March 3, 2000
A reader posted the
following in response to Victim
Partner Turns Abusive:
out a lot of pages from this site for my husband because he is an abuser.
He thought it was all very interesting, but seems to feel I was the
abuser. He thinks I am playing games with his mind by refusing to have sex
with him when I don't want to. He resorts to emotional blackmail. This was
pointed out by our counselor when we were in marriage counseling.
To me its important
they realize they are being abusive so they can get the help they need to
stop being abusive and change the way they think and their beliefs. Am I
wrong Dr Irene??? We have to realize we are victims and recognize our
codependent and victim behaviors so we can change them.
I ask because my
husband just seems to think its all me..."
Am I Wrong?
No, you are not wrong. An
individual cannot change themselves unless they recognize that they
are abusive, or codependent, or (fill in the blank). Recognition is half
the battle. Changing it is the other half.
What is going on when each partner
thinks they are the victim of the other? This situation, by the way, is
the norm. The identified victim is screaming, "Look what X is doing
to me!" The identified abuser is screaming, "Look what Y is
doing to me!" What's going on?
First recognize that I am not
talking extremes. It is not hard to pick out the abuser and victim in
cases of battery. But roles are rarely this clear-cut. What about cases
where both parties batter each other? What about partnerships in which
there is no battery, yet verbal and emotional abuse run rampant?
Labels Can Get Us Stuck
While invaluable in the recognition and
identification of a phenomenon, labels can present problems as well. Just as there is
no such thing as "the normal" person (e.g., 2.3 kids, 1.5 dogs, etc.),
there is no such thing as "the victim" and "the
Boundaries Or Withholding?
The identified victim usually needs to recognize when his or her
boundaries have been violated and put a stop to it. The identified abuser
usually needs to
recognize that their boundaries have not been violated when they
are denied entry into their partner's space.
For example: The above poster
mentions that her husband felt she was being abusive in refusing sex with
him when she did not want sex. Throughout the site, and elsewhere, the
consensus is that if an individual does not want to make love with their
marital partner, it is their right - in fact it is their responsibility to
themselves - not to! The writer's husband interprets her behavior as
"abuse" in that it constitutes a passive-aggressive withholding
of what he seeks. This is his point of view.
If she is not inclined to make love
with him because he does not treat her lovingly, which is what I
read between the lines of this woman's post, her husband feels abused -
when, in fact, she
is simply taking care of herself! He cries "abuse" because she will
not let him violate her boundaries / personal space - as he may be
used to doing or expects to do.
The distinction between maintaining
boundaries or behaving passive aggressively can be murky because
withholding is an element of abuse; many abusive individuals
"specialize" in withholding sex, affection, compliments, etc.
These individuals feel justified withholding loving behavior
- because they have a problem with how they were treated, etc. They will,
rightfully from their point of view declare, "I cannot make love to
my partner because I was treated poorly."
Yet, their idea of "poor
treatment" may be that they felt ignored that their partner was on
the phone last night with mom for an hour. This is passive aggressive tit-for-tat retaliation,
not boundary setting.
Care For Yourself!
My approach with abusive
individuals is to tell them that it is their job, not their partner's job,
to take care of themselves. In this case, I would advise the lonely
individual to speak up the
next time they feel neglected by their partner. But, I
also caution that while it is their responsibility to initiate their
request, it is also their responsibility to accept "no" for
an answer - and without holding a grudge. After all, holding a grudge is
like shooting yourself in the foot. You aren't likely to endear yourself
to anyone by being cool or nasty towards them. "Acceptance" can be
difficult for the individual who implicitly
and irrationally assumes that they are entitled to get "their
Ditto with denied sex: it is your
responsibility to ask for what you want, but it is also your
responsibility to gracefully accept
"no" for an answer. Your partner's feelings are as important as
your feelings. Your partner has a right not to make make
love with you for whatever reason. When I am asked, "But, what kind
of marriage is that?" I am likely to advise that if an individual has done
everything in their power to be gracious, loving, and understanding
towards their partner (which is their responsibility to themselves),
and sex is still not forthcoming, then the individual needs to choose whether or not sex
is important enough to merit threatening the relationship. "Forcing" or cajoling another to give what they
don't want to give will only lead to resentment and problems
down the road. This holds true whether the partner is biochemically disinterested,
ill, overtly angry, or passive aggressive!
One of my favorite sayings is,
"Ask for what you want once; or even twice. After that, assume your partner
heard you and will not or cannot give you what you want. Accept it."
The Water Is Even Murkier
Asking, "Who is the abuser / who is the
victim," implicitly questions which partner is trying to
exercise "control" over the other by their attempt to meet their
implicitly-held entitlement demands; the classic "My Way"
stuff. However, once again, things are not so clear cut. The issue is clouded by the fact that nobody
is perfect. Not even the saintliest victim will maintain his or her
cool all the time. Not even the most self-sacrificing victim will never
ever be passive-aggressive or (gasp!) controlling. In fact, victims
are extremely controlling, though their objective is usually along the
lines of being loved and gaining approval. Nevertheless, the point is, we are human; we mess up all the
The abuser person is
expert at immediately picking up the slightest momentary acting out. This
guarded person is likely to mentally keep tabs, or never let the victim
forget their misbehavior. The victim, often too expert at soul searching,
recognizes their misbehavior - and gets lost in wondering if they are the abuser!
All this occurs while the abuse and trampling of boundaries continues.
It Goes Two Ways
While I advise my victim people to
continue their soul searching, for it is good for them, I also caution
that they give
themselves the same (generous) benefit of the doubt they give their
partner. I also encourage these individuals to recognize their equality
and therefore expect consideration and benefit of the doubt in return.
We are out of balance when we
harbor implicit expectations about what we are entitled to from our
partner. We are also out of balance when we obsess over our errors and
what we didn't give.
Healthy thinking assumes:
The Abusive Victim
In some cases, the abuse has gone
on for so long, or the individual feels so provoked; has put up with so much,
or, for whatever reason, the victim is so very, very angry, there
is little benefit of the doubt left for the partner. This is the victim who is
likely to misbehave at every turn - and feel justified in doing so. This is the victim who behaviorally and
psychologically has come to resemble the abuser: this person wants to push
their abuser away, punish and hurt them.
Is this person a victim? An
abuser? A victim-abuser? Good question. Sometimes I don't know either. I
remember the battered wife I treated for several months. The next time I
saw her, she was divorced, had horror stories; had been in a shelter, etc.
But, her current boyfriend was preparing to leave her because she was
verbally abusive, had hit him several times, and blocked his access with
her car. This so-called "victim" dropped out of treatment as I
started confronting her on her misbehavior.
On the other hand, I remember the
recovering addict who came to me to deal with a self-proclaimed
"anger problem." He was engaged in furious acting-out with his
former girlfriend in a never-ending courtroom battle over their child.
Although she allied herself with the battered woman's movement, it turns
out he was the victim! He knew no better than to blow up at her
lies and provocation. This young man stayed in treatment and turned his
life around. He still doesn't attack, but he has learned to defend
himself and fight back fairly and well. Last I heard, he was
"winning" in court.
So, who is the victim and who is
the abuser? Seems to me that the individual who takes responsibility for
his or her life and thinks "smart" - is neither!
Back to the original poster whose
question inspired this article. This savvy lady took care of herself. She
searched her soul, didn't give away the benefit of the doubt - and went on to answer her own question:
"This article really interested me because I did wonder if I was turning into an abuser because of his constant remarks.
But when I really think about the things he "claims" are abuse, its just me setting my boundaries and him having a huge problem with my boundaries."
I want to read