(OMTimes | Marcia Sirota) It’s not the victim of abuse’s fault that they’re being abused today, but it is their responsibility to change.
When victims of abuse justify the abuser’s behavior
Lately, I’ve been noticing how a lot of people who are in abusive relationships have a habit of minimizing the bad behavior of their abusers. They rationalize and justify the other person’s behavior and it allows them to tolerate the unacceptable.
It’s sad that people are being abused but it’s even sadder that those who are most vulnerable seem to be protecting their abusers and creating justifications for their hurtful behavior. These victims of abuse need to see the truth of what’s happening to them, and they need to make it stop. So why aren’t they doing this?
In general, people who find themselves in abusive relationships as adults have also experienced childhood abuse. The traumatic experiences of their childhood set them up for future abusive relationships. There are psychological reasons for this.
When a child grows up being abused, it damages their sense of self. Children naturally personalize their experiences, so if they’re loved and cherished, they grow up feeling good about themselves.
If children are abused, they grow up thinking that they’re bad. These children believe that they’re undeserving of good treatment and this belief extends into their adult life, at least on an unconscious level.
When a child grows up being abused, it’s not just that they’re being hurt. Abusers make sure that the child sees the abuse as “normal,” “acceptable,” and what the child “deserves.”
The abuser wants to keep on abusing, and they don’t want to deal with any upset feelings on the part of their victim, so they normalize their unacceptable behavior until the victim thinks that it’s just the way things are, and the way things have to be.
The abuser will blame the victim, telling them that they did something to “deserve” the mistreatment they received. Of course, this is completely false. There’s nothing that a child could ever do that would justify their being abused. If a child misbehaves, even if they misbehave really badly, they deserve an appropriate consequence; never abuse.
Another thing the abuser does is called “crazy-making,” by saying that the victim’s (normal and appropriate) reactions to the abuse are bad, wrong, crazy and selfish.
The abuser accuses the victim of over-reacting. They say that the victim is being “controlling,” in trying to stop the abuser from being their “authentic self.”
Sometimes the abuser bullies the child into silence. If the child is crying, the abuser might say, “Shut up, or I’ll give you something to cry about,” essentially threatening to inflict even worse abuse if the child demonstrates any type of normal reaction.
Sometimes, the abuser makes their victim feel guilty and ashamed for having their perfectly appropriate reaction to the abuser’s bad behavior. The child is convinced by the devious, manipulative abuser that they’re the hurtful one.
After all of this bullying and crazy-making, the victim is no longer able to mount an appropriate defense against the abuse.
Eventually, the abuser convinces their victim that this is the way normal relationships operate, or at least that this is the best that their victim can ever do. Again, these ideas are false. Abuse is never part of a normal relationship.
Abuse is bad and it’s wrong and it should never be seen as normal or acceptable. The victim can and should do better, and it’s not at all inevitable that they tolerate abuse in their future relationships.
As the abused person grows up, just like any other person they’re attracted to what’s familiar. All human beings are most comfortable with what they’re used to, even if what they’re used to is abuse.
Quite often, the child who was abused has developed something called “learned helplessness.” If no-one rescued them from the abuse, they’d come to believe that there was nothing that anyone could do to stop the abuse.
If someone has learned helplessness as an adult, they’ll be convinced that they’re unable to defend themselves from abuse or walk away from their abuser.
Another reason why victims of childhood abuse end up in abusive relationships as adults is that on an unconscious level they’re trying to sort out the abuse they experienced by recreating similar scenarios in their adult life.
It’s not that they “want” to be abused again, but deep down inside, they’re compelled to figure out and resolve their past experiences. They need to make sense of what happened to them, and why.
This brings us into adult relationships. The former victim of abuse is unconsciously attracted to a person who’s abusive and then when they get hurt, their reaction is abnormal. They don’t like the abuse, but immediately, like a reflex, they start to talk themselves out of their reaction.
They’ve internalized their abuser’s messages and automatically recite the party line: “It’s not so bad; I’m over-reacting; I did something to deserve it.”
This sets up the person either for a long-term abusive relationship or for multiple instances of abuse over the course of their life.
It doesn’t help that their present-day abusers will do exactly the same thing as their childhood abusers once did. Today’s abusers will tell them that their normal reactions to the abuse are bad and wrong and excessive; that the victim is abusive for having these reactions; that the abuser didn’t do anything so bad, or that the victim somehow “provoked” the abuser and therefore “deserved” what they got.
The tragedy of abuse is that it operates on two levels; there’s the abuse and there’s the crazy-making around the abuse.
Every victim of abuse needs to see that nothing they did could ever justify the abuse they experienced. The victims need to see that abuse is always about the abuser’s need to inflict harm and never about what the victim “provoked” or “deserves.”
Childhood victims of abuse are trapped in their situations and depend on other adults to rescue them from their abusers. Adult victims of abuse are capable of rescuing themselves but in order to do this, they need to see that the abuser’s behavior is completely unacceptable and that they are absolutely entitled to walk away from it.
Often, the best way that a victim of abuse can start to make a change is to enter into psychotherapy, where they’ll recognize that they were abused as a child and understand how they’ve gotten themselves into this recurrent pattern of abusive adult relationships.
Therapy offers victims of abuse the opportunity to heal the emotional wounds caused by the years of abuse; it enables them to silence the negative voice within that repeats the mantra that they deserve the abuse and nothing more, and it empowers them to build strong reserves of self-love and self-compassion.
It’s not the victim’s fault that they’re being abused today, but it is their responsibility to change. With increased awareness, as well as increased self-love and self-care, a person who’s been a victim of abuse all their life can finally see the abuse and the abuser for what they are and walk away forever.
About the author
Marcia Sirota MD FRCP(C) is a board-certified psychiatrist, that does not ascribe to any one theoretical school. Rather, she has integrated her education and life experiences into a unique approach to the practice of psychotherapy. She considers herself a realist with a healthy measure of optimism.
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