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Why women end up with abusive men - I never realized this!


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#1 peach_papoose

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Posted 11 September 2010 - 11:52 PM

The following is with regards to women who are abused by men. I don't know if it works the same way for men who are abused by women.

I've often heard it said that women who end up in abusive relationships get there because they chose an abusive man. But my counselor made the following comment in a recent email that made a lot of sense to me. She said:



"It is said that it is not women who choose abusive men. Most women raised in abusing families do not choose abusive men, nor do other women. It has been researched and found that the men choose gentle, kind, loving, understanding women when they need to control others and have their dependency and other needs met. I suppose there are always exceptions."


I'd like to see some of this research and will ask her about it when I see her next. Has anyone here ever heard of this?

#2 fandango

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 05:19 AM

I have no idea what the research says, but that makes sense. Maybe they seek out soft hearts who will put up with their crap?

I think it makes more sense that the abuser would choose their victim rather than the other way around, because the victim doesn't see the abuse in the beginning. I think it would be pretty difficult to choose an abuser - they don't start the abuse until they already have you sucked in.

That said, I think abuse can happen to anyone. Many victims start out as strong, emotionally healthy, independent people, but the process of abuse wears that down.

#3 Miv

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 05:23 AM

I thought that the "common notion" that victims willingly sought ought abusive men/women to make them miserable was a myth of the past. I am sorry to see it is still alive.

If victims of abuse sought out their abusers willingly, if it were what they aimed for, how would they know he/she was abusive in the beginning when he/she was at his/hers very best behavior and there was no single trace of any abuse?

There are only few if any warning signals, and often the abuser is well liked by the majority of people surrounding him/her. Abuse usually only takes place behind closed doors with no witnesses. I highly doubt that victims have extra sensory skills to detect what is usually invisible to a "normal" person. I don't believe we have an internal radar set for detecting abusive men/women where noone else can see any abusive traits.

What I see as quite a few victims of abuse have in common is that they are trusting (not naive, but trusting), they are highly empathetic, they are very good at taking responsibility and looking inwards, assuming full responsibility for own flaws and faults - possibly to a degree that make them miss that they should look outwards and judge the behavior towards them. They may have difficulties identifying their own boundaries and know when those boundaries have been violated. It's not so much making up excuses for the abusive behavior as it is the understanding and tolerance of that anyone can have a bad day or make a mistake or not behave "perfectly" at all times (empathy applied). The one thing that our empathy likely lacks is the ability to empathize with someone having hostile motives as we don't have those ourselves. It seems next to impossible to understand how someone is not just capable but also willing to be as cruel as to abuse. In my experience, victims are usually very nice, giving, and caring people - a real treat to the self absorbed abuser whose world revolves around him/her with everyone else only being a very distant second, if even that.

I remember reading quite a few articles on this a long time ago. You may want to run searches on "women who love too much" (I don't personally agree with the book, but it sometimes comes up in articles taking on a different view, not blaming the victim for having "willingly" sought out an abusive partner)

#4 fandango

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 07:30 AM

What I see as quite a few victims of abuse have in common is that they are trusting (not naive, but trusting), they are highly empathetic, they are very good at taking responsibility and looking inwards, assuming full responsibility for own flaws and faults - possibly to a degree that make them miss that they should look outwards and judge the behavior towards them. They may have difficulties identifying their own boundaries and know when those boundaries have been violated. It's not so much making up excuses for the abusive behavior as it is the understanding and tolerance of that anyone can have a bad day or make a mistake or not behave "perfectly" at all times (empathy applied). The one thing that our empathy likely lacks is the ability to empathize with someone having hostile motives as we don't have those ourselves. It seems next to impossible to understand how someone is not just capable but also willing to be as cruel as to abuse. In my experience, victims are usually very nice, giving, and caring people - a real treat to the self absorbed abuser whose world revolves around him/her with everyone else only being a very distant second, if even that.


Yep, this is me exactly.

#5 posso

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 11:07 AM

The potential for abusiveness may be latent within the person who manifests abuse in a relationship. The opportunity for acting out abuse, once the relationship is in place, occurs consciously or subconsciously to the abusive one, and it goes from there.

Alternatively, abusiveness may be an established pattern in a person, and they mask it from their "target," much as any predator stalks prey.

In either case, something is wrong within the personality of that individual. I think abusiveness is always traceable to a personality disorder (or mood disorder in the case of a bipolar personality.) All of us act abusively at some times, but the chronic, systematic harm to a close partner in order to achieve and maintain control, etc is, imo, something that an attitude adjustment won't fix.

