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Blaming The Victim vs The Defensive Victim: Advanced Recovery

Blaming The Victim vs. The Defensive Victim

by Dr. Irene

"Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A 
terrible thing: no one to blame." -Erica Jong

This article is dedicated to Jennie, LHW, and S. Thank you!   Dr. Irene

June 16, 2000

We are finally getting that ordinary couple's therapy is inappropriate in abuse cases.

Having pointed out that "ordinary" couple's therapy typically blames the victim (e.g., Evan's Verbally Abusive Relationship), some savvy victims who are in the process of restoring the balance of power in their relationship, adamantly refuse to doubt their own perceptions ever again. Never again! And the heck with you if you tell them otherwise.

However, these recovering individuals may be making a serious mistake. Following in the footsteps of their abuser,  they have become the perfect ones - who never make a mistake! Ooops!

Some Blame the Victim Posts

The blame the victim issue is a source of confusion that comes up over and over again on this site. The latest example is on the comments board of Female with Control Issues. LHW writes:

"So this is frustrating. When someone has problems and they need help and their therapist puts responsibility on the other partner, I feel that this enables the abuser/controller to BLAME their partner more and take less responsibility for THEIR actions. I'm not saying that we co-dependents don't have issues or problems, but I don' feel that the abuser/controller should have constant reminders that they are not totally responsible. Often, this is what they need more of. This entitles them to do more of what they know how to do so well - BLAME THE VICTIM. 

Please clarify. I have difficulty with this and this is what continues to frustrate me several months after the relationship has been over. Has his therapist been telling him that I had issues too so he didn't have to work as hard? When he acted out and threw things around and cursed me horribly and hung up and did other nasty things to me when all I did was try to talk to him and I was doing all the work in reading about relationship issues, the last thing he said to me was "WE need help" or "WE'RE going to kill one another". Again, because he was told that two play a part, I was also supposed to play a part in fixing his damage. PLEASE HELP to clarify some of this. Thanks."

My reply to LHW was:

"I'm glad you brought this up. In "ordinary" couple's therapy, where there is little awareness of how slippery the abuser can be, the victim often looks bad to the therapist. For example, the victim might be asked to keep the house cleaner if that is one of the abuser's impossible demands. The abuser's impossible demands are argued so well (especially given the beaten-down victim's insecurity, depression, emotional reactivity, and inability to effectively counter argue), the demands appear plausible to the unwitting therapist! That is what "blame the victim" stuff is. 

My position does not blame the victim. I ask the abuser to behave appropriately - but I ask the victim to behave appropriately as well: The abuser has to stop the games and manipulation, as well as master the skills necessary to the appropriate expression of anger. The victim has to recognize and call the abuse, as well as master the skills necessary to the appropriate expression of anger. The victim is not "blamed!" 

Very occasionally a victim who has suffered years of abuse and has finally identified the problem, is so rageful, they will refuse to take responsibility for themselves. Any directive to behave appropriately is read as "blaming the victim."   

However, if the victim does not learn appropriate expression, the victim - in their rightful rage - can behave abusively; as a result, the victim's integrity will suffer. In addition, the victim's abuse gives the abuser an "excuse" to continue abuse. How can the pot get away with calling the kettle black?  The power may be more balanced (sometimes the balance of power will shift!), but the games continue...

Also note that in the typical relationship where the victim allows the abuse to continue hoping that in time the abuser will realize they are loved, etc. - the victim is trying to control the abuser - and is violating the abuser's boundaries! The abuser plays the same control and violation games, albeit in a different form. I believe that control and boundary violation are not OK in any form.

I fail to see how the victim is blamed by asking each individual to clean up their respective acts and to take responsibility for themselves. I think there is a serious flaw in asking the abuser to get a handle, while implying that it is OK for the victim to misbehave."

LHW then posted (with my remarks interspersed):

"....many abusive/controlling people never take the RESPONSIBILITY for their behavior that you have! Many of them are looking for a scapegoat, a way out, someone to blame. Correct. That is exactly what abusive people do! The victim's error is in their willingness to accept blame. It gets frustrating for the victim (and this is where we need work) as we tend to accept that blame for ourselves and really think that WE are the problem! You got it! So when a therapist tells a controller/abuser that "your partner has problems too", this is music to their ears! (Again, not talking for all cases but mine and many others). I understand that a therapist's goal is not to inflict blame on their client's partner, but by stating that "your partner has problems too" is TAKING blame away from the client, and I feel that this can be harmful as many of these people NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY! That is exactly what frustrates co-dependents!. We tend to be overly responsible/our partners tend to be under-responsible. That was the difficulty I had in understanding Dr. Irene's response. 

