Why does someone repeatedly hurt someone they claim to love? How is it possible for someone to break bones and even kill their partner and still believe they love them? This article tries to shed some light on these questions.
Most articles about family violence and abusive relationships focus on educating the targets of violence and abuse about such relationships. In this article I want to focus more on the person performing family violence and on something that has become apparent to me about these relationships.
Research has shown one of the main reasons why people put up with abuse in their relationships is pity. The person who is being abused often feels sorry for the person who is abusing them and this can be hard for others to understand.
During my work with abusive partners one thing has struck me over and over again and that is how vulnerable abusive people often are underneath all their abusive behaviour.
The following diagram is an attempt to illustrate the world of an abusive person.
Sometimes these people seem to lack a core or “self” of their own so they place their partner in that central position. This leaves them utterly at the mercy of that person so they feel acutely vulnerable. To offset this they behave in ways designed to gain absolute control over the person who now occupies centre stage in their sense of who they are.
They surround, or attempt to surround, that person with themselves and they try to keep everyone, and everything, else away from their “core” for fear of losing it.
The problem with a relationship like this is that the person will feel threatened by anything they do not feel in control of. If their “core” tries to have a life of “its” own they feel threatened. I am using the term it because people tend to dehumanise the target of their violence.
Their insecure position surrounding empty space means they cannot tolerate their “core” loving any other person. Not even friends or family. They reject their partners right to be themselves because, in their mind, that person is no longer a seperate person. They are as much a part of them as their arm or leg and they need as much control over that person as they have over their own limbs.
Abusive people inspire pity because, when they are at risk of losing their partner, their panic and pain is massive. This is because, for them, they are literally in danger of losing themselves and their whole world starts to fall apart.
When you realise this about an abusive person you can understand how it is possible for them to say their partner is their whole world yet they treat them worse than they would treat their worst enemy. It is, in fact, true that their partner is their whole world but the operative word here is theirs! They constantly hurt the person they claim to love so much because they are constantly trying to stop that person from being separate, in any way, from them.
The more entrenched an abusive person’s partner becomes in their “core” the more control they need over that person. They begin trying to control every part of the other person’s life up to, and including, their mind. They often try to replace the thoughts and feelings of their partner by, in a sense, brainwashing them. They will repeatedly tell their partner they are lying about what they say they think or feel. They persistently insist their beliefs about what their partner is thinking or feeling are all that matter because they are the truth.
The abuser seems to develop a kind of split personality perspective about their partner. Their partner becomes their “core” but they are also their enemy. The partner is an essential part of them but constantly threatens their well being through attempts to be an individual. Anything the partner does that is outside the control of the abuser becomes the work of an enemy who is trying to destroy them. The partner becomes both the source of their well being and the source of their fears.
The following diagram illustrates both what the abusive person is afraid of and what their lives actually become like if they lose their “core”.
They become empty, hollow, and desolate. This arouses panic, anger, rage and they will move heaven and earth to get their “core” back. They feel entitled to have it back – it belongs to them as surely as their arms and legs belong to them. They will say and do whatever it takes to get it back.
They are not lying to their partner because, in their minds, they are telling the truth. They really will do whatever they have to do to get their core self back but, because their partner does not really exist, the abuser quickly goes back to trying to control the enemy within as soon as things settle down. He or she is not able to see the partner as anything other than a part of them so any attempt the partner makes to be a real person in their own right is viewed as traitorous and threatening. This is why the target of abuse often feels their partner views them, and treats them, like their worst enemy rather than their cherished partner.
The complete collapse, the desolation, the distress of an abuser who is losing his “core” is heart wrenching to see. It can arouse intense pity in the abused partner and they will try, again, to make the relationship work. They cannot understand how it is possible to love someone the way their abusive partner clearly loves them without changing. They can see how much they mean to their partner and this makes them believe that, one day, their partner will change to avoid losing them for good.
They are wrong. Their partner will simply put more and more strategies into place to try and keep them under control because that’s what you do when someone is out to take what is yours – you fight them.
Sooner or later, however, the person who is being denied their right to be a person will find it just too painful to bear any longer. Their faith in the power of love to overcome abuse will die and they will start to feel more pity for themselves than they do for their partner. When that happens they will leave.
If these diagrams ring true for you, or seem to be an accurate portrayal of your partner, you are in a toxic relationship. The only way out, other than ending the relationship, is for the abuser to create a real self capable of existing without the substitute “core”.
Some abusive people aim for learning to exist with the empty space but this is not living!
Replacing the hollow space inside you with a sense of yourself as a whole person in your own right is better. Learning to be complete without someone else to take the place as your core is the only cure for being a toxic person in a relationship.
If your world looks like one of the above diagrams have a look at the following diagram. I have explained this diagram in the Mental Health Safety Net article elsewhere on this site but this is how your world could, and should, look.
You may be able to reach this goal without any help but you will get there a lot faster if you do seek help. Counsellors are trained to help people make these kinds of changes so I would encourage you to seek one you feel comfortable with.
A lot of people worry about seeking help for abusive behaviour. They fear what the counsellor will think of them. I can’t speak for all the counsellors in the world but I’m pretty certain there are few, if any, who would not admire any abusive person who seeks help to change.
It takes intelligence to recognise what you are doing is wrong. It takes massive amounts of courage to commit to trying to change yourself. Any counsellor with any experience is well aware of what a hard thing it is to do and will admire anyone who is genuinely willing to do it.
Living on the good-will of someone who pities you because, without them, you are nothing is no way to live. You are someone. Make an appointment with a therapist and go find out who you really are underneath the hollow exterior soon. Do it for you!