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Recognizing and Changing an Abusive Relationship

heartsThere are three essential elements to an abusive relationship:

  • Consistent occurrences of power and control by perpetrator
  • Chronic feelings and displays of disrespect
  • Unhealthy attachment mistaken for love

Abusers are highly deceptive and others, including the victim, have no idea that he is being abusive at all.  He deceptively hides the fact that the above three factors are occurring in the relationship.  He purposefully undermines his victim’s individuality and confidence by dominating conversations and suppressing her identity, making her into a mere object for his purposes. He minimizes anything about her, including her opinions, accomplishments, concerns, feelings, or desires.  This causes her to do the same and she learns to minimize herself as well.

He has a chronic attitude of disrespect towards his partner.  Abuse and respect are polar opposites.  A respectful relationship is not abusive and an abusive relationship does not contain respect.  An abuser views his partner as his property, which allows him to feel powerful and in charge.  It is essential for an abuser to feel this way because he has a fragile ego and delicate sense of self.  Without feeling more powerful than his partner he feels weak and vulnerable.  Feeling any sense of vulnerability taps into his sense of powerless, which he is unwilling to experience for any reason.  As long as he sees himself in the “one up” position his fragile ego is kept at bay.

An abusive person is incapable of true intimacy.  A victim always holds on to the “promise” that the abuse will stop and she will one day have closeness with her partner.  This keeps her in a constant state of dependency, causing her to feel a strong sense of attachment which she mistakes for love.  An abuser may act like he loves his victim, and he may even believe that he does love her.  He enjoys receiving her love and affection, so long as he is the receiver of the loving acts, but he only treats his partner lovingly when he feels like it or because he is trying to manipulate her into doing something he wants.  This may be a toxic connection, but it definitely is not love.

The victim begins to believe that her partner has anger management problems or an inability to resolve conflict; neither is true.  Abusers cannot be helped by anger management or conflict resolution training.  Abuse is caused by the mentality, or belief system of the abuser. The abuser has developed a deeply ingrained sense of superiority and entitlement, which does not go away by learning how to manage anger or resolve conflicts. Abusers use anger to control. They cause conflicts to abuse their partner, show their superiority, and keep intimacy away (because, intimacy requires vulnerability, a feeling abusers avoid at all costs.)

Abuse is not the same as conflict.  A conflict involves a difference of opinion.  Abuse involves the need for the abuser to stifle the feelings, thoughts, opinions, and values of the abused.  An abuser refuses to accept any accountability or responsibility for any of the problems in the relationship. His hallmark attitude is one of superiority and blame.  It is not the conflict that is the problem. The abuser caused the conflict in the first place.  There can be no resolution.

Counselors need to understand the abusive dynamic for what it is, and stop further hurting victims by teaching them how to “approach their partner appropriately,” or “pick the right time to address something,” or “be the bigger person and apologize first.”  All of these statements made by counselors just contribute to emboldening the abuser’s position and invalidating the victim’s experience.

Realize that abusive incidents need not be provoked.  Abuse can seemingly come out of nowhere.  Abusers can choose any reason to blame his victim for an abusive incident.  Abusers abuse because they choose to.  It is the abusive mindset that allows them to abuse for a number of reasons:

(1) They are unhappy and they don’t know what to do with their emotions.

(2) They dump their rage and shame on others.

(3) They may have a narcissistic or anti-social personality disorders.

(4) They feel in control, powerful, strong, and superior, which helps them keep all weak, needy, and vulnerable emotions hidden.

(5) Some people abuse because they were taught this as children and operate out of this inner working relationship dynamic.

Whether abuse is physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, financial, spiritual, or some rendition of all of these, there are some basic components of abuse; these are:  blame, criticism, neglect, oppression, minimization, rigidity, ridicule, lies, invalidation, lack of accountability, no remorse, no apologies, repeated, name calling, double standards, violence, and a consistent lack of empathy.

Realize that abuse, like addiction, is a chronic “disease” that progresses with time, meaning it only gets worse.  Can an abuser be cured?  Of course anything is possible; but, to be sure, there are certain signs that an abuser is changing:  (a) he is willing to be accountable to his spouse and others; (b) he is willing to never have a sense of entitlement in any relationship, for any reason, ever again; (c) he shows self-reflection and insight; (d) he stops blaming others or minimizing, justifying, or rationalizing his own attitudes and behaviors; (e) he listens to and validates others, including his spouse; (f) while he is never going to be perfect, when he messes up, he apologizes, shows insight into what he did wrong, shows remorse, and changes.

Abusers in recovery are just like alcoholics in recovery.  Alcoholics can never even have one drink ever again in order to maintain sobriety. Abusers can’t be like “normal” people who may be rude or disrespectful at times. True recovery for an abuser is that he does not allow himself to ever be rude, disrespectful, entitled, or invalidating ever again. Instead, he is humble and compassionate at all times. No excuses.

A competent counselor will realize that recovery for an abuser needs to be different than what he expects from other clients. Coddling an abuser and showing him empathy only exacerbate the problem.  An abuser has spent way too much time focusing on his own feelings at the expense of others.  A recovering abuser, must instead, focus on others’ feelings instead of his own.

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Recognizing and Changing an Abusive Relationship

Sharie Stines, Psy.D

Sharie Stines, Psy.D. is a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at LIfeline Counseling & Education Inc., in Southern California (www.lifelinecounselingservices.org). Lifeline Counseling is a non-profit organization 501(c)(3) corporation. Sharie is also an abusive relationship recovery coach - therecoveryexpert.com

 


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APA Reference
Stines, S. (2016). Recognizing and Changing an Abusive Relationship. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2018, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/recovery-expert/2016/08/recognizing-and-changing-an-abusive-relationship/