I have big concerns with personality types whose main issues are to avoid responsibility, and a when a therapist throws some of that on to the partner, it is a downward spiral for us. The main reason you get into trouble in "ordinary" counseling is because the therapist is not aware of the distorted balance of power. The therapist assumes each individual is equally powerful... This really doesn't help us at all as victims. What you are doing is healthy. Recognizing problems is good, then you can help yourself. Blaming others and living in denial about who you are is a dead-end street. Being told that your partner has problems gets you "off the hook". I wish my ex-boyfriend's therapist didn't keep telling him I had problems (what kind of problems did she mean: that I was co-dependent, that I tolerated him)? Isn't part of therapy to help difficult people become more tolerable?...this enabled him to continue behaving the way he did and he justified it, as he threw this back at me several times in the midst of his name calling rages (my therapist said this, my therapist said that). He was either mis-using your therapist's words (probable) or the therapist didn't get it. Meanwhile, I kept bending over backwards more and more thinking I WAS the crazy person (since after all, he had a professional involved), trying to figure it all out, thinking maybe I was causing his problems, like he said. Nobody ever, ever, ever, EVER causes another person's problems! Nobody has that much power. If you are in fact "causing" someone's problems, that is because your partner is allowing you to "cause" them! This is why even though Jennie is the perpetrator as per her description of events, her boyfriend is responsible for any woes he allows her to cause him. Get it? 

I knew it was time for me to seek therapy to help sort this out on my own and deal with my issues. I found in that process that if you are truly frightened that someone is going to strike at you because they start banging things around due to a simple, calm comment you made in an effort to communicate with them, it is ABUSE. It was horribly frustrating. Everything I tried to discuss with him, he threw back on me (projection). And, with projection, the therapist initially doesn't know who to believe! If I said I felt like I was walking on eggshells, HE was, etc.! 

 Later, S wrote:

"LHW, You are not alone in your frustrations. Thanks for voicing them. And thanks to Dr. Irene for explaining; it is helpful. Above, Dr. Irene said: "In a relationship where the victim allows the abuse to continue hoping that in time the abuser will realize they are loved, etc., the victim is trying to control the abuser - as well as violating the abuser's boundaries. The abuser plays the same control and violation games, albeit in a different form. " From where I am now, I can understand the part about " the victim is trying to control the abuser" - trying being a key word. Also obviously the victim does not think in those terms. However, I do not understand how a victim in such a situation is violating an abuser's boundaries. I hope that Dr. I will offer further explanation. Thanks again."   

I replied:

"Sure S. Typically the boundary violation occurs by the abuser against the victim. However, victim-perpetrated boundary violations occur when the fed-up victim, guarding against "blame the victim" adamantly defends an (incorrect) perception. This angry victim refuses to look inside, because now everything is the abuser's fault, and they will never doubt their perceptions again, EVER!  

Look at it this way: the victim has spent years doubting their perceptions. When this imperfect individual makes an ordinary perceptual error, they fall into thinking they are being blamed - when they are in fact being asked to clean up their act! "

Advanced Victim Recovery Issues

In other words, the recovering victim who is just learning to trust themselves after years of self-doubt, has a wound that hasn't yet healed: an expected over sensitivity to any suggestion that their perceptions may be out of line! 

Everything the abuser does is suspect: The abuser is fooling the therapist; the abuser is just being slick again, etc. These are not unfounded suspicions, for these have been the facts of the victim's life for years! 

However, in the course of therapy there are times when it is clear to me that the recovering abuser in not "doing it again." Even if the abuser were "doing it again," a victim response of blame and shut-down falls far short of the personal responsibility goal I hope we are all aiming for! 

A former victim who takes personal responsibility and who has mastered assertion skills would not waste their time and energy getting upset that the abuser may be "doing it again." Nor would they waste time and energy fretting over the correctness of their perceptions ("reality"). An individual who takes personal responsibility trusts themselves, but also knows they are not infallible. All this is taken in stride, for none of it seems terribly important anymore.

So, how can the shell-shocked recovering victim be expected to trust themselves if they are just learning to trust themselves? Well, of course, they can't! They just need to keep in mind that they need to get a bit further into the process of their recovery. 

There is no blame in the natural errors we make along the road to personal responsibility. It is simply reality: we make "errors" in the trial and error process of learning new skills.

When I point out to a victim that they are making this type of error, I associate no blame with their action. When I ask a victim to clean up their act, I am not making the abuser "right" and them "wrong,"  though I am aware that my students are likely to perceive it this way. I am asking the victim to fix more broken pieces in themselves simply because they owe it to themselves to do so. They will feel better and better and surer and surer about themselves as they do so.  

There is a huge difference between taking the blame and taking responsibility.  However, the victim, coming from a position of being blamed, often inserts blame into my challenge to them - and sometimes gets mad at me because they assume I am blaming them! (Sound familiar? Like your favorite abuser perhaps?). Part of  recovery is about learning to stop assuming blame, especially the blame the victim brings to the table!

Advanced Recovery is about trusting yourself enough to know that there are times your perceptions may be wrong - and that all of this is OK.

I  want to read the posts.