Spring has arrived and thoughts turn to love. Those who are already in relationships are enjoying all the benefits of couple-hood. Some people, however, aren't very happy at all. These are the ones who are in abusive relationships.
The term, "abusive relationship" is thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? In my experience as a therapist, it's a relationship that causes more harm than good. It's an interaction that's damaging and undermining as opposed to loving, supportive and uplifting.
An abusive relationship can be hurtful in any number of ways — physically, emotionally, sexually or financially. The abuser is often contemptuous, crazy-making, humiliating, intimidating and/or rejecting.
This type of relationship makes the abused person feel diminished and humiliated. It makes them feel stupid, ugly, useless and undeserving of good things. The abuser may even make their victim feel incompetent and incapable of self-care or of holding down a job.
Abusers are ultra-controlling and hyper-critical. They may separate their partner from their support system and from anyone who could point out what the abuser is actually doing. They destroy their partner's confidence and convince their partner that they can't survive without them. Sometimes, they'll threaten to attack their partner if they talk about leaving the relationship.
They don't mean to do this, but their trauma history sets them up for it.
A romantic connection should make both partners happy. The relationship should bring out the best in both people and make them feel good about themselves. It should be predominantly enjoyable and enriching, and less frequently unpleasant or stressful. Abusive relationships have the opposite effect.
So how might someone get into a relationship that becomes abusive? From my years of working as a psychotherapist, I've observed five reasons that come up often. These all have one thing in common, in that each of them originates in childhood trauma.
A child who grows up with severe abuse, neglect or both develops attitudes, expectations, beliefs and psychological defence mechanisms which can make them more susceptible to being mistreated as adults. They don't mean to do this, but their trauma history sets them up for it.
Here are the five reasons why people get into abusive relationships:
Not feeling like they're deserving of a good relationship
The child who grows up in a hurtful environment takes it personally when they're mistreated. Children believe that it's their fault when others hurt them. Being abused as a child convinces them that they're "bad" and they deserve the same mistreatment in their adult relationships.
Expecting the worst from people because it's familiar
The things that happen to us in childhood become our "normal." If we were abused as a child, we grow up believing that this is the way everyone will treat us. In our minds, it's just the way things are. When an abusive person comes along we figure, that's the nature of romantic relationships.
The repetition compulsion
Some victims of childhood abuse are driven by powerful unconscious needs for healing. They're repeatedly drawn to people who remind them of their hurtful parent(s) and they compulsively try to change these hurtful people into loving, caring ones. The underlying wish is to rewrite their story with a new ending and thereby heal themselves. Unfortunately, this never works, and all that happens is that they stay in abusive relationships, waiting and hoping for the transformation that will never come.
It's important to stress that when someone gets involved with an abuser it's not their fault.
Blind spots for abusive people
Many people who were abused as a child found it much too painful to face the truth about their parents. It was too difficult to see them as cruel or neglectful, because these were the people who were supposed to love and protect them. As adults, it hurts too much to acknowledge the truth about Mom or Dad. Unfortunately, this denial around their parents has a tendency to extend to everyone in their adult life. They're unable to see abusive partners for who they really are, no matter how badly these people treat them.
They're set up as prey
People with a history of childhood trauma tend to carry emotional wounds and are therefore more susceptible to being preyed upon by abusers. They walk around with poor self-confidence, feelings of unworthiness and a sense of "learned helplessness" that comes from not having been able to escape the abuse as a child. Predators see them as easy marks and will exploit their vulnerability.
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It's important to stress that when someone gets involved with an abuser it's not their fault. They're not being "stupid" or "crazy" or "asking for it." The wounds from their childhood have set them up for abuse in their adult relationships. They're not making the choice consciously or deliberately.
It's my hope that when people understand why they find themselves in abusive relationships, they can recognize the trauma that's driving their behaviour and begin to seek out healing.
Knowing what's at the heart of a person's seemingly self-destructive choices, their friends and family can be more supportive, especially around helping them find the appropriate therapeutic resources.
It's time to stop criticizing and blaming the victims of abusive relationships. We need to be more understanding toward them and help them find the emotional healing that will enable them to make better relationship choices, moving forward.
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