|Updated February 4,
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
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
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
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
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.
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.)