#6 theantichick

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Posted 12 September 2010 - 08:55 PM

In doing some hard thinking about this, I believe that it's not that we choose abusive men. I think it's that we don't know how to properly read or respond to the red flags that are almost always there. Then once we have a certain amount of commitment, we're determined to make it work for a number of reasons specific to our own psyche.

just my thinking on the matter, of course, I have no data but experience to back it up

#7 Kilroy

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Posted 13 September 2010 - 01:49 AM

It has been researched and found that the men choose gentle, kind, loving, understanding women when they need to control others and have their dependency and other needs met. I suppose there are always exceptions.


I've no doubt at all, PP, that this does describe the other side of the mate selection process, the side seen from the abuser's point of view. It makes perfect logical sense, after all. An abusive person (doesn't matter if they're male or female) is likely to meet with a lot of rejections from potential mates who won't put up with their obnoxious behavior. If they're not rejected early in the selection process, they're very likely to be rejected later in the "courtship" phase when their controlling, abusive, or overly needy (demanding) behavior starts creeping out of the woodwork. Then their intended mate may well object to it and break off the relationship. What's an abusive or controlling person to do then? Obviously, seek out a partner who'll TOLERATE their bad behavior!--and is prepared to pander to their neediness and demands.

Even if this "seeking out" is not a conscious quest on the abuser's part, the outcome is likely to be the same. Overall, the chances are that the abusive or controlling person is going to be repeatedly "bounced" by one potential mate after another, until they finally bump into one who IS willing to put up with their abuse! That's the mate they'll end up with--at least until the poor longsuffering mate has had more than enough of their abuse and heads for the hills.

I quoted that last sentence as well because it's so very true: there are always exceptions! There's no way we can make blanket statements that are true for all people in abusive relationships. We can usually find valid statements to make about "many" people; often we can say something about "a majority" or "most" people, but we can never make claims about "all" people. There are always exceptions.

For instance, sometimes we find two abusive people married to one another! They may have different styles though, "complementing" one another; for instance one partner may be playing overt abuse and control to the other's passive aggression.

However, I think it's useful to visualize why some people end up with abusive partners in terms of a spectrum, from "least likely" to "most likely."

At one end of this scale, I'm sure there are a few people who simply stumble into a relationship with an abuser for no reason anyone could figure, other than sheer bad luck. Perhaps the abuser was the type who seemed as normal as anyone else, until some much later event triggered the onset of their abusive behavior. Anything can happen. But a partner finding themselves in that position is generally likelier to get out of the relationship sooner, to suffer less damage from it, and to succeed in avoiding abusive partners in the future.

Then I'm sure there are some who were just naive and didn't know what "red flags" to watch out for. Though if that was the only problem, people in that position are again more likely (at least) to get out sooner once they find their mate is abusive. If they don't learn their lesson they could make the same mistake in the future, but I'd guess most of them probably won't. "Once bitten, twice shy." We also have to ask why some people overlook "red flags" that plenty of others would spot.

Next there's the kind of partner that first quotation seems to be referring to: "gentle, kind, loving, understanding" people. Of course it makes sense that if someone is willing to be "kind and understanding" to a fault, and not willing enough to give an abuser the old heave-ho, that alone makes them more likely than others to end up with other people's rejects for a mate! There's certainly that much truth in that quotation.

Even so, it's perfectly possible to be kind, gentle and understanding while still taking care of oneself and one's own interests--and refusing to tolerate persistent abuse. And plenty of kind, loving people are married to decent partners, the sort of partners they deserve. It's not just being kind and understanding that attracts so many abusers. It's also a matter of being too tolerant of abuse.

So one shortcoming I see in that quotation is that it seems to be neglecting a central issue. It suggests, in effect, that if one is "gentle, kind, loving and understanding," that alone is going to attract abusers like flies to a honeypot, and that's something you're just going to have to put up with for being a "good person." As if "no good deed ever goes unpunished." It doesn't address the fact that if anyone finds themselves constantly attracting abusers, they may well have a problem that needs fixing--about assertiveness for instance, or the setting of boundaries.

What's significant here is the fact that most people who end up with abusive mates have also (like abusers themselves) had problems in their family of origin. Patricia Evans for one refers to this fact when she remarks that "In childhood the typical partner [of an abuser] lived in Reality I where the power adults have over children was misused..." On this board alone, somebody held a straw poll some years ago in which (to my recollection) nearly 70 percent of people with abusive partners said they'd also been abused in some way in childhood. Typically the abuse was verbal or emotional, but of course that can be just as harmful as any other kind. And I personally wouldn't mind betting that's an underestimate! Many people are likely to discount the more insidious forms of abuse they were raised with--simply because they never knew anything different--though the abuse can be none the less damaging for all that.

