I’ve been thinking deeply about things during the last month or more. I’ve attempted to write about my thoughts several times but I haven’t been able to find the right words. My brain sees many, many connections between related topics, that connect to other topics, and still more topics, so when I write about something complicated, it’s difficult to know where to jump in or which strand to follow. In following one line of thought, there are many other equally important related topics that go untold.
I want to write about an aspect of abuse that I’ve struggled with. It relates to a reason I think many victims find it difficult to leave their abusers. It relates to the abuse cycle. Which relates to abuse dynamics. Which relates to emotional abuse. Which also relates to Psalms 55:12-14. And also what characteristics an abuser looks for when choosing a victim. Much could be written about any one of these things. I’m not sure which point to address first or where to go from there. If a person doesn’t understand any one of those topics, perhaps he can’t fully understand the one I’m writing about. Usually when I write, I lay a basic foundation and build on it, but how far back do I go? I could get bogged down laying the foundation and never get to what I am trying to write about. See my problem? Oy
It feels complicated, vast, and overwhelming.
Sometimes people compare different forms of abuse, rating one form as worse than another. I think that’s a lot like comparing different forms of murder. Which is worse, to be strangled, stabbed, shot, poisoned, hung? Which is the worst kind of abuse: sexual, physical, financial, or emotional? I think all is bad. In the end, no matter how a victim was murdered, he is dead. Dead is dead. There is no better way to be murdered, ok? Neither is there a better way to be abused.
The tactics used by the abuser in each form of abuse is very similar. So are the effects on the victim. So is the way bystanders react to accounts of abuse.
Victims of every form of abuse get caught in what is called the “abuse cycle.” The cycle is like this:
I’ve experienced emotional abuse, mostly from family. I’ve experienced abusers provoking a conflict, then exploding in rage, insulting, accusing, belittling, blaming. The provoking/rage is crazy and there is no way to win because every action is wrong no matter what it is.
Many times in the face of such rage, I have remained calm and not defended myself. This doesn’t work either. I’ve had an abusive person keep provoking and provoking, getting more and more insulting until I finally had enough and react, and then I’ve been criticized for reacting. Often I’ve witnessed the abuser become really calm when I react, and then he (or she) has accused me of being the provoker, over-emotional, and “you need to apologize” or “we both have issues we need to work on.” I’ve had an abuser keep re-igniting the conflict–I think it’s over but he returns to say “I’m sorry, but….” and then the conflict restarts. If I try to explain my position, he (or she) says that I’m keeping the conflict going. Grrrrr.
After the time of anger is the period of reconciliation. The abuser acts like nothing happen–sweetly chats as if there wasn’t just a huge conflict just a short time before. Or he says it wasn’t that bad, he did nothing wrong and I got upset or cried for nothing. Or he says he’s sorry…and then acts slightly offended if he is not immediately forgiven (and everything forgotten.)
Although the period of anger is very battering, I think the reconciliation/calmness is almost more damaging. Because it’s then that the victim begins to wonder if maybe she did over-react, or misunderstand, and maybe she is really unloving and unforgiving. And if she said something unkind in reaction to the abuse, she feels overwhelmed with guilt and doubts and second-guesses herself. And “maybe the abuser is really genuinely sorry”? So she forgives. This is the time she isn’t sure what is real or who she is: Is she good or evil? Is she right or wrong? Is she the monster???? I think it was Dr. George Simon who said that if a “character disturbed person” can get a victim to doubt herself, he is able to then easily manipulate her. Simon has studied such people for decades. His website is full of very good information.
Most people will apologize if they have done something to hurt another person, and they will genuinely try to change. There will be noticeable improvement in behavior. That’s called repentance. But an abuser will not improve. The cycle repeats, and repeats, and repeats and the abuser’s behavior in each part of the cycle never changes. In fact, it often grows worse.
So why doesn’t a victim “get wise” and just leave?
There are several reasons.
First, there is Psalms 55:12-14:
For it was not an enemy who insulted me;
if it had been, I could have borne it.
It was not my adversary who treated me with scorn;
if it had been, I could have hidden myself.
But it was you, a man of my own kind,
my companion, whom I knew well.
We used to share our hearts with each other;
in the house of God we walked with the crowd.
