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Doc@DrIrene.com

The Abuser is the Victim?

The Abuser is the Victim?

by Dr. Irene

Updated February 4, 2000

The initial assessment of a new case is like reading a good mystery. I'm never sure how the story will unfold.

The plot thickens when I interview a self-proclaimed victim with a long tale detailing abuse endured at the hands of their partner. Sometimes it is true. Other times it is really the other way around. Sometimes it is both ways around.

Will the real victim please stand up? One tip-off: the "real" victim is usually insecure, unsure of themselves, and confused. Usually, the angrier and more acting out (e.g., screaming, etc.) they behave, the more responsible they feel. Usually, but not always...

One young woman I work with was miserable that her wonderful husband wanted to leave her.  She couldn't really blame him for wanting to leave because she was so awful. She admitted to angry and cutting outbursts that she could not control. In fact, she was coming to accept one assessment that she was in the multiple personality disorders camp, the result of an incestuous childhood.  This hypothesis would explain her fiery quick temper and poor memory. When she brought in her husband, he was exactly as she described him: "wonderful." She told me I would love him. "Everybody loves Peter,"  she promised.

Peter proceeded to describe the abuse he put up with over the years and why he would no longer tolerate it. Anyone else would have jumped ship long ago, he thought. Despite all he does for his wife, Ariel cannot help but turn around and bite his head off for "no reason". He'd had it and was not sure he wanted to stay in the marriage. She agreed with him, but hoped that with treatment, her anger would mitigate enough for him to stay.

I did think Peter was a cool guy -  except for how he treated his wife: with thinly veiled contempt.  Neither Peter nor Ariel were aware of the abuse, but she clearly reacted. Like a finely tuned engine, Ariel blew up or cried each time Peter tapped her gas pedal.

Months later: Ariel is much less confused, much less angry, and more in control of her life. She is also clear on how much abuse she took from her husband! This tough, pretty little lady saw how she bent over backwards for others. Doing for, and making excuses for, and protecting the feelings of, and putting up with, and putting up with, and putting up with. As her vision cleared, she began cleaning up her act. She still loves Peter, but is she entirely unwilling to accept his verbal and emotional abuse or his neglect of her emotional needs, acts that she had come to regard as "normal."

More months later: Well, Peter cleaned up his act. Really! He dumped his acting out behavior for the most part. Ariel did not. Cannot. In fact, she's having the worstt time trying to treat Peter with a reasonable amount of respect. "He is annoying," "He is this, that and the other thing." Things should be done her way, because it is a better way. Oh boy...

Ariel is now aware of her anger issues. She has middling control over her moods, even with the antidepressants which have helped her so very much. The good news: her sense of inner shame and un-OK-ness is beginning to dwindle, allowing her self-awareness to become keener. 

What's going on?

Peter initially presented as the abuser. He was not fully aware of his anger and had little idea he was acting out. Peter historically had been the mild-mannered guy who put up with his wife's stuff for many, many years. His release. In therapy, he got in touch with his anger - and was in a full-fledged angry abuse spree when I first met him. 

I wasn't sure who was who, but thought he was the "real" abuser initially. But, I changed my mind when I saw how he was able to get his act together - and very quickly - once his misbehavior was pointed out to him. On the other hand, Ariel, the initial abuser, then apparent victim, now seems to be the "real" abuser.

How Can This Be?

Ariel and Peter are both products of dysfunctional homes. Unlike more clear cut and polarized cases, this couple is more the norm. In their partnership, each is capable of alternately playing the codependent and abusive role, though I suspect Ariel is more capable of abuse than is Peter, judging by how well he cleaned up his act. Personally, I think this couple is so well-matched, I call them "soul mates." I'm really rooting for them.

In most cases, abuse is relative. Ariel and Peter are "opponents," able to switch off playing classic co-dependent and classic counter-dependent roles.  They were both hurt as children. Yet, they were both taught to be caretakers. Neither learned to take good care of themselves.

My Take:

Each partner has some work to do. Perhaps Ariel must gain respect for her mom who put up with her dad. Perhaps Peter is still trying to win his parents' love. Whatever. A broken piece exists in each individual that can be mended only when the partner fixes themselves enough to give the other individual the space they need to fix themselves. This process is beautifully described by Harville Hendrix in his Imago Therapy. Problem is...who fixes themselves first?  (The smartest one, I think.)