Because we aren’t either all bad or all good, the abusive person is often loving in other ways.
These strengths don’t make up for the abuse, but they are part of what makes admitting that this person is abusive so difficult. Admitting that they are abusive must mean that they are a monster. Could we really have shared special moments with a monster we wonder.
This is the point when we rationalize that the abusive person is damaged. As their partner, we see how hurt they really are inside. They told us in moments of intimacy about their ex who cheated on them and left them suspicious of lovers.
They told us about their neglectful or even abusive parents. They told us about their losses and heartbreaks. Sometimes, they use these relational traumas as excuses for their cruelty. Sometimes, we draw the line between their heartbreaks to their cruelty for them. We become excellent psychologists. We theorize how these past experiences have shaped their present view of the world. We explain away their behavior.
We vow to save them. We will show them that there is love. They are worthy of being loved and we will prove it. We will be steadfast and unshakable in this endeavor. You are correct in your diagnosis: This person needs a corrective experience. And, yes, we all deserve to be loved. Your empathy truly is deep and beautiful, and just what this world needs more of. The problem is that we can’t simply love the dysfunction out of someone.
That’s a task for the professionals. This is especially true if we have some of our own “stuff” to work on. We can’t convince someone not to be abusive by failing to set boundaries or hold them accountable for their actions. Change does not come through participating in the same patterns we are used to.
When we find ourselves in an abusive relationship, we can also look to our own past to understand our patterns in relationships. Sometimes, we focus on saving others in order to distract ourselves from our own growth. It is a benevolent attempt to control, but it has negative consequences.
It is a result of missing out on stability and security. When we were children, our households may have been chaotic and our parents may have lacked emotional maturity. On the milder side of the spectrum, our parents were emotionally neglectful. They relied on us to take care of their emotions, they confided in us as though we were their friend or partner, they put us in care-taking roles for siblings or themselves, they forced us to grow up when we were still children, and they modeled unhealthy relationships and unhealthy coping.
As a child, this was confusing. Children shouldn’t have that much control, and they don’t want it. But, here you were being put in an adult role. Despite the confusion, it may have given you a sense of power where you really had no power. Taking care of needy loved ones can feel empowering. And yet, it robs us of our own growth as we focus on how to improve others instead of how to improve and heal ourselves.
The more urgent truths in many families, was that our bodies were actually violated with sexual and physical abuse. We learned we have no power to say “no” and we were never given the opportunity to set boundaries. Our sense of safety was annihilated. Again, we found ways to cope with this awful reality. We learned from it. What I want to acknowledge here is that we experienced a spectrum of abuses, none of which are excusable. As we acknowledge what happened to us was abuse, we realize that our previous experiences shape the way we have relationships now.
We can give that recognition to the abuser, but can we be that gentle and forgiving with ourselves? It is not your fault that you learned that love and abuse are entwined. One awful effect of childhood abuse is the normalization of abuse.We learn that it is just the way relationships are. This, of course, is false. But, it is not an easy path to unlearning. If this is the way we have experienced relationships, then we wonder if we will know how to find the healthy relationship where love does not come at a cost to our selfhood. We will have to navigate the unknown.
Although this is good, it feels difficult. Healing will mean letting go of styles of relating that worked when we were children trapped in abusive families. It will mean accepting that we are responsible only for ourselves, and that is the only person we can change. No longer can we indulge in other’s neediness. We will have to set boundaries. We will have to let go of hoping to save our partner.
One of the hardest parts of accepting this might be that you know the person you love is not going to choose to change. This person gets a lot out of having relationships that are unequal. They get a partner who is willing to make allowances for them, do what they want, and not question them. They get a partner who obeys them, who goes far out of her/his way to quiet their insecurities, to answer their questions, to comfort them, and to anticipate their needs. Why give that up?
It would take admitting that the way they have been behaving is cruel and abusive. It would take facing a dark part of themselves and identifying with a population of people that no one wants to be lumped in with. It would take accepting consequences and doing difficult, soul-searching work. Besides, there are no consequences for their actions. No one is forcing them to change or face their behavior.
Their partner makes excuses for them and protects them from consequences, they have discredited exes that may have spoken up, they probably haven’t been arrested or lost anything over their behavior. If the police have ever responded, the police may have actually sided with them. There is a widespread rhetoric of victim blaming in our society where emotional and psychological abuse in relationships is normalized. Why change? The gains far outweigh the consequences.
That means we need to let go of our need to see the abuser change or heal. We need to accept that remaining damaged is that person’s choice. Their abusive behavior is their choice. But, we do not need to make unhealthy choices. We can distant ourselves from them and hold them accountable for their choices. We can even still see them as needing help or love without being the ones to give it. Because we can’t save them at the cost of ourselves.
We must save ourselves. And, every time that we do heal ourselves, we actually contribute to the greater healing of the world. In this way, healing ourselves is the most humanitarian thing we can do.