Anyone can recognize an enemy if he looks evil, like Darth Vader. Duh. When we recognize an enemy as an enemy, we can easily endure, hide, or defend ourselves. The problem is when the “enemy” wears the face of someone you love–your family member, or best friend, or other trusted person.
Most of my abusers have been family members. Because I loved them so deeply, I wanted to see the best in them, and I wanted to forgive them, and I wanted to work on the relationship, and I didn’t want to give up on them, and I wanted to believe that they were really sorry when they hurt me, or that they didn’t mean it, or it was some misunderstanding. I even excused and endured their abuse because I thought they were wounded inside and needed unconditional love and forgiveness. So I kept trying and trying and trying. When nothing worked, I felt that if only I had explain differently or better, they would understand that I love them. So I kept trying: again and again and again.
Abusers specifically target people who are very conscientious, compassionate, loving, forgiving, and willing to see the best in people because these people will keep trying and not give up on them. Natalie Hoffman describes this very well in her post, What Kind of Woman Does an Abusive Man Go For? She writes about intimate relationships, but it applies to any sort of relationship. I’ve been reading Natalie’s blog lately. It’s very, very good.
The victim recovers less and less quickly from the battering of the explosive rage in the cycle, and she sees that the “sorrys” are hollow because they aren’t genuine. The abuser never improves, his explosive rages are just as bad as the one before (or worse). She has tried to be more loving, more forgiving, more patient. She has explained to the abuser how he has hurt her and confronted him. Nothing has worked. Eventually, the victim has had ENOUGH.
Natalie Hoffman has written an amazing article called Seven Predictable Things Your Emotional Abuser Does When You Set Boundaries. The things she described are very accurate. It takes a while for a victim to finally escape because at first she believes the abuser wants to change, and she gets drawn back into the abuse cycle. But eventually, as Natalie wrote, after she has unsuccessfully tried and tried and tried to restore the relationship,
She senses everything slipping away, and she makes the decision to go for all or nothing. This empowers her to establish more powerful consequences in a a last attempt to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue.
It is here that she chooses to separate. She is now ready to take her last stand, finally accepting the fact that she cannot control her abusive partner and his flying monkeys, but she CAN control her own choices and what she will or will not put up with.
Natalie also wrote:
“The most loving thing you can do to an offender is give them a boundary. When you give an unrepentant offender a boundary, they fling their stuff on you and go running the other direction! So you have to be willing to say goodbye. Until you are, you’ll be stuck trying to make it work by yourself, and that will mean pretending, placating, avoiding, and stuffing. You think that’s a real relationship?”
This is a difficult heartbreaking decision because this person was “my companion, whom I knew well [or thought I did]. We used to share our hearts with each other.” But finally, finally, the victim sets the boundaries of what she will accept and what she will not, and she separates. It’s not that she never set boundaries or confronted before, but now she’s going for “all or nothing” and willing to say goodbye.
The victim has been very strong and courageous to reach this point. But this is when things really get rough because the abuser unleashes his full anger and smears her reputation, and tries to turn others–her family, her friends, her church–against her by appearing to be charming and repentant. More often than not, he is successful and she loses almost everyone she loved and trusted. The victim (now a survivor) has courageously stood up to her abuser. Now she must stand up against everyone else. Knowingly or not, they become the accomplice of the abuser. They batter her with the very same messages her abuser did: “It’s your fault. You must have provoked him (or her). You need to be more loving and forgiving. You need to work on your sins. You are critical, negative, angry, bitter, unsupportive, without grace. If you leave the relationship, you are dishonoring God.”
I think this is a very lonely, difficult time for an abuse survivor. She has lost almost everyone in her life. She wonders if maybe she is really the monster that everyone believes she is. She wonders if she has done the right thing. She feels guilt. But she knows she must escape the abuse and she holds firm. Gradually, away from the abusive situation, she recovers and she finds new freedom and peace.
Dr. George Simon says that “character-disturbed people” are becoming more and more common. Abusive people can appear to be very charming and nice to everyone except their victims, which they hurt in private. I absolutely believe that people need to educate themselves on the dynamics of abuse so they do not become the abuser’s victim or accomplice. Knowledge and understanding is of utmost importance.