Jennifer McNeilly
    June 1, 2020

    More wisdom .
    Thankyou Natalie again .

    • Avatar
      → Jennifer McNeilly
      June 2, 2020

      Thank you for this article, my precious daughter married a narcissist 3 years ago, separated but still accepting texts, recently had Guillain Barre ‘ and she was in the hospital, paralyzed, scared to death and he facetimes her asking for prayers for his firefighters exam, all ty he while exclaiming his hair looks good righting? Plus so much more, she separated from him during her police academy which she graduated from, no thanks to his multiple disruptions, and caught a virus a month into her training. Today, she is still in rehab working hard to resume her life, he texts that he was with the violent protests, he passed the exam and is a firefighter now in Asheville, they looted and graffiti was everywhere. I am encouraging boundaries, encouraging her recovery and praying for clarity…I am going to read all you have, praying for her and all…learning she has to make the break, not divorced yet. Thanks for insight.