That leads to the key question: what is it about being raised in an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family that makes some people more prone to end up with an abusive partner than people raised in normal families?

Immediately at least three answers suggest themselves:

  • Red flags: If people partner with an abuser because they ignored "red flags" of abusive behavior, that can be because the abusive behavior was no different from what they'd seen in their own family! To them it seemed unremarkable, even "normal"--while others would spot it as "abnormal" and be wary of anyone behaving that way.
  • Boundaries: If people fail to draw the line against abusive behavior, that can be because boundaries were not respected in their own family, so their concept of boundaries is weak or nonexistent.
  • People-pleasing, or the Munich strategy: This is not just a matter of being "gentle, kind, loving and understanding," but of "people-pleasing" at all costs, which can (with an abuser) devolve into a frantic (though sadly futile) search for "peace at any price." It is a strategy of appeasement. It's easy to see how this can evolve as a survival strategy for a child growing up in an abusive home, where it's hard to escape ill-treatment of some kind and the best bet is to try keeping everyone happy at all costs. With abusers in adulthood of course, a strategy of appeasement only encourages them. The ghost of Neville Chamberlain could tell us that.
But that's still not the whole story. Up to now what I've mostly been discussing is people who end up with abusive partners by default, because they failed to reject an abuser where most other people would not accept such a partner. I wonder, PP, whether your counselor "tailored" her statement to what she knows about you personally. For all I know about it, it's perfectly possible that you got into an abusive marriage out of sheer bad luck or for one of the reasons I already mentioned, and not because you were prone to choose abusive partners. Now you're out of that situation you're into a far better marriage.

However, from the viewpoint of a wider audience I think it's unfortunate that the counselor downplayed the fact that many people do end up choosing controlling or abusive partners in preference to a normal partner! We can see that from the number of people who find themselves with the same kind of abusive partner time and time again! When that keeps happening, it can't be just coincidence. The laws of chance alone should have brought them a normal partner at least some of the time.

It shouldn't be forgotten that mate selection is a reciprocal process. Both partners, in some sense at least, "choose" one another.

Somebody here in the Catbox many years ago mentioned some piece of research--there was no reference, unfortunately--in which a woman with this kind of history was put in a room to talk with a number of men. One of these men was known to be chronically abusive. Afterwards she insisted that THAT man was the most "interesting," the most "fascinating" and "attractive" of the lot! Obviously she had problems! Her picker wasn't just "broken," it was bent to point the wrong way entirely!

Why would somebody end up choosing abusive partners in preference to others? Well, I'm glad Miv raised one point, because I'm sure there must be myths about this topic. I don't personally believe that anybody chooses a partner because that person is abusive. Not to themselves at any rate! I think the trouble is that ordinary people observing a person who keeps ending up with abusive partners don't understand why anyone would do that. So they make up a "reason" that's the best way they can think of to explain it to themselves. Like saying "this person must be a 'masochist,' they must 'enjoy' being abused," or some nonsense of that kind. I'm sure the real reasons are entirely different. The best way I could put it myself is to say that some people choose partners for certain qualities those partners have, but unfortunately those qualities go along with being controlling or abusive.

As for some specific reasons why anyone might "choose" abusive partners in preference to others:

