Abusive relationships definitely fall into the category of the Dark Side of Love. As a psychotherapist, I worked with quite a few women who had been in such relationships, often repeatedly picking out one abusive man after another.
Many people, on the outside looking in, wonder why battered women stay with these men. Indeed, why are they attracted to such brutes to begin with? These sound like simple enough questions but they have multiple and complicated answers.
First, the woman was almost always emotionally, and very often physically and/or sexually, abused as a child. This has several impacts on her psyche that can contribute to her later attraction to an abusive man. It has set her up to be a victim. Being abused is normal; it’s what so-called loved ones do to each other.
photo by Concha Garcia Hernandez, CC-BY-SA license 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)
Secondly, having an abusive father sets her up to be attracted to abusive men because of a phenomenon called transference. All of us experience this phenomenon, to some extent, in that we transfer feelings, issues, expectations from our relationships with parents growing up (and sometimes siblings) onto our relationships in adulthood. Indeed, we tend to pick out romantic partners who remind us subconsciously of the parent(s) with whom we still have unresolved issues.
This operates very much outside of conscious awareness and sometimes the similarities are quite subtle. I realized when I first started studying psychology in college that I was picking out guys like my father. This was not a good thing. I spent three years in therapy before I broke that trend.
I was so proud of myself when I met and then became engaged to my husband. He was soooo different from my father. It took me twelve years of marriage to realize I had married my mother.
Fortunately, in many relationships we manage to stay together despite this unconscious stuff working against us. Some of us just muddle through; others realize what’s going on and deal with the transference issues more head on. My husband and I finally got some counseling. He worked on the behaviors that pushed my “mother” buttons; I worked on disconnecting the wires from those buttons so they weren’t so easily activated.
But why, you might ask, would we be attracted to someone who has the same traits we disliked in one of our parents? And especially why would someone be attracted to an abusive person?
This is how that works subconsciously. Essentially the psyche is trying to set up the old situation but get a different outcome. This is due to the tendency of children to assume that everything is their fault (we see this most blatantly when parents divorce and the child thinks it’s because of something s/he did).
If Dad was mean to the child, it must be because the child did something to deserve that mean treatment. So if s/he can love somebody just like dear old Dad, and get him to not be mean, then that shows that s/he is loveable now. Whatever was wrong with them in childhood is now somehow fixed.
The little kid inside the person’s psyche completely misses the point that Dad acted mean because Dad was a mean person! And this other mean guy isn’t going to stop being mean; you can’t love him into changing.
As if that isn’t complicated and powerful enough, there’s another element operating here as well. Most abusive men are true Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes. Or as many abused women would say, “street angel, home devil.” He’s sweet and charming–Mr. Nice Guy–to everyone, except his wife and kids. With them, he’s an S.O.B.
Now before I go any further, let me point out that he came by his issues honestly as well. Abusers were also almost always abused as kids; that’s where they learned that aberrant behavior. But that’s an explanation, not an excuse. (I’m thinking I’ll do a follow-up to this post soon, with more on how abusive men get to be that way.)
He really is both of these guys. The sweet, charming side very often sweeps the woman off her feet. The relationship moves very quickly and he showers her with all the signs of love–flowers, attention, romantic dates. He wants her hooked before she has a chance to really get to know him.
Once she’s emotionally committed to the relationship, things start to change, sometimes gradually, sometimes rather abruptly. I had one client who said her husband showed no signs of being abusive before the wedding, but the second day of their honeymoon was the first time he hit her.
Image from Wikimedia
So why does she stay once his evil side makes an appearance? Some women actually don’t; they get out right away. We don’t usually hear about them.
All too many do stay, however, for awhile at least. Why? Because once he’s gotten his pent-up rage out, he often is apologetic and promises not to do it again.
The sweet guy she fell in love with is back, and she wants to believe him. She wants to believe that it was all an aberration, a momentary loss of control that won’t happen again. And there is that subconscious programming to be a victim operating as well.
Often by the time she realizes it is going to keep happening, he has torn down her self-confidence, isolated her from her friends and family and made her completely financially dependent on him. There are more factors that contribute to why she stays, but those are the biggies. She has come to believe that she can’t leave.
Fortunately there are all kinds of resources out there these days to help women in this situation, if they can only get up the nerve to reach out for help. And it does take a lot of nerve. He has taught her all too well that he is a scary guy! And he has threatened to track her down and kill her if she tries to leave.
Below are some of those resources.
On a somewhat lighter note, please do enter Bianca’s contest. My novel, Multiple Motives, is one of the prizes.
Also, please sign up to follow our blog at http://misteriopress.com if you want to be notified when my follow-up post comes out (on why men become abusive).
Resources for battered partners:
An excellent article on how to get out of an abusive relationship from HELPGUIDE.org
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 / 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
The International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies (a global list of help lines, shelters, and crisis centers).
Legal info plus a state-by-state directory of shelters, and other resources at WomensLaw.org
Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist and college professor who now writes murder mysteries. She is the author of the Kate Huntington mystery series.
Bianca’s Note: What a fascinating post into the psychology behind abusive relationships. Many thanks to Kassandra for her insight into this often complex epidemic.
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