  • Parental imprinting: Plenty of people all across the board marry someone who's much like their parent, in preference to some other kind of partner. That's entirely natural when children are so dependent on their parents, who are still--whatever their faults--the primary source of essential need fulfillment. Parents become the child's model for anyone acting in that nurturing role. But when people (usually unconsciously) pick a partner because that person is "like their parent" in some ways, if that parent was also abusive or controlling there's a good chance their chosen partner will be the same! This doesn't even have to be gender-specific. There are numerous reports from men marrying a woman who turned out to be "just like their domineering father," or women marrying a man who was "just like their abusive mother."
  • Insecurity: If somebody's self esteem has suffered from an abusive upbringing, they may believe they're "not good enough" for a partner who treats them decently. They may end up avoiding normal partners due to insecurity, the fear that "a good partner is bound to reject ME eventually." They may see an abusive or otherwise flawed partner as "the best I'm likely to get," or feel more secure because a "clingy," controlling partner seems less likely to abandon them.
  • Codependent caretaking: If somebody evolved codependent behavior in childhood, constantly running to take care of "problem people" in the household, then being married to a flawed, abusive partner who needs (or demands) similar attention may be an opportunity to replay a familiar role. It's an opportunity that isn't offered by marriage to a normal, functional partner.
  • Red flags reversed: Just as many people avoid abusers because "red flag" behavior is "alien" and a warning to them, it's equally possible that some people raised in abusive families avoid normal partners because normal behavior seems alien and disconcerting to them! Whether that's true or not, it does seem to be the case that some behaviors that are a "red light" to others meaning "Stop" are seen instead by abuser-prone people as a "green light" meaning "Go"! A common example is the way many abusers "come on strong" at the beginning, wanting to rush their partner into a relationship. To many people this could feel overwhelming, suffocating even; at least they'd be asking why. But many abuser-prone people seemed to have welcomed this pushiness because it made them feel "really loved" (for once). To them, the abuser may actually seem more reassuring than other potential partners--in the beginning.
  • Inadequacy: Some people who feel inadequate make a point of choosing a partner they see as particularly "strong," who they hope will "look after them" in some sphere of life--emotionally or otherwise. Unfortunately what they see as "strength" can turn out to be simply rigidity and worse, aggression. This soon gets turned against them in the form of control and abuse.
  • Boredom or addiction: Some people, whatever the reason, seem to find a normal partner "uninteresting"--probably like that woman in that room. Only certain kinds of partners seem "exciting" or "stimulating" enough to attract them. Unfortunately those are usually the types who turn out to be abusive, sometimes even psychopathic. Exactly why this happens is another question. Some people, while they don't want to be abused, seem nevertheless addicted to the drama of a relationship with an abuser. Perhaps they put up with the lows for the sake of the highs. Perhaps it all reminds them some familiar drama that filled their own childhood. Some theorize that drama, however awful in itself, distracts some people from having to dwell on their own inner miseries. At any rate in a few people this tendency can be extreme. Erin Pizzey spoke of one woman in her women's shelter who "could not bear to be deprived" or her "extremely violent" lover, named James. More than once this woman described James as "the only man who makes me feel alive"! This woman quite literally "couldn't live with this man and couldn't live without him" either, and the night before moving into new housing that had been provided for her, she tragically took her own life.
I can't pretend those are the only reasons, and that last example was of course extreme. But there certainly are lots of people who, however unwittingly and whatever their reasons, do end up gravitating toward abusive partners time and again. These are the people at the farther end of that "spectrum" I mentioned at the beginning: the "most likely" to do the same thing over again.

The bottom line in my view is that anyone who does find themselves with an abusive partner owes it to themselves to examine whether there's a reason for that, especially if they've done the same thing multiple times. Some may not have "chosen" abusive partners, but they still may have vulnerabilities, "gaps in their defenses" so to speak, that make abusers prone to "choosing" THEM! Everybody owes it to themselves to take care of themselves!

Edited by Kilroy, 13 September 2010 - 01:52 AM.


#8 DawnC

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Posted 13 September 2010 - 09:14 AM

Kilroy wrote:

Somebody here in the Catbox many years ago mentioned some piece of research--there was no reference, unfortunately--in which a woman with this kind of history was put in a room to talk with a number of men. One of these men was known to be chronically abusive. Afterwards she insisted that THAT man was the most "interesting," the most "fascinating" and "attractive" of the lot! Obviously she had problems! Her picker wasn't just "broken," it was bent to point the wrong way entirely!


Ah, so reading the rest of your post, it seems likely that it wasn't ONLY that the woman's picker that was broken or bent, but also that the abusive man, sensing she was 'his type', was at his most charming. Blech!

Thanks for raising this topic, peach_papoose, it's given me a lot to think about.

#9 Kilroy

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Posted 13 September 2010 - 12:33 PM

I think that's very likely, Dawn!

#10 peach_papoose

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Posted 13 September 2010 - 11:11 PM

I wonder, PP, whether your counselor "tailored" her statement to what she knows about you personally.


I've been away for a couple days and now trying to get caught up on work, so I've only skimmed through these replies and hope to read them more carefully another time. In my skimming, I saw the above quoted comment and wanted to say, Kilroy, that I do not think my counselor tailored her statement to what she knows about me. She's probably in her mid to late 60's and been involved in counseling since something like the early 1960's, and working with abuse survivors is one of her specialties. I trust she really knows what she's talking about.




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